Let Games begin, and let's hope they matter

Commentary

July 21, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

DAYS OF denial done, I'm finally packing for Athens. It's really going to happen. Politics, construction delays, mismanagement, terrorism, media overkill, drug scandals: Nothing will stop these Greek Olympics.

"Olympic Games," International Olympic Committee vice president Anita DeFrantz gently corrects.

"My mom taught me the proper use of the phrase `Olympic' in and of itself means little, but as an adjective, speaking about the Games, it speaks about a movement and the ideals of the athletes. If you just say Olympics, that just means a huge effort, but at what?"

There's a question, and not just about semantics: A huge effort at what? The New York Times reported yesterday that Athens organizers have sold only slightly more than a third of the 5.3 million tickets available for the Summer Games -- a signal that it will take an Olympic effort to fill venues and not turn Athens into a spectator embarrassment.

NBC plans 1,200 hours of Olympic Games coverage, but how many segments will feature tired reporting on security, doping, traffic and other depressing topics? "Until the Games begin," DeFrantz said, "there are no events to write about or display. There is no unfolding of history before your eyes, which is what the Games are."

As the top U.S. delegate to the IOC, DeFrantz has a vested interest in promoting all that's allegedly good about the Olympic Games. That she does it after such serious trouble is either amazing dedication or a serious blind spot, considering the grilling she took at a Senate committee hearing a few years back, when the colorful ringmaster, Sen. John McCain, blistered the IOC -- via DeFrantz.

But before she was an unwavering IOC delegate, DeFrantz was a rower -- captain of the women's eight that won a bronze medal at the 1976 Olympics. It's tough to deny the strength of her conviction about the good of the Games without acknowledging precisely where it comes from.

Her defining Olympic moment helps explain why the movement should still matter, despite the incredible weight of the commercialized, politicized, terrorized and burdened world in which it exists.

"After the first two races, we were neck-and-neck with the East Germans. They were always the winners," DeFrantz recalled about the steroid-enhanced gold medalists whom the U.S. team strove to beat.

"In our first race, when it was time to sprint, our coxswain called but nothing happened. It was like we hit a wall. The coxswain called again and I was thinking to myself, `I'm going to have to pull this boat over the line by myself,' " DeFrantz said.

"After the race was over, we saw there's an oar in the water. It looked mightily a lot like one of our blades floating there. Well, the bow person had caught a crab, which means her oar knifed under and did not go in. That's what slowed the boat down. The thing of it was, she said not a word and we said not a word, but she had the courage to get back in the boat and [attempted to race] for gold."

Part of me wants to believe the Olympics still have a place in this world.

That's the part that sat inside on sunny, summer days, watching TV instead of swimming or playing baseball or going to the beach. Eleven years old, the 1972 Olympics that were beamed into my home let me watch the stirring, water-churning image of Mark Spitz, knocking down races, draping gold after gold around his neck.

Handsome, incomparable Spitz and the overwhelming pluck, grace and charm of Olga Korbut as she redefined gymnastics: These are as much the bedrock images of my own Olympic archive as all the nasty stuff.

And increasingly -- including Salt Lake City, where North Korean, Russian, Canadian, French and a bevy of other aggrieved and embattled athletes and judges plummeted those Winter Games into a swirl of controversy -- the nasty stuff is overwhelming.

"Some of the athletes today, they see getting a gold medal as a way of getting out of a not-too-good economic system. I don't know how it's going to last," said 1960 gold-medal boxer Skeeter McClure, who was a teammate of Muhammad Ali's.

"Ours was the last of the innocent Olympics. In those days, being an Olympian was purely amateur; not like it is now. An amateur was an amateur. Now there's money to get the talented fighters to where they have to go. A gold medal is seen as a marketing tool. But back then, we weren't fighting to form the cornerstone of a professional career. We were fighting for pride."

Now, instead of athletes fighting for pride, the Olympic Games are in a death match themselves for pride, credibility, justification, relevance and survival.

"The part I liked least [about the Olympic races] was warming up," DeFrantz said. "It was frustrating and I would say to myself, `Why aren't we warmed up?' -- knowing full well we had to warm up our rhythm.

"At the starting line, once you're locked in, there's an incredible quiet and all you could hear was the slap of the water -- which in our case out there in Lane 6 was the slap of whitecaps. There's an immense quiet, knowing everyone is prepared. You're nervous but determined, then you work, you're off, and throughout the race you say to yourself, `They're as tired as I am. I'm not going to let them beat me.' "

The Olympic Games are warming up and creeping to that start line. They're tired and nervous, too. Whether they sink or swim, we're waiting to find out.

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