Here’s the full race, via NBC. (Quick, painless download required.) Here’s the version Deadspin has, which shows, at the end of the video, the end of the race and the beginning of the medal ceremony, and isn’t likely to be taken down.
But even the grainy YouTube version is powerful.
And for good reason. (Watch, then jump, ’cause it could go down at any second.)
Every so often, there is a moment in sports that captures the imagination of not just the millions of ardent sports fans in a country, but the billions of sports viewers worldwide.
This moment almost always requires the grander stage of international competition; even the best things Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan do are usually viewed by no more than tens of millions in the United States, whereas World Cups and Olympic Games are broadcast to billions.
That’s not to say something like Jordan’s final shot as a Bull isn’t magical; it’s just that it’s not legendary on the level of the incredible relay leg Jason Lezak swam Monday morning in Beijing.
Lezak steamed through 100 meters in 46.06, slicing 1.2 seconds off his personal best and nipping Alain Bernard, France’s anchor and the 100 freestyle world record-holder entering the race (Australia’s Eamon Sullivan bested Bernard’s time in his first leg), over the last 50 meters with smart drafting and a last-second push.
He toppled a French team that came swaggering to the podium by picking up an American team that had Bernard’s words echoing in their ears.
“The Americans? We’re going to smash them. That’s what we came here for.”
For the United States, for Jason Lezak, actions spoke louder. As Lezak emerged from the pool, the crowd and Lezak’s teammates roaring, Bernard, whose own churning wake gave his competitor enough momentum to inch by him, remained.
He stayed at the wall, chin down, in front of so many millions and so alone in the stillness of the water.
For every ounce of the glory Lezak will wear, Bernard must bear a similar weight of failure.
And that’s what makes this so powerful: the pathos.
The last moment like this, comparable to this, is the end of the 2006 World Cup; unfortunately for France, the ending is familiar.
Zinedine Zidane snapped. He headbutted Marco Materazzi in extra time. He was sent off. Italy hung on and won in penalty kicks.
For Zidane, a French hero for delivering the 1998 World Cup, it was crushing.
So crushing, in fact, that the image I remember most from that is Zidane trudging back to the locker room, head bowed, no less than five feet from the glittering golden trophy, looking away.
So close. And yet so far.
And in those frames, Zidane and Bernard, heads down, dreams shattered, we see sorrow. In the confetti storm for Italy, we see triumph; in the Americans’ raised hands on the podium, we see exhilaration.
One person makes a nation jump. The other makes a nation cry.
And yet, at the end, that one person is left alone.
In these extended moments, we see the greatest drama imaginable.
We see why we watch sports.
Thank you to all involved last night. I will remember this forever.