Olympics, a week in: Defining moments still ahead

LONDON, England

In swimmer Michael Phelps we have seen the already legendary pass milestones anew. In double-amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius we praise the virtue of unremitting perseverance and -- admit it -- silently count our blessings. In rower Hamadou Djibo Issaka of Niger, who learned his sport just three months ago, we have found an object of pure affection.

We have glimpsed Britain's royalty, complete with credentials around their necks. We have seen celebrity's million-dollar smiles emerging -- Gabby Douglas on the beam, Jessica Ennis on the track, Missy Franklin in the pool -- and watched eight disqualified Asian badminton players melt down in a burst of disruptive scandal.

For a week, anyone following the games has seen all of this in great measure.

So many stories from so many nations: stories that will be told for generations in countries you've never visited and probably never will. Gabby the gymnast, encircled in the maelstrom, marveled at it all: "My name's in the history books," she said. It was not a boast, only simple astonishment.

In sports, it's all about the storyline. We hunger for the epic, scour fields of play for the iconic. And the first week of the 2012 Olympic Games has had plenty of all that.

"It's been that lovely mix of the unexpected, the great names from overseas that have come through and those big British moments," said London organizing committee chief Sebastian Coe. He cited the size of the crowds at track and field, which he said made him -- understatedly -- "slightly taken aback."

Those big British moments exploded on the track Saturday night. Ennis cemented her place in Olympic history by finishing the 800 meters well ahead of her opponents and thus taking the heptathlon. She grinned ear to beautiful ear as she took a victory lap, wrapped in the British flag as thousands of her fellow citizens' flashbulbs fired off from Olympic Stadium's thunderous stands. Moments later, Britain cemented its night to remember with a gold from Greg Rutherford in the long jump and another from Mo Farah in the 10,000-meter run.

And surely more big moments await in the same place Sunday night with the marquee performance of the appropriately named Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter and world record-holder who, with world-champion teammate Yohan Blake, is widely expected to zoom straight into Olympic history books in the 100 meters.

A 21st-century Olympics, giant spectacle though it may be, is but one big show among many. In a world of distractions -- and, not incidentally, of tape delays in the United States that begat hand-wringing and Twitter-spoiler annoyance -- can the most elemental expression of human physical achievement still score a seat at the attention-span table?

"Of course times have changed, but the stories are still there," said Teresa Edwards, a former USA basketball player and veteran of five Olympics. "I'm watching the stories unfold, seeing the mission of what the Olympics are all about. These games are great. I wish I was playing. I really do."

Through it all, the Olympic flame still burns brightly. Trouble is, it's hidden from everyone save those who have tickets to events at Olympic Stadium, where it lives encircled and -- to the annoyance of many -- unspottable.

And beyond sports? Let's not forget one of the games' most pivotal performers -- the host city itself, London, one of the planet's most storied, and at this moment in history led by a mayor named Boris who has no problem hogging the spotlight. A huge eastern swath of the city sits bathed in purple and pink and blue, the official colors of these Olympics, which festoon everything from volunteers' shirts to street signs to miles of very cheerful security barricades.

Few logistical snags have materialized, and -- fingers crossed -- there have been no major security breaches. Londoners, though, seem vaguely flabbergasted that a far-flung section of their city generally ignored until now -- a patch once home to giant piles of discarded refrigerators -- has finally taken center stage after years of feverish construction. They're arriving by train in droves, and, thus far, they're proud of both their Olympians and the show their country's putting on.

"The thing I don't like is when you get people bad-mouthing it. I think it's been brilliant for the country, and I feel really proud of what's been done," said Nicole Callaghan, 40, a National Health Service manager from Chelmsford, east of London. "The atmosphere has been fantastic."

The positivity hasn't necessarily extended to Twitter. In that virtual arena, sometimes it can seem that the Olympic competition is for a gold medal in snark. One random tweeter went after British diver Tom Daley, making a crack about his late father. Police action followed. Two other athletes were kicked out of the games because of racist tweets. Other Olympians with smartphones are perhaps being more cautious with their thumbs, though Wiggins did, by his own admission, do some drunken tweeting the other night.

To some extent, that's what happens when a signature athletic event combines with a passel of young people competing in it. Particularly when you add the attention of millions and a compressed time period during which every tidbit about an Olympian is devoured by the world (though that same world probably didn't need to know that Ryan Lochte peed in the pool during warmups).

That, of course, coupled with the aggressive corporate sponsorship, is nothing but the sideshow. The main events have been more vigorous to watch, more satisfying to talk about. But still, nothing like, say, Mark Spitz and Olga Korbut in Munich in 1972, Bruce Jenner and Nadia Comaneci in Montreal in 1976, the American hockey team in Lake Placid in 1980 or Ian Thorpe in Sydney in 2000. Or Phelps in Beijing in 2008, for that matter.

Will the defining moment end up, in retrospect, being Gabby Douglas or Jess, Mo and Britain's big Saturday night? Or is it still ahead: Will Oscar Pistorius shine? Will the team of Bolt and Blake rocket into global legend? Will someone we've never heard of during this first weekend of August become a household name by the second?

"In terms of a signature event, I think everyone has to decide their own," International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams said Saturday. "If I take my IOC hat off for a moment, I think many Brits would probably say from a British perspective that Bradley winning gold was probably a signature moment for us. We hope there will be many more to come for other countries too."

Taking stock of any athletic event halfway through is probably a doomed exercise in itself. Imagine assessing a no-hitter in the fifth inning or a Super Bowl at the half. Some exciting things have unfolded, but the final pages of the story are, obviously, yet to be told.

So we leave you at the midpoint with images like these: Douglas soaring through the air, Pistorius speeding along on manmade legs, Ye and Phelps and "Missy the Missile" cutting through the pool. Jessica Ennis and Usain Bolt zipping across the track. Timeless visuals, distillations of what the Olympics are supposed to be about.

"The first week of the Olympics may have provided us with enough drama and sensation to last a lifetime but, for many, the real theatre of the games is only just beginning," the London Evening Standard wrote in a weekend editorial. "Reputations have been made, and diminished. And the drama of the games is growing. Let's make the most of them."

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