What if they had an Olympics and there was nobody to hate?

Ken Rosenthal

July 24, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

BARCELONA, Spain -- Hate-mongers, beware. The Evil Empire is gone, the East German steroid factory, too. When do you wave those American flags now? During judo matches against Japan?

Welcome to the first post-Cold War Olympics, where the focus is on athletes, not alliances; performances, not politics. Leave the flags home. They don't belong here anyway.

Oh, a little nationalism never hurt anyone, for in sports it's merely an extension of rooting for the hometown team. Problem is, at the Olympics, people always get carried away.

It was always obvious that gold medals measured only athletic ability, not the quality of a society. But now the former Soviet Union and the former East Germany stand as proof.

DTC In the new world order, nearly everyone is on the same side -- one big happy family, and pretty soon, judging by these Olympics, one big giant corporation.

Yet, for all the talk of commercialization, the 25th Olympiad actually marks a return to the original ideal -- the simple premise of bringing together the world's best athletes.

This will be the first boycott-free Olympics since 1972. The first to include South Africa since 1960. And the first without Cold War tension since 1948.

Not everything is perfect, of course -- witness the controversy over war-torn Yugoslavia -- but more than 10,000 athletes will represent a record 172 nations, and that's a start.

You can't remove the politics, not as the world map keeps changing. But if you're American, you can dispense with the overheated patriotism, and enjoy this as a sporting event, nothing more.

It's time to relax, time to reconsider.

The East Germans now admit past steroid use. And where the USSR once evoked malice, the Unified Team -- scrounging desperately for proper funding -- now evokes sympathy.

There are no enemies, only opponents. And in one special case -- that of the Dream Team -- there might not be any opponents, only friends.

The Tournament of the Americas demonstrated the reverence NBA players inspire in foreign lands. The Olympics probably won't be as congenial, but more pre-game pictures definitely are in order.

The Dream Team, of course, is the overwhelming presence at these Games, and many in the United States question whether it truly belongs in a competition intended for amateurs.

The answer is yes, for the previous eligibility rules were too often manipulated. Still, the debate is welcome, especially in a country that got so carried away with itself hosting the Games in 1984.

The "USA" chants were incessant, and they rang hollow during the boycott by Eastern bloc nations. It was Reagan-era chest-beating, standard '80s excess, the worst type of chauvinism. The perspective now is more sober. The end of the Cold War did not mean the end of a national recession. Indeed, profound questions exist over the way the country is governed.

It's in the middle of all this that the Olympics return to our collective consciousness. Should we cheer U.S. athletes who win medals? Of course. Should we interpret their victories as a triumph for democracy? Sorry, that game's over.

If anything, we learned from the bad guys, learned that amateurs needed government subsidies to maximize their potential. But the enduring lesson is, success in sports means nothing except . . . success in sports.

Why, there are those who would argue that the Dream Team itself is an example of a society with twisted priorities -- a society where basketball players too often are viewed as role models.

By now, the dangers of transforming athletes into symbols are clear, with Pete Rose, Mike Tyson and Magic Johnson serving as ringing examples.

Wouldn't it be something if these Games marked a shift in the other direction? They're the biggest ever, but they come at a time when the world has never been smaller.

So, let's talk sports.

All the old grudges seem so trivial now, the old plots so distorted. Take the U.S. hockey team's stunning upset of the USSR in 1980. It was meaningful not because the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, but because a group of college kids pulled off an upset no one thought possible.

These Olympics, the first post-Cold War Olympics, represent the dawn of a new era, a better era. The hate-mongers will be bored. The sports-lovers will be delighted. Let the Games begin.

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