The Games begin

August 12, 2004

IN A MORE or less perpetually troubled world, the ideal of the Olympics seems somewhat quaint. At best, the Games can be stirring. At worst, they are mired in matters of commerce and TV, politics and fame, and, very much now, the potential for terrible acts of terrorism.

As the 28th Olympiad opens tomorrow, that divide appears ever more the case. The sharp tensions -- between the myth of purely amateur sport and the many impurities polluting the Games -- seem more palpable this time for their very location in the land of the ancient competitions and of their 1896 rebirth.

Whatever problems arise, large or small, they doubtless will contest for center stage given that this is the first Olympiad to be televised on one channel or another 24 hours a day for its entire 17 days.

We've already endured Athens' dicey 11th-hour drive to complete its athletic venues and transportation systems in time; questions over the crushing financial burden will linger. AWACS military planes are providing guard, along with 10 security personnel for every athlete. There'll be daily biochemical news from the dope-testers, dozens of athletes representing nations other than their homelands, the country-vs.-country medals race (silly, if you think about it) and no end of evidence that many world-class athletes are vying as much to become marketable brands as they are to prevail in their sports.

But -- and here's where quaint myth verges on genuine life -- some 10,000 athletes from more than 200 nations are expected (including 18 from Maryland). There'll be teams from Kiribati and East Timor and, notably, Iraq and Afghanistan. Along with giant squads from the United States, China and Russia, they'll all parade together in opening ceremonies that, artful or cheesy, are always unique events. When else does such a worldwide gathering, sometimes truly a joyful party, take place?

And of course, there doubtless will be the very human achievements of weights lifted or thrown, distances covered over time, marks hit or judged well, and all manner of records set. The quest for immortality by the American Olympic cover-boy, swimmer Michael Phelps, will be prime-time, particularly in hometown Baltimore. As every four years, count also on remarkable performances by unheralded competitors, some of whom, in fact, may simply be amateurs there for the sport of it.

Greek organizers will use the men's and women's shot-put finals, particularly, to try to amplify this side of the Olympics. The events will be held at the site of the ancient games, by the Temple of Hera in Olympia, 200 miles southwest of Athens. Few modern trappings -- from electronic scoreboards to spectator stands -- will be allowed to intrude; winners will receive wreaths.

If that sadly ends up eclipsed by everything else, keep in mind that the modern Olympic ideal of pure sport reflects 19th century classicism more than ancient realities. The competitions more than 2,000 years ago were brutal, even lethal, and, like today, riven by material and political interests. They were, however, used to enforce a respite from war.

If today's Olympics can't deliver that, they nonetheless still symbolize that peace is as needed now as then.

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