I’ve spent the last week with a good dose of the winter flu – brain like porridge, limbs like jell-o, short term memory a bit like a bowl full of goldfishes (which ought to add up to something greater than the average goldfish, but, as anyone who has ever kept fish knows, ends up totaling slightly less than the IQ of the dumbest fish in the bowl - the one that tries to inhale straight out of the air stone and eat the plastic plants. Also generally the one that goes on an epic feeding binge the moment you go on holidays, so that the kind friend who agreed to feed the fish for you while you were away has to scrape small bits of goldfish innards off of the walls of the tank by day four. After which you can never go on holidays again, because your friend has spread the word.) and I had absolutely no sensible alternatives but to curl up on the sofa under a blanket and watch the Olympics on the television.
It was a real hardship, I can tell you. O, these terrible winter flus!
I watched the rowing, where the British woman’s pair won the gold by a country mile and the British men’s eight came so close to taking the gold medal from the Germans that the dear BBC commentator became so excited that he lost his voice almost entirely before anyone had crossed the finish line.
I watched handball – which mixed up rugby with netball and ballet, and the water polo- which seemed as destructive as it was enthusiastic, and fencing (Europe’s own home-grown martial art)- which showed me that I remember nothing from high school and college sports. All I saw of the medal match in men's foil was a buzzing and balletic silver blur, and someone jumping skyward with a clenched fist and a yowl of triumph.
I found that I preferred acrobatics over the team sports – events that pit the raw human body against gravity of the laws of motion, and break the laws and tell gravity to go Hang - and fly.
So I watched the diving, where they offer slow-motion replays of exquisitely pointed hang-time and the moment where 40 km/h of human flesh meets the surface of the pool and Takes the Splash Underwater With It.
That’s magic. Right there.
I watched the women of rhythmic gymnastics, with their hoops and their balls, and the tiny girls on the vaults and uneven bars, and the trampoline- Mr Tabubil and I watched the men's’ trampoline final together, and we found it a revelation. We didn't do anything like that in our backyard in Tabubil when I was a kid. (where that is defined as bouncing three stories into the air and doing two double pike twists, a plank layout and a triple somersault before coming back down again, landing precisely in the middle of the trampoline - X marks the spot - then going back up again another nine times.)
But most and best of all, we watched the men's artistic gymnastics. Not the team events, but the individual events, because here, one of the athletes performing in front of us had busted loose and soared free not only of gravity, but a stronger sort of downward pull.
We wanted to watch Tomas Gonzalez – he of the blue and white leotards and the trim military mustache and the wide, white, smile. And of Chile. Incidentally, and almost in passing.
Tomas Gonzales competed alone for Chile. At home he trained with no support (for want of an institution to support him) and no funding – until a benevolent millionaire stepped in and funded his endeavors privately. Against a national mood of yawning indifference, he pushed himself to the very peak of his sport – and won himself a place in the finals of the Olympic Games.
Now that he was there - now he was our darling – schools across Santiago marched their students into the gymnasium to watch one of their own compete in the Olympic finals of the Men’s Vault and the Men’s Floor Exercise. They wore Tomas Gonzales moustaches painted on their upper lips, their teachers wore press-on moustaches made of felt, and a Chilean commentator in the Wembly Arena in London shouted “And here we have Tomas Gonzales– he’s about to perform in the – what’s he performing in again?”
She didn’t know. She hadn’t even put in the effort of finding out. But she was wild for him –
We all were. He had taken our little coastal nation into the world. We cheered and gripped hands and hugged sofa cushions –
I remember watching the live feed in 2004, when the Chileans Fernando Gonzales and Nicolas Massu played against Germany in Athens for the Gold Medal in the Men's Tennis Doubles - and won.
The game was a long one, and intense - three and a half hours - up and down - advantage to Chile, then to Germany, then to Chile again - the Chilean commentator cheering, pleading, cajoling, begging the players, screaming himself raw - and finally - Bang! Game point!
We threw open our windows, and from all around us rose up a solid roar of sound. People screaming, shouting singing, car horns blaring - from every apartment and house and street - there were more people watching in the square in downtown Santiago than there were in the stadium in Athens - we shouted and sang and hollered and whooped and banged the walls.
Tomas in London didn’t win a medal. But we wept anyway. The man without a team won himself fourth place in both events, right up amongst the Americans, the Russians, the Chinese and the Japanese - the men who came with teams and had whole nations shoving them along from behind (or hauling from in front, willy nilly, in the case of the Chinese.) He said that he was entirely satisfied, that to have made it into that company meant as much – or more than - a medal, and his splendid smile said that he meant it.
We agreed whole-heartedly. A Chilean had Made It. We basked in the glory that he brought us, and the more perceptive among us offered up our apologies and granted the glory to himself alone.
The cynical might read this story as a parable, and wonder what will happen to Tomas– and the future of gymnastics in Chile - when he comes home.
We can do all that later, if we need to.
Let's raise our glasses, and our cheers and our open admiration to a genuinely extraordinary man: a man with a gift, and more than a gift, a will, a will that carried him all the way to the Olympic Games. And made a whole nation sit up and take notice.