We still remain drawn to flame

Appeal: Though there is much about the modern Games to regret, the Olympics haven't lost their basic hold on the world.


Athens 2004

August 13, 2004|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

ATHENS - Tonight, the sports world lights the candle for a quadrennial celebration of all things good and pure. The speeches will laud peace and brotherhood. Television cameras will show shining, happy faces.

Tomorrow, the real world intrudes.

If the Summer Games of 2004 follow the all-too-familiar pattern of Olympics past, there will be ugliness: an athlete will cheat, a judge will err, money will change hands.

Any of the above. All of the above. But almost certainly we will not be able to escape these Games with none of the above.

Passion, which provides the juice of competition, has a way of doing that.

It was true in ancient times, when judges were allowed to compete. It was true after the Games were revived in 1896. And it will be true as another chapter is written over the next 16 days by 10,500 athletes from 202 nations in 28 sports.

We grumble about the loss of amateurism and sportsmanship and the rise of commercialism and doping. We fret about terrorism and the rising cost of being the genial host.

But give them up? Never.

"Sometimes, it's difficult to say what it is we love about the Olympics and why people don't just throw up their hands and walk away from this exercise," says Stephen Wenn, associate professor of kinesiology and physical education at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario. "It's a two-week period when you can let yourself go and pull for your athletes."

Clark Haptonstall, director of the sports management program at Rice University, offers several other reasons.

"It only happens every four years. We love the story lines. We love the idea of athletes training for years to lay it all on the line. We love the do or die," he says.

The attraction hasn't changed since ancient times, when it was a lot harder to get to the venues. Yet, an estimated 70,000 spectators made the 200-mile trek every four years from Athens to Olympus.

"Oh, I can't describe the scene in mere words," wrote Lucian in A.D. 140. "You really should experience firsthand the incredible pleasure of standing in that cheering crowd, admiring the athletes' courage and good looks, their amazing physical conditioning - their skill and irresistible strength - all their bravery and their pride, their unbeatable determination, their unstoppable passion for victory."

Despite the attraction, there remains a suspicion the Summer Games have become simply a platform to sell a new electronic gadget or trumpet national superiority. The U.S. Olympic Committee's "Official Partner, Sponsor, Supplier Media Guide" runs nearly 100 pages and is filled with vital facts such as Diamond of California is the "Official Nuts Supplier of the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team."

NBC paid $793 million for the right to broadcast 1,210 hours from Athens. Twenty years ago, ABC paid $225 million to air 180 hours from Los Angeles.

Getting a return on that investment means commercials, commercials and more commercials. It also means the Olympics often waltz to NBC's tune.

Indeed, when attempting to dispel rumors that the Summer Games might be moved because Athens was behind schedule on preparations, Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, promised the facilities would be ready for two groups: the athletes and the broadcasters. Not the fans, not the athletes' families, not the 5,500 reporters.

The medal count, born in 1952 during the Cold War, refuses to go away even though the original hostilities are deader than Josef Stalin.

"I hate the obsession with medals," says U.S. soccer star Mia Hamm. "I think too many people believe that not winning a medal is failure. It's not. Being an Olympian means being one of the best in the world at what you do, striving every time to do your very best."

To be sure, that excellence can be swimmer Michael Phelps trying to win seven gold medals or Hamm leading her teammates in a last-hurrah try for the top before her retirement.

"There is no greater glory for any man alive than that which he wins by his hands and his feet," wrote Homer in The Odyssey.

But it also can be 45-year-old Paul Cayard, who has a stellar resume that includes the America's Cup and the Whitbread Round the World Race, pushing himself to a higher level of fitness to pursue Olympic glory that eluded him two decades ago.

There are triumphs at these Summer Games that won't involve medals.

Iraqi athletes are competing for the first time in decades without the fear of torture hanging over their heads.

Kevin Hall of Bowie, a survivor of testicular cancer, will celebrate life when he sets sail tomorrow in the first of 11 races in the Finn class.

Prevented by her native Cuba from participating in previous Olympics, Annia Hatch, 25, is competing this year for her adopted country as a member of the U.S. gymnastics squad.

"We love to cheer for the American athletes, but we love to cheer for excellence," says Ellen Singer of Youngsville, N.Y., as she gathers her baggage at the Athens airport. "I'm not a sports fan. We do this for the opportunity to share something with people from around the world."

Singer attended all but one Olympics - winter and summer - from 1984 to 2002. Her husband, Dr. Don Simkin, started attending in 1980.

"We started making our plans when Athens got the bid," he says. "I don't think the doping and terrorism threat are enough to mar the Olympics. They lost their virginity a long time ago."

The Games, which were invented in Greece in 776 B.C., died in A.D. 393 only to be reinvented in Athens in 1896, are home again.

Many things have changed, but there remains a basic truth from A.D. 140.

"I know that if you were there in the stadium," wrote Lucian so many centuries ago, "you wouldn't be able to stop applauding."

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