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Athens 2004

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Commentary & Perspective

Thursday, August 12

Olympics appeals to man's better nature

OLYMPIA, Greece - This is the only smart place to begin these Athens Olympics, on the parched banks of the Kladeos and Alpheios Rivers, down in this impossibly verdant olive grove about 280 miles from the place where the Olympic cauldron will be lit this evening.

This is the place to begin because we live in a fearful post-9/11 age, a multi-polar world of global terrorism, and we need to be reminded, by these rocks and artifacts and ghosts of Ancient Olympia, that the Olympics are not only still important, but truly necessary.

"In ancient Greece, the city-states were always at war," said Kathrine Kollias, a kind guide who adopted some wayward American reporters as they roamed through the ruins. "The Games in antiquity were celebrated to give the Greeks a chance to come together and to live together, to share information and understand each other better. It was a time to stop war and talk about peace."

There is no such thing as a Sacred Truce now. Even as the Games begin Friday night in Athens, where the streets are festooned with signs that read, "Welcome Home," there will be more bloodshed in Iraq, and in Sudan, and elsewhere around the globe. Thousands of years of human history, thousands of years of technological and intellectual advancement, and still, we kill one another.

Progress? For every athlete who will compete in Athens, there will be seven security personnel. Billions have been spent to ensure these Games are safe. Nobody is worried anymore that those wacky, rambunctious Spartans will start acting up, as they were known to do thousands of years ago. But we are all worried about something far graver, a catastrophe of more epic proportions.

Still, though, we come back to celebrate an Olympics, Winter and Summer, alternating every two years. We come back no matter how much it costs in terms of financial or human investment. We come back for the same reasons the Ancient Greeks continued to hold their Games.

Because we need to be reminded of man's better nature, because we need to believe, if just for a couple of weeks, this noble fiction that we can all live together and play together. Because the Olympics, for all their warts, remain as monuments to human potential and its essential goodness.

Are we kidding ourselves?

Maybe.

But every culture needs its mythology - including the Ancient Greeks, who know a thing or two about this mythology business. The Olympics are the world's mythology. When we stop dreaming even the most foolish of dreams, cynicism grows like a noxious weed and hope chokes on the fumes.

Don't be fooled into believing that the Ancient Games were some sort of Puritan county fair.

There was commercialism. There was professionalism. There was terrorism.

And there was cheating. (And here's an idea for today's Games: Here in Olympia, there are 16 stands where there stood statues of Zeus, all of them paid for by cheaters. Every athlete who walked through the great arch to enter the stadium had to pass by this monument to venality).

That doesn't even mention the fact that athletes slathered themselves in olive oil and competed naked, which is another notion worth revisiting (at least for certain sports).

Conceptually, though, there was a purity to all of this.

The ancient Greeks had a vision for themselves, and a Frenchman named Baron de Coubertin, whose heart is buried on these grounds, renewed that vision by renewing the Games in a more modern form.

"For me," Kollias said dreamily, "this is a magical place."

As she spoke, a great noise drowned out her voice. There, up in the air, right over the Leonidaion, a structure that once housed Olympic guests and dignitaries, there was a military helicopter flying low overhead.

Let the Games begin.

-

Oh, yes. The competition. The Games themselves.

It's easy to forget as you pen the daily Homeric epic. (You think Pindar, who wrote about these Games thousands of years back, had to worry about first-edition deadlines?)

- First and foremost, will these Games be safe? Greece has bet billions of dollars that it can make it through this thing unscathed. At times, it looks like an armed camp. Other times, it feels less regulated than Woodstock.

- How will the American athletes be greeted during the Opening Ceremonies and through the rest of these Games? When the U.S. delegation marches into the Olympic Stadium, will anti-American sentiment somehow manifest itself? "We're aware of that," said U.S. chef de mission Herman Frazier. "We want our athletes to be excited, but we want them to be solid citizens." In other words ... don't act like fools.

- Can the U.S. men's basketball team get its act together and restore some of America's hoops luster?

- Will Michael Phelps make himself immortal by exceeding Mark Spitz' medal count?

- Can the U.S. women's soccer team, blessed with Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain and the others who put the sport on the map back home, return for one final gold-medal run?

- Can track and field go more than five minutes without somebody mentioning BALCO or accusing a competitor of using human growth hormone?

- Can the American gymnasts, both men and women, fulfill their ample promise at these Games, recalling the names of Bart Conner and Mary Lou Retton?

- Will Maurice Greene, once the "fastest man alive," recover from recent losses and reclaim his reputation?

- And what kinds of stories will emerge from nowhere to grab the world's attention?

That's the thing about the Olympics. For four years, most of these men and women labor in relative obscurity, known only to the cognoscenti of their sport. And then they get on this greatest of international stages, and they produce memories that last forever.

Before Atlanta, who had heard of Kerri Strug?

Before Sydney, who knew of Rulon Gardner?

One day, they are competing in front of family and friends, known only to their inner circle. Then they come to the Olympics, and suddenly they're trading witty bon mots with Katie Couric.

The Games always shine a light in the most unexpected places. American television highlights the Americans, which is understandable. But here is a place where the international community flexes its muscle and shows us that dreams have no geographical boundaries.

Yes.

Let the Games begin.

-

The reader will be spared the Olympia travelogue. First, because a dry recitation - there's the Temple of Hera, where it was believed the Sacred Truce resided, and ... - is less compelling than a day at rhythmic gymnastics.

More, though, words don't do the place justice.

To understand Olympia, it's necessary to be here, to walk through the archway and see the giant dirt stadium where the ancients ran and jumped and battled nearly 2,800 years ago.

"I stand in certain places here," said Kollias, "and I can feel a certain positive energy all throughout my entire body."

In reality, the ancient site is a grand collection of crumbled Doric columns and fallen sporting venues. Which doesn't sound like a trip through the museums of Florence. But it's the spirit of the place that matters more than the reality. To think, here we are, 2,800 years later, and still, we believe the Olympics are not only worth holding, but even necessary.

These may not end up being as spectacular as the Games of Barcelona. These may not be as lock-step efficient as the Games of Sydney. But they will be special Games, so long as they remain safe and secure.

Nike may have made the ungainly transformation from goddess to shoe company, but modernity can't obscure this area's deep and textured history. While half the tickets to these Games remain unsold, be assured the gods and the ghosts have theirs, and they will watch from the best seats in the house.

The Olympics have come home.

Let the Games begin.

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COMMENTARY AND PERSPECTIVE

CHRISTINE BRENNAN | USA TODAY

Phelps' big win: Taking the challenge

BOB KRAVITZ | The Indianapolis Star

Americans have forgotten how to play as a team

DAN BICKLEY | The Arizona Republic

Bade guns for gold, but comes up short

IAN O'CONNOR | The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

Phelps, menís hoops team prove that defeat is relative

MIKE LOPRESTI | Gannett News Service

U.S. basketball supremacy is ancient history

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