Olympic spirit may be fleeting but you can catch it just the same

As Bruno says, it's like a World Fair, 'a showcase for great cities, athletes and multiple countries …'

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LONDON — Every now and then Team USA women's basketball assistant coach Doug Bruno watches practice and his mind drifts.

Bruno, the longtime DePaul coach, sees U.S. teammates Candace Parker and Tamika Catchings and remembers when the former Ms. Illinois Basketballs were refining ball skills at his summer camps in the Chicago area instead of representing their country on a team heavily favored to win gold.

Just the thought of sharing a medal stand with women he has known since they were girls, all pigtails and potential, makes Bruno as proud as the USA on his jacket.

"They were probably in sixth and seventh grade when they came to my camps and to see them now in this capacity is special because of the relationships we have,'' a smiling Bruno said Thursday at a news conference on the eve of the 30th Olympiad. "Tamika is near the end of a great career and Candace is ready to put a stamp on hers. We're all a long way from Chicago.''

Yes, so am I.

Some have wondered what took me so far away from the best sports city in America for three weeks at a time the Bears opened training camp and the White Sox perilously trying to cling to first place. Why am I suddenly more intrigued debating whether U.S. fencer Mariel Zagunis should dip the flag during Friday night's opening ceremony to Queen Elizabeth II than if Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster approves a trade before Tuesday's deadline?

Bruno tried answering the question of Olympic appeal I admit to asking myself even after I landed at Heathrow.

"It's the Olympics, the volume of cultures and different athletes,'' Bruno said. "I also believe that Chicago was home to two great World Fairs (1893, 1933-34) and the Olympics have taken their place. It's a showcase for great cities, athletes and multiple countries. It grabs the imagination of sports that don't get seen every day like track and field and swimming.''

And fencing, badminton, judo, gymnastics and every other lonely sport that seems to hold our attention only once every four years.

Indeed, the allure of the Olympics can be finding out that there are more to these Games to celebrate than Kobe and LeBron. That there are female archers who are not named Katniss Everdeen able to captivate audiences.

Olympic interest often piques in the fascinating obscurity of participants around the globe, such as Japan'shorse-riding Buddhist monk Kenki Sato. Or a 56-year-old New Zealand equestrian legend Mark Todd who will compete riding a horse named Charisma. Or South Sudanese marathoner Guor Marial, a refugee who escapedSudan's civil war. Or the country of Cook Islands, a tiny dot on the map near New Zealand with a population of 15,000 that brought two 19-year-old sprinters.

I cannot guarantee I will remember how to spell Oscar Pistorius by the time the Bears open their season. But seeing the South African "Blade Runner,'' run an Olympic race on carbon-fiber prosthetics will be impossible to forget.

No, I didn't come to England for the food or the weather, even if more than just the tea has been hot so far. Nobody does. I came to see firsthand, for the first time, the power of the Olympic spirit and ideal that can be easy to lose track of in a pro sports town.

Sure, I came for the fun stuff like hearing beach volleyballers long for a Prince Harry sighting and being warned in The Times of London about flying ants. But mostly, I came for the same reason the reporter from the Luxemburger Wort next to me on a shuttle bus did; hoping to get satisfaction chronicling two weeks' worth of inspiration.

I came to marvel at examples like Zagunis, the former Notre Dame fencer her peers elected to carry the U.S. flag Friday night. The daughter of Olympic rowers who met at the 1976 Montreal Games, Zagunis has the skills to win a third gold medal and a face ideal for a cereal box — if only shoppers would recognize it.

Not surprisingly, Zagunis recognized her honor signified more than just her own achievement.

"There are more women than men on Team USA for the first time and it's the 40th anniversary of Title IX,'' Zagunis said. "So having a female flag-bearer is also something that's meaningful."

On this side of the Atlantic, in the city of Shakespeare ready to shine on its world stage, the meaning will be maximized over the next 16 days.

"When you see all this in London you think, 'Forget 2016, Chicago, let's get going on the bid for 2024,' '' Bruno said. "I just feel fortunate to be part of this.''

As they say down the road in Parliament, hear, hear.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh
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