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Olympic Special Section: To Be The Best

3 minute read
Tom Callahan

The best of anything. The best of everything. The best of everyone.

Once, wars were called off for the Olympic Games, but lately the Games have been lopped off for wars. Like a wreath bent out of shape by an ocean wave, one Olympic ring at a time, representing a continent or so, has dislodged itself in a snit and drifted away. The race was still won in 1976, but the Africans weren’t in Montreal. The basket was still scored in 1980, but the Americans weren’t in Moscow. The weights were still lifted and the punches still landed, but in 1984 the Soviets and Cubans weren’t in Los Angeles. Some incalculable competition was missing, so some inexpressible definition was lost.

Probably it is too simple of human beings to want to look in on their own progress quadrennially, hoping to gauge how far they have gone by how fast they can go, as if the breed could hope to improve on Emil Zatopek. He was the beau ideal in 1952, a balding Czech about the size of a parking meter, who ran all day and all night with his shirt peeled up and his tongue rolled down. When Zatopek raced, hearts raced. Whoever his modern descendant might be — the Moroccan Said Aouita, likely as not — he will almost certainly be in Seoul. Besides North Korea, only Cuba, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Albania and the Seychelles have demurred. For the first time since the bleak year of 1972, practically the whole world is expected.

Wars aren’t completely out of mind. The awful chill of Munich precedes every reunion now. At least since Hitler and probably since Zeus, the Games have been an irresistible forum for political commentary, not to mention a handy occasion for defections. But the unfaded memory of the murders in the Israeli quarters still haunts the Olympics. It makes every volatile stop seem fearsome until the hosts — the Korean people themselves, not the overgrown playground directors — step forward. That will be the first event.

The image of excellence steadily changes, but the impression of it is always the same (stirring, stunning, surprising), and just the fact of it is reassuring. Knowing that the field is fairly well complete, the spectators will be able to kick back over the next two weeks and trust their emotions. When it comes to expressive faces, the finish line has nothing on the living room. Not every Olympic event compels every watcher, but every winner does. Some people can blithely read a book during the actual competition, but they have to glance up at the victory lap, and they almost always smile. To be the best at something, the best in the world.

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