With all their excesses, Games still offer hope

ON THE OLYMPICS

Olympics

September 10, 2000|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

I am as jaded as your average 45-year-old sportswriter.

I have had it up to my eyeballs with athletes who aren't students, pushy parents, unscrupulous agents, manipulative coaches and the television programming executives who dictate what time the game is going to start.

That said, I still haven't gotten my fill of the full-contact ballet that athletics at its highest level can deliver, so I am excited to be going to Sydney, Australia, tomorrow.

This will be my first Olympics in the media pool, but I have had a long fascination with the international festival. My father broke down and bought a new TV in 1960, just in time for a 5-year-old to have a clearer picture of Wilma Rudolph.

In 1984, I talked my bride of two weeks into taking some of the money we received as wedding gifts and dropping it on a state-of-the-art monitor so I could enjoy the Los Angeles Games after our honeymoon.

I still have Mary. We still watch the TV. In 1972, I talked an administrator at Brooklyn Park High into asking for a moment of silence before a Friday night football game in honor of the Israelis who were slain in Munich.

Four years later, I took my meager earnings as a soccer official and stringer for the Capital-Gazette Newspapers and bought as many tickets as I could to the Olympics in Montreal.

Those Games were about everything that is wrong with the Olympics.

Drug abuse, politics and commercialism didn't wait until the millennium to overwhelm the Olympic movement. In 1976, one man combined all three gross excesses in a repeat double gold-medal performance.

Finland's Lasse Viren came to Montreal as the defending Olympic champion in track and field's 5,000 and 10,000 meters. Viren was a doping visionary in '76, as he had blood withdrawn, frozen and then returned to his system before competition to boost his endurance. Because it was still in its experimental stages, the procedure was legal.

The Olympics then operated under the faM-gade that every participant was an amateur. After Viren won the 10,000, the International Olympic Committee questioned his motives during his victory lap, when he held his running spikes aloft. Viren also repeated in the 5,000 and took fifth in the marathon, but all of the distance races were cheapened by an African boycott that was triggered by a tour of South Africa by a New Zealand rugby team.

It wasn't the most logical action since rugby isn't an Olympic sport.

Bruce Jenner grabbing an American flag after he won the decathlon was the first contrived celebration I can recall, but one man waving his nation's banner is also what is burned into my memory about the 1976 Olympics.

The Cold War was still raging, and our tickets to the gold-medal match in men's volleyball got hotter as the Soviet Union and Poland made their way to the final. I didn't understand why Japanese men in three-piece suits were offering wads of cash for my ticket, but I soon found out.

Poland fell behind 0-1 and 1-2 in the best-of-five match. Every time it was in danger, the overflow crowd at the Forum got even more behind the underdog. The Poles had a 6-foot-7 hitter named Tomasz Wojtowicz who could hang longer than Dr. J. Down 14-15 in the fourth game, he nailed a spike that staved off elimination. That game turned into a marathon. Poland won it, and the deciding game.

The chant of "USA, USA" had grown mundane at the Forum during the men's basketball tournament, which was dominated by Adrian Dantley and the boys.

As we turned a corner outside the Forum after that volleyball match, a single figure was engaged in nationalism that seemed more genuine. A man was circling the Forum, waving the flag of Poland and wearing an expression that was sheer, unadulterated glee.

I want to find that Pole's soulmate somewhere in Sydney.

OK, enough sentiment. Back to cynicism.

Given the number of athletes who are withdrawing because of positive drug tests, the IOC might finally be doing something about the abuse of banned substances. It's about time.

It's also sanctimonious to look down your nose at endurance athletes using EPO if you are unwilling to also cast a skeptical glance at the steroid use that the NFL and Major League Baseball turns its back on.

Which of the six athletes with ties to Baltimore has the best chance of winning a gold medal?

Bernard Williams.

The 22-year-old sprinter out of Carver High is on the American track and field team. He still isn't 100 percent certain he'll be used in the 400 relay in two weeks, but he's traveling to Sydney under the assumption that he has had a strong-enough summer to warrant a spot on the team in at least one of the three rounds. With HSI teammate Maurice Greene anchoring, the United States is favored.

An assistant coach with the U.S. team didn't offer any assurances in Berlin on Sept. 1, after Williams concluded a solid couple of weeks in Europe by helping HSI to the fastest 400 relay time ever outside the Olympics or world championships.

"I saw John Moon [a U.S. assistant] in Berlin," Williams said last Thursday from Los Angeles. "I have to wait and see, but I think I'm in pretty good shape to be included. I wanted to kick butt and make a name for myself this summer. The more I raced, the better my chances became of being selected for the team."

Countdown

Days until opening ceremony: 5.

Olympic update: The IOC is insisting on an explanation for the Australian government's decision to deny entry to two Asian Olympic officials with rumored criminal links.

March to the medals: American Regina Jacobs, considered a top medal contender in the women's 1,500 meters, has withdrawn from the Olympics because of a respiratory infection.

Carrying the torch: Headed closer to its Monday arrival in the Sydney suburbs, moving along the New South Wales coast from Batemans Bay to Kiama. The University of Adelaide researchers who designed the torch's burner won an award Saturday night from the Institution of Engineers of Australia.

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