Olympic Idea Lives

For all their flaws - commercialism, cynicism, gigantism - the Olympic games still offer the dream of a global village.

Athens Olympics: 5 Days To Go

Aug. 13-29

August 08, 2004|By Randy Harvey | Randy Harvey,SUN STAFF

Among my most vivid memories from the first Summer Olympics I covered in 1976 in Montreal is of the late Dick Young, the irascible sports columnist for the New York Daily News, standing on a table in the press center and ordering the U.S. press corps to ignore Nadia Comaneci.

"It's just a dance contest," he protested.

As much as we respected Young, his order was superseded by those of our sports editors, who were calling daily to demand as much information as we could provide on the Romanian gymnast who was setting records for perfect 10s.

It wasn't an easy assignment. The late Jim Murray, the usually affable sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, responded with exasperation to one such call from his sports editor asking him to interview Comaneci.

"She's 14, plays with dolls and doesn't speak a word of English," Murray said. "It's like trying to interview Rin Tin Tin."

Despite the festive atmosphere surrounding them, reporters are seldom joyful at the Olympics. They are burdened by long days, tedious bus rides, endless security checks and missed happy hours.

One night at the University of Montreal, where much of the North American press resided during the 1976 Games, the late Wells Twombley of the San Francisco Chronicle stuck his head out his window - he apparently couldn't find an oven - and yelled, "I hate this place."

I, on the other hand, loved it.

Not necessarily my dormitory room. But covering the Olympic Games. As a 25-year-old sports reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, I longed for an opportunity to discover the sports world beyond Ohio State vs. Michigan. The Olympics provided that.

A colleague, John Powers of the Boston Globe, was jolted awake from a nap one day at the University of Montreal by the public address announcer at the nearby field hockey stadium.

"Goal by Singh!" he said, followed moments later by another "Goal by Singh!" This occurred often enough to pique Powers' curiosity. He dressed quickly and hurried to the stadium, believing he had literally discovered the star of the Games in his sleep.

Arriving as the game ended in victory for India, he asked the winning coach which of his players was Singh.

"Almost all of them are named Singh," the coach said.

"And what's your name?" Powers asked.

"Singh," the coach said.

Who knew that Singh was such a popular name in India? Well, a lot of people, including the 947 million who live in India, knew. But I didn't, and even that relatively trivial bit of information made me feel more connected with the world in which we live.

It's that expectation that I will continue to learn, sometimes simple truths, sometimes greater, that keeps me going back to the Olympics. The Games in Athens, which begin this week, will be my 13th - eight Summers and five Winters.

When I was asked to do this story, the editor said he wanted to read about how the Games had changed in the almost three decades since Montreal. My initial reaction was that they have changed significantly.

For one thing, I never had to go through security training for the Olympics as we from the Tribune Publishing newspapers did this year. The theme, more or less, was that there isn't much we can do in case of a terrorist attack in Athens, but at least we should feel better knowing afterward that there wasn't much we could have done.

That, however, has less to do with how the Olympics have changed than with how our awareness has been heightened by 9/11.

In fact, the Olympics have been perceived as a terrorist target since the Israeli athletes were taken hostage in Munich in 1972. High fences with barbed wire surrounded the athletes' village four years later in Montreal. Armed guards made a show of their presence.

There were fears in Seoul in 1988 of an attack by North Koreans. Basque separatists were considered a threat in Barcelona in 1992. A bomb exploded in Centennial Square in Atlanta, killing one tourist and perhaps causing a Turkish photographer's fatal heart attack.

It's a dangerous world. That isn't new.

So what is?

Instead of Citius, Altius, Fortius (Latin for "Faster, Higher, Stronger"), critics of the Games have adopted as their motto the three isms - professionalism, commercialism and gigantism - when decrying relatively recent trends they believe are jeopardizing the Games' future.

I would suggest that only one of those - gigantism - represents more of a problem than a solution.

In Montreal, 6,084 athletes competed in 198 events and, though no records were kept of this, there were probably fewer media members than athletes present. Still, after the mayor declared that it was less likely that the Olympics could lose money than it was that a man could have a baby, the city's debt after the Games was $1 billion.

In Athens, at least as many athletes as who competed in Sydney, 10,651, are expected to participate in 296 events, and they should be well covered by a media force of 21,500. The cost to Athens has been estimated at as high as $12 billion, including a staggering $1.5 billion for security.

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