Lillehammer's beauty and the beast

March 01, 1994

As trolls and vetters pranced at the closing ceremonies of the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, as world-class athletes mugged for the cameras like kids on spring break, and as the extinguishing of a torch elicited some melancholy, like the feeling of having to return to the real world after a vacation, one might have felt a little debt to Baron Pierre de Coubertin. He was the Frenchman who revived the Olympic movement 98 years ago after a 1,500-year hiatus from the games of Ancient Greece.

Yes, the modern Olympics are bloated by commercialism. Yes, politics still intrudes on the games. And true, the Winter Olympiad involves less than a third of the nations of the world in cold-weather sport, Jamaican bobsledders notwithstanding. But on a weekend in which ethnic strife continued to erupt and blood continued to flow in Bosnia and the Middle East, to have a festival for the purpose of bringing together nations seemed the epitome of peace. There is nothing else like it. None of the other international athletic competitions or world's fairs possesses the pageantry and exposure of the Olympics.

There was, of course, a huge blotch on these games, the whole Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan affair. What's been said often enough was that the attempt to knock Ms. Kerrigan out of competition was repulsive; it is now left to the American legal system to get to the bottom of it.

What has mostly been left unsaid, however, is how emotion seemed to envelope most Americans throughout the controversy. It was bad enough that people assumed Ms. Harding's guilt without benefit of a trial, but worse, the American public and much of the media seemed obsessed with passing judgment on everything about Ms. Harding. She was criticized for coughing and sneezing after her performance (she has asthma); for wearing a backless outfit, as though it proved her a floozy (other skaters also wore backless costumes); for walking out on a Connie Chung interview. Why should we expect all athletes to react smoothly to a media onslaught; even our politicians many times don't, and they're in the media relations business. The demonization of Ms. Harding, beyond her alleged involvement in the crime, seemed another symptom of the rising levels of angst and anger in America. Unfortunately, the Olympics, conceived for international goodwill, can do little to medicate that domestic affliction.

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