ATHENS, Greece – Efharisto!
A nervous world learned the Greek word for thank you and repeated it endlessly at an astonishingly successful Athens Olympics (search) that quelled fears, surprised skeptics and greatly honored the birthplace of the games.
Efharisto, Athens, for architectural masterpieces of stadiums and arenas that showcased record performances. The fountain sprays, reflecting pools and soaring arches. The undulating, giant white Wall of Nations that caught the whispering wind, bringing music to our ears and smiles to our faces.
Efharisto for the thousands of security forces who stood guard day and night, keeping terrorism away. An undercurrent of danger, a sense of tranquility. We saw guns everywhere, walked in peace.
Fireworks and spectacular lighting kicked off the closing ceremony Sunday night, a two-hour extravaganza of folk dancing and music in the Olympic tradition that summed up the glee and relief the games brought to Greece (search). Afterward, thousands of athletes marched into Olympic stadium, waving their arms and flags, snapping photos of each other, hugging, and basking in the cheers of 70,000 fans.
A full moon lit up the sky, adding an extra sparkle to the night. Not quite as high above the celebration was the white security blimp, keeping a watchful eye on the all the action -- as it did throughout the games.
"You have won," International Olympic Committee (search) president Jacques Rogge told the Greek people, who responded with a roar. "You have won by brilliantly meeting the tough challenge of holding the games.
"These were unforgettable, dream games."
He was right, even if they started slowly the first week with empty seats and vacant plazas as many Greeks took their holidays and frightened tourists stayed away. The second week saw the games transformed. The huge Olympic stadium was packed each night for track and field. Basketball, tennis and beach volleyball rocked.
There had been no shortage of worries that Athens would not be ready for these games. As late as March 2000, the IOC considered moving the Olympics out of Greece, possibly to South Korea.
"It's always nice to underpromise and overdeliver," said Jim Easton, an American IOC vice president.
Athletes who finished their events partied, roaming the Plaka, Syntagma and Omonia squares. It was Greece at its rollicking best, a spirited fusion of visitors from all countries, and of all colors and ages. It reminded us again, at a time when we need all the reminding we can get, that the Olympics celebrate humanity's highest aspirations, the universal quest for peace and the exalted qualities of body, mind and spirit that transcend cultures.
Efharisto, Athens, for coupling the ancient with the new, putting up with years of jarring construction, spending billions beyond your budget, and giving us a glimpse of your future as a sophisticated, modern city.
"The world discovered a new Greece," said Athens 2004 president Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, who made it all happen with her fierce determination to overcome construction delays and avoid an international humiliation.
These games took us to their sacred origin in Olympia, the mythological home of the gods, to watch the shot put, to Marathon to stand on the spot where the race got its name.
We trod like pilgrims to a shrine up the dusty stones of the Acropolis to gaze with awe at the 2,500-year-old Parthenon. Our imaginations did the rest, letting us feel the spirit of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle; Pericles and Alexander the Great; Hippocrates and Herodotus; Euclid and Pythagoras -- that brainy bunch who laid the foundation for our culture.
The scourge of sports -- steroids, stimulants and other drugs -- intruded but didn't spoil the games. A record two dozen athletes were caught, seven lost medals, and there could be more to come as the test results keep rolling in.
"Each positive test is a blessing for us because it's eliminating the cheats and protecting the clean athletes," Rogge said. "The more we find, the better."
There were scandals and controversies, as always.
Greek sprint stars Kostas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou broke their countrymen's hearts -- and angered many -- when they pulled out of the games after questions over missed drug tests and a suspicious motorcycle crash the night before the opening ceremony.
Three gymnastics judges were suspended after it was determined South Korean Yang Tae-young was scored improperly, costing him a gold medal that went to American Paul Hamm.
Even the final event, the men's marathon, was marred an hour before the closing ceremony when a defrocked Irish priest bolted from the crowd and grabbed the leader, Brazil's Vanderlei de Lima, about three miles from the finish. De Lima recovered and finished, but had to settle for a bronze when a protest by his track federation was rejected.
"I was scared, because I didn't know what could happen to me, whether he was armed with a knife, a revolver or something, and whether he was going to kill me," de Lima said. "That's what cost me the gold medal."
The marathon medalists, gold winner Stefano Baldini of Italy, American silver medalist Meb Keflezighi, and de Lima received their olive wreaths and medals at the closing ceremony.
These Olympics saw the rise of China as a sports superpower as it positioned itself for the 2008 games in Beijing. The United States, buoyed by the brilliance of swimming star Michael Phelps but embarrassed by the three losses and mere bronze of its once-vaunted men's basketball team, won the most medals. Americans beat their target of 100 by three, 35 of them gold. Russia finished second with 92, including 27 gold.
China, third in the medals race, previewed its own welcome of the next games with a group of children performing with the Beijing Opera. A young girl, standing by a huge red lantern-shaped stage, held a small lantern and sang "Jasmine."
The cauldron of the Olympic Flame was slowly lowered, symbolically lighting the torches to be carried around the world to the next Summer Games. At 10:48 p.m., Athens' flame was extinguished, singers took the stage and volleys of fireworks again lit up the sky.
And, once more, Athens, Efharisto!