BEIJING — The athletes have been mesmerizing. Then again, the Olympics have had mesmerizing athletes before. Even Michael Phelps.
The story lines have been dramatic. On the other hand, the Olympics have always had dramatic story lines. Even one from Dara Torres.
There have been world records and grand disappointments, anthems and flags, celebrations and controversies. When it comes to the Olympics, nothing is new about any of it.
And yet, these particular Olympics, more than almost all the others, have struck a chord with America.
The Games have been a rousing, and surprising, success.
There were those who had turned the channel on the Olympics long ago, as if they were some outdated festival that had lost its relevance. But the television ratings have been staggering. Phelps left the pool long ago, and yet the buzz continues. Once again, Americans find the Olympics captivating.
Because as a nation, we needed these Games.
In the collective psychology of a nation, it is a difficult time to be an American. The dollar is shrinking, prices are rising, and the war in Iraq continues. Everyone knows someone who is unemployed. We look to our politicians, and none of them seem to have enough answers. There are times it is easy to question our place in the changing global puzzle.
In other words, we needed to see an American flag wave. We needed to watch an athlete such as Phelps do what no man had done (win eight gold medals in one Games), or an athlete such as Torres do what no woman had done (win swimming medals at the age of 41).
Such is the beauty of sports. It can create the illusion that what an athlete does affects your life. It allows you to forget about the price of gasoline.
This is nothing new. Everyone remembers the American "Miracle on Ice" victory over the powerful Soviet hockey team in 1980. Part of that story is that Americans were going through a hard time then, too.
Bob Condron, who has worked the past 12 Olympics for the U.S. Olympic Committee, was talking about the issue Friday night. He compared it to the feel-good movies about the rich that were shown during the Depression. America's psyche needed those, too.
Oh, there are other reasons these Games have buzz.
For one thing, there is China, a nation that fascinates people despite its horrid record when it comes to human rights. From the opening ceremony, however, it was determined to put on a show, and America was hooked. NBC president Dick Ebersol credits the mystery of China and the performances of athletes as the primary reasons for the TV success.
For another, television had a better plan this time around. Four years ago in Athens, where Phelps also tried to break Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in one Games, most of his races were completed by the time NBC went on the air in prime time, which led to that canned feeling of watching something that had already happened. This time, with the wait-and-see element of the races live in prime time, the Olympics seemed as if they were present tense.
Also, just like always, these Games showed the best of us. Whatever you think an American is, he or she was on display.
Do you think of the United States as the First-Man-on-the-Moon nation? Then Phelps was the Olympian for you. He won eight gold medals in one Games, more than any human who has ever gotten wet, and Americans seemed to lap up the sheer audacity of his ambition. True, Phelps won six golds in the 2004 Olympics, but the interest in him waned after he lost his second event of those Games.
Do you think of the United States as a Give-Me-Your-Huddled-Masses country? Then how could you not love gold-medal-winning wrestler Henry Cejudo, the American-born son of illegal Mexican immigrants who moved more than 50 times as a child? How could you not smile as he talked of how he loved his flag and how he loved his country?
Do you think of the United States as the land of We're-Not-Getting-Older-We're-Getting-Better? Then Torres probably meant something to you. A 41-year-old twice-divorced mother, Torres came back to win three silver medals against some competitors less than half her age.
There were gymnasts Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, and beach volleyball players Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, and runner Lopez Lomong, and decathlete Bryan Clay and soccer player Hope Solo and an American men's basketball team that, also surprisingly, seemed to be paying attention itself. Even the foreign competitors such as Usain Bolt and the Chinese women's gymnastics team (think of them as the Sesame Street Dancers) didn't look as hulking and foreign as the Russians and Cubans of years past.
Yes, there were disappointments. The boxers didn't box, and the sprinters didn't sprint, and the softball team finally lost.
This time, however, the Olympics caught our attention.
Good thing. This time, we needed the Games to matter.