It's our duty to make sure that games and life go on

March 19, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

IF AUSTRALIA, one of the few countries backing U.S. military action against Iraq, decides not to send its elite swimmers to Indianapolis on April 6 for a United States vs. Aussies duel in the pool, people would understand.

There's the question now about being a terrorist target. There's also the inclination to rethink priorities.

Yesterday, Australian swim officials said they would decide later this week whether to allow their athletes to make the trip, thus putting into question a rare opportunity for Australia's Ian Thorpe and North Baltimore Aquatic Club's Michael Phelps to circle each other in a supercharged atmosphere before the world championships this July in Barcelona, Spain.

"It would be disappointing. We've looked forward to it because it has preparation value heading into the world championships," NBAC swim coach Bob Bowman said yesterday.

But he was quick to add the appropriate disclaimer: "It's a pretty big deal, but believe me, we're willing to make whatever sacrifices we need to make."

That is the prevailing feeling among most Americans these days, regardless of whether you demonstrate your patriotism by siding with President Bush or by protesting the collapse of diplomacy.

In slap-in-the-face times like this, who among us wouldn't be the first to say that sports rank low on reality's sliding scale? We won't say sports are meaningless, but what about expendable? We'd all agree. Major League Baseball, the NBA and NCAA, international swim meets, cycling events, golf tournaments, whatever. They have no place being held in a country about to go where this country is about to go.

Or do they? Frankly, we should try to do it all. We can do it all.

We can show honor and respect for United States, British, Australian and whichever of the world's other military troops head toward Iraq.

We can pray for innocent victims - the children - sure to be killed or displaced or orphaned in this apparent and fast-approaching Baghdad bloodbath.

We can demonstrate caution and vigilance in protecting ourselves and our families from terrorist acts, especially with security risk warnings flashing across our TV screens like a daily weather report. Code orange? Where's the duct tape, just in case?

It gives us great pause to confront all these alarming issues and situations. We should pause and get perspective. But we should also carry on - in all plausible ways. Flying, working, taking kids to the park, ordering coffee at Dunkin' Donuts, whatever.

That would include playing games, watching them, writing about them, reading about them and, in the case of our collective March Madness addiction, betting on them in our strangely reassuring if not hypocritical NCAA basketball tournament office pools.

It's gravely unfortunate that we've already learned the bitter lessons of carrying on in times of terrible grief, fear, anger, worry, uncertainty. But we've been here for a while now. In the vastly different world created by the Sept. 11 attacks, we are sobered and seasoned to the new world order. As weird as this sounds, and as grave as things are, shutting our world down seems the wrong sort of concession.

The NCAA and Major League Baseball were correct to evaluate options in the face of Bush's ultimatum for Saddam Hussein.

"We don't know when it will start, and we have to be respectful of our men and women in uniform," NCAA president Myles Brand said, adding: "On the other hand, I think we have to be very careful not to let Saddam Hussein control our lives. We have to balance those."

By last night, Brand came to a good conclusion after deliberating whether or not to postpone first- and/or second-round games this week, should the military campaign go forth as warned.

"From everything we know right now, it's in the best interests of the country to go forward," Brand said. "We felt that this was the right decision, and have no hesitation whatsoever having made it."

Baseball made the opposite decision yesterday when it canceled exhibition and season-opening games between the Seattle Mariners and the Oakland A's scheduled for March 25 and 26 in Tokyo. Commissioner Bud Selig was swayed by the probability that military action will start soon and that players should not be sent overseas "at this critical juncture."

It's understandable, but too bad. Baseball has made this trip before, with the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets reaping the rewards of the world as a global village. This time, our global village is riddled with risks, even though baseball officials were certain security in Tokyo was top-notch.

The Mariners have been attempting to play official games in Japan for years, to honor their Japanese owner, who has never seen the team play, and to satisfy the millions of fans who love Ichiro and Kazuhiro Sasaki. But veterans like Seattle's Mark McLemore expressed trepidation about a trip so close to North Korea in times like these. Maybe that nervousness drove baseball to cancel the games.

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