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The agony of 1/100th of a second, and other things you learn at the Olympics

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  August 6, 2012 10:56 AM

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LONDON -- When you're the slumbering pack of slugs known as the 2012 Red Sox, fourth place is a brief reprieve from being in fifth place. When you're an Olympian, fourth place is somewhere between disappointing and devastating, and usually much closer to the latter. That was hammered home again Monday night while watching Tyson Gay sob uncontrollably after he finished fourth in the men's 100-meter sprint. Imagine: Four years of training, four years of dedicating everything you do to that one 9-point-something-second race, and you miss a medal by 1/100th of a second. Cruel might not be a strong enough word to properly describe it.

I've been in London for 15 days now, with another week ahead. The look on Gay's face as he realized there was no spot on the podium for him will stay with me long after the Summer Olympics are in the past tense. Here are six other things I've learned during the Olympics.

Roger Federer really is a good sport: Sure, it's probably easier to be gracious in defeat when you've won 17 Grand Slam titles, are the world's No. 1-ranked player at age 30, and are widely regarded as the best to ever pick up a racquet. But Federer, who almost unfathomably had never won a singles medal in three previous Olympics, genuinely wanted the men's singles gold medal. Instead, he was helpless against local hero Andy Murray, who finally gave Britain a victory to celebrate on the Wimbledon lawn. Watching Federer smile, with just a hint of bemusement, through Murray's celebration and his fans' celebration of him made me appreciate one of our greatest contemporary sportsmen just a little bit more.

Usain Bolt must run at least one fly pattern in his life: No, of course he shouldn't play football -- his 6-foot-5-inch, 170-something-pound frame would be snapped in half by the first frothing-at-the-mouth safety to get to him. Besides, he's Jamaican -- mention football to him and he'll probably think you mean what we call soccer. And there's the whole catching-the-ball thing. But ... wouldn't you love to see him run just one fly pattern, just to see how fast he'd look on a football field? We're not asking him to pull a Renaldo Nehemiah. Just show up at a Patriots practice some day and see whether Brady can overthrow him. Just one time. Just to hear the "whooooosh'' as he runs by.

You bet Gabby Douglas should be America's sweetheart: The individual all-around champ is a bundle of electric athleticism and effortless charisma, and it was thrilling to see the 16-year-old's performance pay off in gold. The controversy around her hair is absurd, but she's handled it with grace that belies her age. She hasn't had much disappointment here, but if she did, you get the sense she'd put a better face on it than certain teammates.

The NBA's best need to be here: If there's a perception at home that the whole "Dream Team'' concept is tired or played out 20 years after Magic, Michael, and Larry reigned in Barcelona, well, it's not shared around the world. Team USA's first game here, against Florent Pietrus and France, was such a big deal that dozens of international media had to be turned away at the door or seated in the stands. Most were there just to catch a glimpse of the greatest players in a sport that has captivated the world. And the players are embracing this. Chris Paul hops from one event to the next. Kevin Durant and LeBron James were regulars at swimming. Kobe Bryant was at Wimbledon, toting his camera like a tourist. This is working in every regard, and it will be a shame if the NBA messes with it for no other reason but greed.

Handball is awesome: It reminds me of something your eighth-grade gym teacher might have made up when he got tired of everyone goofing off during floor hockey. It's a quirky combination of lacrosse and basketball, though the poor goalies, who might as well wear "hit me" signs pinned to their jerseys, would probably suggest it has a pretty heavy element of schoolyard dodgeball. Here's hoping it catches on in the US enough that it has a team good enough to qualify for Rio in four years. Also pretty cool: men's field hockey, and badminton (non-tanking division).

Michael Phelps has a winning personality: I recognize that it's strange to suggest that someone who arrived in London with 16 career Olympic medals has been a revelation here, but that's how I feel about Phelps. During his various interactions with the media, he has been anecdotal, self-deprecating, candid and reflective. I'm sure he's added polish over the years, but his appreciation of the moment and his willingness to articulate it was more than I expected from someone who pitches Subway sandwiches with Jay Glazer. It was a surprising contrast to teammate Ryan Lochte, who gives off the vibe of someone who is going to blow all his money hiring Van Halen (or his probable preference, Li'l Wayne) to play his birthday party.

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