Has a tiny Flying Squirrel with a wonderful smile just achieved the impossible and saved the Olympics from the shameful badminton scandal?
One look at Gabby Douglas, the 16-year-old who narrowly defeated Victoria Komova of Russia to become the first African-American gymnast to win an all-around gold medal, and it was done. I was back, enjoying the Olympics again.
Perhaps there are some of you who, like me, have avoided and mocked the Olympics. It was my defense mechanism protecting me from disappointment, not from American defeats, but from decades of Olympic cynicism.
I just couldn't forget the blood doping scandals, the performance-enhancing drugs, the questionable chromosomes of the Eastern European women sprinters, the Cold War nationalism that turned the Olympics into athletic battles for cultural superiority. And it got worse with the new professionalism, those NBA Dream Teamers and other highly paid pros sharing glory with amateurs, and the greedy who use an ancient and noble ideal to shield their schemes.
It all turned the Olympic Games into modern Gladiator Games, sold to those who couldn't understand or didn't care about the difference between the two, and I wanted no part of it.
But then I saw the smile on the face of Gabby Douglas. In coming days, much will be made of Douglas inspiring young women of color, young women who are in desperate need of inspiration and fed a constant and repressive diet of sugar and processed flour, hopelessness and despair. That gold medal will be held before them, and if it inspires just a few, the Flying Squirrel will have been a success.
Years ago, Jesse Owens made similar and more amazing history right before the angry, unbelieving eyes of Adolf Hitler. And before Owens there was America's greatest athlete, Jim Thorpe, the Native American. In 1912 he won both the pentathlon and decathlon, setting records that would stand for years. Just typing his name reminded me of the story I'd devoured as a boy.
"Sir," said King Gustav V of Sweden as he presented the gold medals to Thorpe, "you are the greatest athlete in the world."
"Thanks, King," said Thorpe.
Thorpe was tragically forced to turn in his Olympic gold because he played a few months of bush-league baseball, unwittingly forgoing his amateur status for a thin fistful of much-needed cash.
Such ethics would be laughed at today, what with LeBron James and other NBA all-star multimillionaires dunking over tiny power forwards from Tunisia on their way to what sportscasters will call glory in London.
Douglas isn't paid millions. But what she shares with Owens and Thorpe (and, yes, even LeBron) and Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz and others, paid and unpaid, can also be shared with us.
That smile with her arms outstretched. The thud of her feet sticking to the mat as she finished her floor routine, the applause, the fact that she wasn't even favored to win it all. And it came to me.
It was that feeling we get when we sit on our couches or on soft man chairs, drinks in our hands after eating big meals, wondering why they do it, why they train so many lonely hours alone, pushing themselves to the point where we reasonable people don't dare go.
They engage in training so intense that the best of them sometimes approach death. They push through that wall not only to win, not only to triumph over competitors from other nations for something as cheap and shiny and boastfully nationalistic as a medal count, but to achieve something much finer.
Is it excellence? Or is it something beyond that, a thing without words, an idea hidden in a language unknown to those of us who just sit and watch. We can barely remember even the sound of it, if we knew it at all, however briefly, out alone on empty fields and in lonely gyms.
When Gabby Douglas smiled, she shared that secret knowledge with the world. Whatever it is or was that made that smile so bright, the Flying Squirrel helped erase the stain of that badminton scandal.
You probably heard about the scandal while listening to sportscasters repeatedly say the word "shuttlecock" - the grins and giggles over the air as if from a legion of fifth-grade boys.
Women teams from China, South Korea and Indonesia were disqualified for cynically throwing games in the hope of getting better seeding in upcoming quarter-finals.
We've seen such cynicism in politics, when hacks withdraw their names from ballots so somebody else's somebody can win election, in the hope the political boss will reward the flopper with another public gig.
But we don't expect it from Olympic athletes, even in a sport that shouldn't be an Olympic event, like badminton, a game best played in backyards by folks who have had a few too many.
On video, you can see the badminton players throwing their matches as the referee pleads with them to play to win. They followed their coaches' orders and were stained, indelibly, then sent home in disgrace.
It told me to avoid the Olympics for another four years.
And then I saw that Flying Squirrel.
John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.