Once upon a time I called a track meet at Stanford Stadium. I’d never done sports commentary or worked with a public address system. But the scheduled announcer couldn’t make it. And that day I was injured and couldn’t compete, so I took over the microphone. Unsurprisingly, I blew it, repeatedly — I barely knew how to work the mike. But it hardly mattered. The stadium later hosted the Super Bowl, but for the track meet about a hundred people showed up, including the athletes. And they were my friends, who ribbed me mercilessly about my goofs.
Competing virtually unseen isn’t unusual for runners. In high school, cross country meets were attended by Mom and Dad and your buddy who’d missed the school bus home. One year I volunteered at the Pac-10 Men’s Cross Country Championships — I shouted out split times at 5 K. For a long time I stood on a hillside, so absolutely alone that I worried I had come to the wrong spot. Then Alberto Salazar boomed down the hill in his green and gold Oregon uniform, and I yelled out his split, and he was gone, headed to victory.
Last night in London’s Olympic stadium, when the runners took the track for the men’s 10,000 meter final, a roar greeted the starter’s pistol. Watching at home, I could practically feel it. The crowds at these Olympics have been phenomenal — people cheer every competitor with real enthusiasm. But when a British athlete is in the mix, the volume gets turned up to eleven. And in the 10K, Britain’s Mo Farah was taking on the mighty Ethiopian and Kenyan runners.
Farah is a slight guy with a huge smile, a Somali immigrant to Great Britain who grew up around the corner from my husband’s old office and who in high school lost a bet and jumped into the Thames from Kingston bridge, up the road from our house. He moved to Portland, Oregon, several years ago to train. As a former Oregonian myself, I was cheering for him.
He looks like a gust of wind might blow him off the track. But he is a solid steel nail. When the race began, 80,000 people in the stadium roared him on. And they didn’t stop. Lap by lap, the noise grew. And grew — for almost half an hour. When the runners hit the bell lap, the sound rose to sustained, ringing thunder. That’s when Farah took the lead. Against the defending Olympic champion and world record holder, Kenenisa Bekele, against the power of teams that have dominated this event for decades, after six pounding miles, Farah poured on the speed. By this point I was yelling at the TV myself, just adding to the wall of noise. And when he came off the final turn with a lead and dug in and sprinted down the final straight to victory, the roar of the crowd carried him home. It was a rare and beautiful thing.
Afterward Farah said, “If it wasn’t for the crowd it wouldn’t have happened…. They give you that lift, that boost, and it was just incredible.”
And I was so busy jumping up and down that it took the instant replay for me to see that an American runner had taken the silver medal — another stunning sight, after years of drought for U.S. distance running. It was Galen Rupp, Mo Farah’s friend and training partner in Portland. On the finish line they beamed and grabbed each other in a hug. And their coach, Alberto Salazar, heard the cheers raining down.
London’s calling. What a sound.