ATLANTA — Big men don’t cry, but this big man did. He stepped onto the medal stand, and when the anthem played, he wept. These were not tears of joy, mind you. Not one of those Olympic moments where the hero breaks down in a flood of patriotism.

No. The big man, a Greco-Roman wrestler, was on the podium for silver medalists, and it was a few inches too low to keep his heart from breaking.

“That was the saddest moment of my life,” said Matt Ghaffari, “having to stand there and listen to the Russian anthem being played, watching the Russian flag being raised.

“All the years I train, all the years I get up at six in the morning and run and do weights, all the years I’ve gone without a full-time job, and my wife and children have to do without, it was all so I could hear the American anthem when my moment came.”

But you won a silver medal, someone said.

“That was not my dream,” he replied.

He had wrestled brilliantly, winning all his matches until the final bout. There he faced his arch-rival, a man who would give a mountain a hard time: Russia’s Alexander Karelin, who has never lost in international competition. Karelin, with three Olympic golds, is a wrestling legend. In Atlanta, no one scored a point against him.

Ghaffari came close. He took the giant to overtime, yanking desperately on his thick arms and torso before losing, 1-0, on a referee’s decision. It was the 21st consecutive match that Ghaffari has lost to Karelin. Perhaps, as long as the Russian is around, Ghaffari always will be second-best.

It’s a quirk of fate. Born at the wrong time.

But it is no reason for tears.

Life in the fast lane

Here’s to the silver medal — which you win, by the way, you don’t get it by default. Too many Americans think silver means “lost the gold.” This is wrong, and for the pressure it puts on our athletes, it is unforgivable. Any medal in these Games means nearly all of the world is behind you. Why obsess over who’s ahead?

Amanda Beard didn’t. She’s the toothy, upbeat 14-year-old Californian who carries a teddy bear to the pool and throws her long, lanky body into the water and swims the breaststroke better than almost everyone in the world. Last week, she raced twice in her speciality, and she beat everyone except one South African woman, the world-record holder.

Beard enjoyed her two silver medals. They might not have been what NBC had in mind when it aired the “up-close-and- personal” segment on her. NBC kept talking about gold. But let’s remember that — at least for the moment — athletes are still competing in these Games, not NBC. Beard, by the way, refused to go on “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America” or any of the rest because she said she “just wants to have fun and mess around.”

Here’s to the silver. It was not what wrestler Dennis Hall wanted when he jumped onto the mats last week. His pregnant wife was in the stands. His family was alongside her. Dennis had dedicated his Olympics to his older brother Dan, who was killed in a drunken-driving accident. The perfect finish would have been a gold. But the gold did not happen. As his opponent celebrated, Dennis had his head down. But then someone gave him an American flag, and he looked up, and the crowd began to cheer, and he forced a smile.

Here’s to the silver.

Cream of the crop

There are 11,000 athletes at these Olympic Games. Less than a tenth of them will go home with any kind of medal. Why do fans or broadcasters use the term “settle” when talking about the second-highest honor of this competition?

The silver medal can mean so much more. For swimmer Gary Hall, who twice last week took second behind the brilliant defending champion Alexander Popov, the silver means he’s gaining on the king; today he loses by a finger, maybe tomorrow he wins by one.

For judo player Armen Bagdasarov, the son of a welder, the silver means the first-ever Summer Olympics medal for his new country, Uzbekistan. You think anyone there is complaining?

Four years ago, in Barcelona, one of the greatest athletes America has ever produced, Janet Evans, won a silver medal in swimming — and she cried. She had only won gold before, and she felt as if she’d let her country down.

Last week, after finishing sixth in her last Olympic race, Evans, now 24, said: “I’m ashamed that I cried over that silver. I should have been proud.”

So should our big wrestler, Ghaffari. There was a story last week about how Olympic gold medals are actually made of silver and simply covered in a light gold coating. The bigger truth is, all Olympic medals are made of the same stuff; it comes from deep within the human heart. Clap when you see it.

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