The Importance of Playing Games


For the first time in years, the world is getting serious about playing games. It took the collapse of a continental superpower, the last gasp of white rule in Africa, snagging Magic Johnson and his pals, and some fancy maneuvering to include the Yugoslavs, but it now appears that the 1992 Olympics may achieve what none has before in the modern era -- games devoted not to bans and boycotts, but to sports, pure and simple.

Four years ago, when the Twenty-First Olympiad ended in Seoul, who would have believed a Barcelona without teams from the Soviet Union and East Germany?

Who could have imagined that Nelson Mandela would appear in an opening ceremony that included a mostly white team from South Africa?

Or that NBA star Sarunas Marciulionis would play basketball for an independent Lithuanian team sponsored, in part, by the Grateful Dead?

Even athletes from Serbia and Montenegro, the only country in the world currently banned from competition by the United hTC Nations, will be allowed to compete, provided they wear white uniforms with no national markings, call themselves the ''Independent Team,'' and receive medals standing under the blue flag of the International Olympic Committee.

OK, so Cal Ripken Jr., Roger Clemens and Daryl Strawberry won't be playing on a baseball Dream Team in Barcelona; nor will boxers Evander Holyfield or Thomas Hearns be punching anybody senseless. And there is the matter of what remains of the old state-sponsored medal factories -- the one in tatters called the ''Unified Team,'' which plans to disband by 1996; and the other one from China, that shows no signs of going away. But these drawbacks are trifles compared to Olympiads of the past.

Think about the record of just the past 20 years -- the tragedy of 11 Israeli athletes killed in the 1972 Munich massacre; the superpower boycotts of 1980 and 1984, and the drug scandals of 1988.

And what about those countries that never made it to the games: There was Russia in the Twenties, China in the Fifties and Sixties, Albania in the Seventies and Eighties, and the hands-down winner in the Olympic banning event, South Africa, which missed eight Olympiads, from 1960 to 1988.

Then there was Jim Thorpe in 1912, stripped of two gold medals for playing baseball for money; two world wars that meant the games in 1916, 1940 and 1944 never happened, and Adolf Hitler, who in 1936 hijacked the Berlin Olympics by draping himself in swastikas and announcing to the world his intentions to create a master race. (In a long forgotten protest of these ''Nazi Games,'' Barcelona in 1936 tried to stage an alternative Olympics at the Estadi Olimpic, site of yesterday's opening ceremonies; the effort, however, was thwarted by the start of the Spanish Civil War).

This bleak record during the past Olympic century makes Barcelona in 1992 seem all the more remarkable, though I wonder if this sudden Olympic harmony is more the result of exhaustion after decades of bickering and hard knocks than some sort of athletic New World Order.

For even as the party begins this weekend on Mont Juic, with toasts offered to the athletic purity of these games, we cannot forget that on the other side of Europe another Olympic host city is being pounded into rubble, with victims of bombs and starvation being buried in the gardens and parks of a former Olympic Village.

Yet even in Sarajevo, amid the blood and destruction, an effort is being made to send Bosnian athletes to Barcelona -- assuming the airport at Sarajevo can stay open long enough for U.N. relief planes to fly them out.

Only the ancient Greeks tried harder to make sure every athlete who qualified for the Olympics was able to compete, regardless of battles and political intrigue. Indeed, 2,500 years ago, the Greeks even outlawed war in the Hellenic world during the month it took to travel to and from the tiny village of Olympia, and to participate in the five-day games. Greek city-states locked in desperate conflicts not only stopped fighting, but ensured safe passage for friends and enemies alike headed to the games.

Yet the ancients were not entirely virtuous where the Olympic Games were concerned.

Not only were athletes from non-Greek polities considered barbarians and excluded from the Olympics, but even among Hellenics the games allowed only freeborn male citizens to participate. This barred the vast majority of the population in the Greek world, including women, slaves, servants, freemen and foreigners.

The Greeks also competed in the nude, which meant married women and children were banned from watching the events. Moreover, big money also played an important role in the ancient games, where the Age of Reebok would not be entirely unfamiliar to the Age of Pericles.

Yet even if the Greeks, like us, had their shortcomings when it came to athletic purity, they deserve credit for inventing the idea of the Olympics, and for affirming a core tenet of the games then and now -- that sports at this level of excellence has the power to inspire unlike any other human endeavor.

Indeed, this is what continues to draw us to the Olympics, year after year, despite politicalization, bans and boycotts. This power to inspire will, for the next few days, hopefully push aside the murderers, soldiers and politicians from the front pages of 181 countries, and replace them with the faces of Anita Nall, Sergei Bubka and Li Jing as they sweat, strain and make us believe, if only for a moment, in a world where nothing is more important than playing games.

David Ewing Duncan is a Baltimore free-lance writer.

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