While the preparations for the Athens games were marred by construction delays and an epic race to complete venues before the opening ceremonies, the game's return to their historic home ended as a surprising success. Participation records were once again broken, with 201 nations and 10,625 athletes taking part in 301 different events.
Nearly as compelling as the competitions were the historic venues used for the games. Panathenaic Stadium, which served as the main site for the inaugural modern Olympics in 1896, was the home to the archery competition. It was also the finishing point for the marathon, which began in the actual city of Marathon, the staring point of Pheidippides, the Greek soldier who completed the world's first marathon in 490 B.C. when he was sent to inform the Athenians of the Greeks victory over the Persians.The shot put was held in Olympia, home of the ancient games.
American swimmer Michael Phelps emerged as the face of the games. He tied the Olympic record by winning eight medals, six of them gold. Americans also dominated on the track, sweeping the top three spots in both the men's 200-meter dash and 400-meter dash, with Shawn Crawford and Jeremy Wariner each earning gold, respectively. In the 100-meter dash, Justin Gatlin took home the gold medal with a time of 9.85. He was followed closely by three other competitors also under 10 seconds, making the event the most competitive track event in Olympic history. In the women's 400-meter hurdles, upset winner Fani Halkia delighted the home crowd.
Inspirational stories were not hard to come by in Athens. Indeed, the Iraqi soccer team overcame adversity to advance to the semifinals, and U.S. gymnast Paul Hamm won gold in the all-around competition despite an early fall. Swimmer Jenny Thompson became the most decorated U.S. Olympian, winning her 12th medal as a member of the 400-meter medley relay. The Argentinian men's basketball team defeated Italy to win the gold medal, becoming the first non-U.S. team to win the title since professionals were allowed to play in 1992.
While the games turned out to be more successful than many imagined, they were not without flaws. Many of the venues were awash with empty seats during major events, a stark contrast to previous games. Also, 24 athletes tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, a reminder that today's drug culture is inescapable, even in the ancestral home of the Olympics.
Despite these problems, Athens will be remembered for mixing remarkable athletic achievement with historic reminders of the heritage and spirit of the game. The legacy of the games is sure to live on in Athens, as Olympic construction modernized the city in a way that would have been impossible otherwise, bringing new venues, roadways, public transportation systems, and even a new international airport. Thanks to athletes, organizers, and fans alike, the bar has been set very high for the 2008 games in Beijing.