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CHAMPION OF THE GAMES

Teenage swimming sensation Ian Thorpe has the hearts of Australians, and the admiration of the world. Triathlete Simon Whitfield thrilled Canada by sprinting to Olympic gold. America's men's basketball team awes its Olympic opponents, let alone its fans.

Esther Kim isn't even competing in Sydney. But she is, hands down, the champion of these games.

Kim, a 20-year-old Korean-American from Houston, will be in the stands next week as Kay Poe represents the United States in taekwondo. Poe will be fighting for both of them, but the results really don't matter. Both already have struck gold.

Poe came to the taekwondo school run by Kim's father when she was just 7 years old and Kim was 9. Kim took the frightened little Caucasian girl by the hand, and they have been inseparable ever since. Fate, though, threw them a curve. In May, they both fought their way to the finals of a national championship that would send only one to the Olympics.

But Poe, considered perhaps the better athlete, had dislocated a kneecap in her semi-final match. The ticket to Sydney was Kim's for the taking.

Instead, she walked over to her father -- also considered a "second father" by Poe -- and told him she was forfeiting the match because she couldn't fight her injured friend. He asked her if she knew what she was giving up. She did.

Jin Won Kim is no slouch in the character department, either. He looked at his daughter and told her, "You are a champion for life."

Forget "faster, higher, stronger." That slogan rings hollow, in the face of what Esther Kim did.

Hers is a far better standard, one that speaks to a deeper essence of sport, one that looks beyond the simple yardstick of victory and takes a true measure of the character that sports are supposed to develop. It's not a measure that is seen often, in a world that commercializes even amateur athletics.

It glimmers only occasionally, as it did when veteran American gymnast John Roethlisberger capped his career with a strong finish and then told his teammates that they had his admiration and the admiration of America despite a disappointing competition, and that that meant "more than anything they hang around your neck."

Esther Kim's selfless action has resonated around the world. She and her father are both at the games as guests of Olympic President Juan Antonio Samaranch, who was as moved as anyone by her gesture. You'll hear this story again during these Games; everyone should hear this story again.

Esther Kim won't have her chance this year to stand on a podium and have a medal of gold draped around her young shoulders. It doesn't matter.

There is gold in her heart, and it truly shines.

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