Friday, August 8, 2008

Can the Olympics Be Saved from their Guardians?

The Olympic ideal was never what it was cracked up to be. There was no such thing as an "Olympic truce"...merely the understanding that athletes would be allowed safe passage to Olympus for the games. Wars continued unabated. Heck, the two main reasons that Olympians competed naked were to prove that they were men, and they weren't carrying weapons. The pankration was a sport of amazing savagery; one opponent acquired the nickname "fingers" for his habit of breaking his opponents' as a way to gain submission.

The "modern" Olympic Movement under Pierre de Coubertin insisted on amateur athletes to ensure that only "gentlemen" with the money to idly pursue athletics could compete, unstained by lowly working types who earned their living from their training.

Modern Olympics have a bit of a checkered past...the 1900 and 1904 Olympics were sideshows to elaborate fairs...the shameful "Nazi Olympics" in 1936 Berlin, which included Chinese Manchurians forced to compete for Japan...the fiscal morass of 1976 Montreal...the boycott-laden 1980s...

And now the Olympics are coming to a country whose main qualifications are a government who will spend its people's money on anything, will quell any dissent that could ruin the angle of the television camera, and most importantly of all offers a billion potential consumers. Unsurprisingly, the enthusiasm with which the Chinese are controlling the country during the Games is causing some consternation, especially as Olympic complicity comes to light. Make no mistake, the Olympics are first and foremost a worldwide business (use of their logo runs over $50 million per cycle)
Its leaders had their share of dysfunction...IOC Chairman Avery Brundage was irascible at the best of times, and the modern face of the Olympics was molded by a gnomish little lickspittle who graduated to the business from a Fascist government.

Dang shame, too, because it's a great thing. When you have runners dodging bullets to train for this moment, it shouldn't be stained by the peccadillos of faceless mandarins. To watch teenaged heroes exhiliratedly running around the field during closing ceremonies, mixed completely with people from the world over, is luminous. Semantic contortions notwithstanding, the Olympics are one of the very rare organizations that manages to cohabitate the governments of Beijing and Taipei.

The list of organizations devoted to wonderful ideals that have been steered astray from its genesis is long. Money and comfort have worked their powerful influences on the committees of Lausanne, Switzerland, as surely as they have in Rome, New York City, or Washington, D.C. But it's still a great thing.

And for the next two weeks, those bureaucrats recede and the true reason for the Olympics -- the kids who've devoted their lives to that 10-second race, the one-day event -- take over. If any event is worthy of the spectacle in the best sense of the word, it remains the Olympics.

It's still a great thing.

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