Gold still, but a little tarnished

2000 Games confront challenge of restoring luster after scandals

Summer Olympics

September 10, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SYDNEY - The Olympics are flush with wealth and shadowed by scandal.

They're filled with wondrous athletic feats and troubled by potential drug cheats.

They're the world's biggest multi-athletic show, and they're bursting at the seams.

When more than 10,000 athletes from up to 200 countries converge on Sydney for Friday's opening of the 2000 Summer Olympics, the world will confront a sporting institution that never had it so good - and never faced so many challenges.

The Olympics are bidding for a fresh start Down Under in an Australian spring, seeking to reclaim innocence and trust as billions watch 17 days of carefully-scripted pageantry and often unpredictable competition.

In modern sporting playgrounds, the world's best will aim for medals in 28 sports, ranging from traditional pursuits such as track and field and gymnastics, to made-for-television spectacles such as beach volleyball and triathlon.

These are the Games when Marion Jones tries to sprint and jump her way to five gold medals, when a Columbia, Md., gymnast named Elise Ray seeks an all-around medal, and when a 15-year-old swimmer from Baltimore named Michael Phelps attempts to gain a medal in the 200-meter butterfly.

They're the Games of Australian national stars Ian Thorpe, a 17-year-old swimming sensation, and Cathy Freeman, a 400-meter sprinter whose triumphs raise spirits in the country's Aboriginal community.

And they're the Games for the old legends, like Russian wrestler Alexander Karelin, Turkish weightlifter Naim Suleymanoglu and British rower Steve Redgrave.

But mostly, they're shaping up as the Games that help the Olympics right themselves.

Over the past four years, the Olympics have been badly tarnished, from the Glitch Games of Atlanta in 1996, when a bystander was killed by a bomb and the transportation system broke down, to later revelations of penny-ante corruption and cronyism at the highest levels of the International Olympic Committee, a stodgy organization presided over by Spain's Juan Antonio Samaranch.`The Olympics will always be the greatest sporting event in the history of the world," says U.S. swimmer Tom Dolan. "No matter what people say, I guarantee you those naysayers, when four years come around, they're glued to the TV."

Others, though, aren't quite so certain of the Olympics' place as a centerpiece on the world's sporting, social and cultural calendar. They're big, expensive, and increasingly unwieldy for all but the wealthiest countries to stage.

"It has lost its sense of purpose and ideals. It has become a bit grubby, less distinctive from pro sports generally," is how Richard Cashman, director of the Center for Olympic Studies at the University of New South Wales, sums up the way critics see the Olympics.

But Cashman quickly adds, "Despite all the corruption and doping, it still holds a place in the public imagination. People want to believe in something."

Even the revelations that Salt Lake City organizers spent $1 million securing votes of IOC members to stage the 2002 Winter Games didn't seem to dent the public's mood for the Games. Four IOC members were forced to resign, six others were ousted, and the organization issued new rules to clean up the bid process and bring in new blood to its membership.

"I don't look at the latest crisis and say, `Oh, the Olympics are finished,'" says John Hoberman, a prominent Olympic historian and professor of Germanic studies at the University of Texas. "For better or worse, the Olympics established themselves as one of the authentic idealistic international institutions of the 20th century."

Since their rebirth in Athens in 1896 under the stewardship of Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France, the Olympics have survived numerous crises, from the disruptions of two world wars to the murder of Israeli athletes in 1972 at Munich, from tit-for-tat superpower boycotts in 1980 and 1984 to a high-profile drug scandal in 1988.

The Olympics survived Hitler and the Nazis at Berlin in 1936 and near financial calamity in 1976 when Montreal went deep into the red.

It wasn't until the 1984 Los Angeles Games that the Olympics' financing was put right, when American-style marketing brought aboard high-paying corporate sponsors.

Now, the Olympics are a money-spinner, with the IOC enjoying $3.6 billion in projected revenue from 1997 through 2000. In some ways, credit for the Olympics' revival belongs to Samaranch, the former diplomat who has presided over the IOC since 1980 and is due to step down in July.

He brought the Games into the modern age, ditching the amateur rules that limited participation, welcoming the pros, increasing the number of women's events and courting the international corporations. He also ended the cycle of political boycotts by bringing together most of the world for the 1988 Games in South Korea.

It was under Samaranch that America's Dream Team basketball players showed up in Barcelona in 1992 and that tennis player Steffi Graf enjoyed a "golden slam" in 1988.

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