As is the case with London's temporary, pop-up Olympic architecture—and really, life itself—so much of what has seemed towering and consequential over the last two weeks is actually anything but. Bolt's speed. Phelps' stamina. Boner Rower's, um, form-fitting shorts. All destined to fade with time, to be forgotten, surpassed or both. Remember the epic, once-in-a-lifetime Opening Ceremonies? Me neither. I think there may have been fireworks. Did you know that this guy was once considered the World's Greatest Athlete? If so, congratulations: You've lived to see 40. The graveyard of Olympic memories is full of indispensable moments, like the time Katie Couric got mad because those cute Canadian figure skaters were hosed by French judge Cruella Deville and then we refought the Cold War.
So, no: I can't tell you what I'll tell my grandkids about the London Games. I'm not sure they'd care, anyway. The Olympics are first and foremost a television show. The audience forever moves on to the next new thing. Does today's MTV viewer want to be regaled with tales of Idalis and Ed Lover? That said, I can tell you what I always find to be the most memorable moments of the Games, the same moments I imagine many of the athletes find memorable, too. The medal ceremonies. Winners on the podium, medals around their necks, national anthems playing. Moments that are more staged than any reality TV show, more hyperreal than anything cooked up by Danny Boyle, more fantastical than the apparent Gattica-meets-Gomorra that is the athlete's village. The medal stand is ground zero of Olympic contrivance, a totally arbitrary event, and the one gimmick that never fails to grab me.
Forget the naked patriotism. I'm perfectly happy to see American athletes win, but I don't delude myself into thinking their triumphs are somehow mine. (Not to sound like a conservative pundit here, but I didn't build Gabby Douglas; she did). What grabs me is the emotion, regardless of nationality. The tears. The grins. The wide-eyed, utterly honest looks on the faces of the athletes, all of them experiencing something the rest of us never well: a tidy, unambiguous moment in a mostly messy, ambiguous world. Real life is muddled and hard, less a matter of winning and losing than managing to make it to the next day. I'm sure Olympic winners can relate. But when the flags are raised, they also know what it feels like to be the best—or, at worst, the second or third-best—people in the world at what they do. And even if that's somehow disappointing, there's no confusion. No debate. Unlike, say, the speculation over Henrik Rummel's relative happiness to see bronze. I envy that sort of clarity.