SHANGHAI -- Three days before, an enormous bomb had gone off in central Oslo, rocking government offices, killing seven people. Shortly thereafter, the massacre began on a nearby island called Utoya. Children and teenagers, at a summer camp, gunned down indiscriminately, dozens and dozens murdered, and for what? Alexander Dale Oen felt the full enormity of his country's sorrow.
Too, he saw a path to a sliver of hope.
He was the first from Norway to win an Olympic medal in swimming. He had won silver in Beijing three years before in the 100-meter breaststroke. Thus the possibility. If he could hold himself together here in Shanghai, at the 2011 swimming world championships -- if he could win here, perhaps such a victory could, in its way, symbolize the resolve of a people going forward.
There are those who say it's foolish to expect this sort of thing from sport.
Yet, time and again, we see it is indeed the case, that sport offers a way to express these emotions, perhaps a way like no other way.
It is like this all over our world.
After the terror attacks of 9/11 nearly ten years ago, when baseball and football games resumed, it felt like life might somehow return to normal in the United States. Five months later, at the opening ceremony of the 2002 Salt Lake Games, the march into Olympic Stadium of the tattered Ground Zero flag simultaneously paid tribute to those who were lost and all that was yet to come.
This summer, as the women's soccer World Cup played out in Germany, the Japanese team would unfurl a banner that thanked fans around the world for support in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and radiation disaster.
The Japanese team's victory over the Americans in the World Cup final "touched people's hearts and gave bright hope for society," the country's chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, has said, according to a story in The Japan Times reporting that the team is up for one of the nation's most prestigious tributes, the People's Honor Award.
Here in China, Dale Oen had been asked repeatedly about the attacks back home as he made his way through the rounds of the 100 breaststroke.
To keep up with developments back home, the Norwegian team had been watching TV at their hotel here. "It's unbelievable," Dale Oen told the Associated Press after his prelim swim. "We need to stay together now in Norway and we here just need to try to do the best we can." At that, the wire service reported, he seemed on the verge of tears, and had to walk away.
The 100 lasts two laps. It goes fast, about or even under a minute.
In the final here Monday night, Dale Oen built a big lead on the first lap, then swam steady after the turn. He would not be caught. He won Norway's first swimming world championships gold medal.
He finished in 58.71 seconds, the first man to go under 59 seconds in the textile-only suits mandated by FINA, swimming's worldwide governing body, since the start of 2010.
Italy's Fabio Scozzoli finished second, in 59.42. South Africa's Cameron van der Burgh touched third, in 59.49. Olympic champion Kosuke Kitajima of Japan finished fourth; the defending world champion, Brenton Rickard of Australia, fifth.
After touching the final wall, still in the water, Dale Oen pointed to the Norwegian flag on his cap. He rose up and flexed his biceps. Look, he seemed to say to his country -- we can still be strong.
In such strength, though, there is always hidden pain.
And, at last, Dale Oen let it show.
On the medals stand, as the last notes of his country's national anthem sounded, he finally gave in.
There were tears in his eyes -- the tears he'd had to fight back just to keep himself going.
He reached up and, quickly, gently, wiped them away.
He drew a breath and composed himself. The moment passed. It was all he would allow himself.
A few minutes later, he appeared at the traditional winners' news conference, black tape wrapped around the left sleeve of his white T-shirt.
"I guess," he said, "I was racing a little bit more with my heart today than I was technically."