• U.S.

Illusions Lost and Regained

5 minute read
Tom Callahan

Sport at the highest levels, whether labeled professional or merely operated that way, has always demanded of its followers a certain capacity for illusion. Exalting the athletes we pay to play for us over the ones they pay to play for them is tricky. It requires an ability to squint a little and forget a lot, to gild things.

For instance, basketball fans know full well the indelicacies of college recruiting but are ready to imagine that their school’s pituitary catch matriculated like any other student and went out for the team. Pro-football fans are hip to the sport’s ghastly rigors — revel in them, as a matter of fact — but have no questions to ask offensive linemen with necks like waists. Ultimately, baseball’s pennant races push all the season’s misdeeds and mistresses aside. In any of these fantasy worlds, lasting disillusionment is nearly impossible since illusionment is the name of the game.

But the Olympics are supposed to be different. They’re supposed to be the authentic versions of so many idealized sectors. Like Brigadoon, they reappear innocently every four years, and the impulse to believe in even a microcosmic place of innocence is powerful. When Ben Johnson ran out on the Games last week, he left behind a world of doubt. Indomitable athletes who continued about their business as though nothing extraordinary had happened only fed the doubt. Everything did.

The customary Olympic isms — commercialism and jingoism — were common colds next to the pestilence of cynicism, sexism and racism spread by the mere fact of anabolic steroids and by a rampant suspicion that Johnson’s miscalculation was not in usage but in dosage. The Jamaican-born Canadian with fast feet and a slow tongue muscled himself up to a point where he could hoist an entire country onto the gold-medal platform. His 100-meter dash was a sensation. Then, when he let Canada down, it disowned him entirely. Unreserved witnesses stirred by his false accomplishment took precautions never to be so gullible again. From then on, the cheering for the innocent or guilty became just a little careful and not a little hollow.

When the National Football League rushed to show interest in Johnson, the wicked smiles widened. In that industry, street drugs represent only a 30-day rap and steroids remain a private matter. Throughout the big leagues of athletic excellence, just the natural excesses have become awesome. The mammoth Washington Redskins tackle Dave Butz was once asked if the pain ahead, the accumulated remnants of 16 seasons, chilled him. No, but the reports of short life expectancy were worrying. “You can live with a lot of pain,” he said sagely, “but you’ve got to be alive to do it.”

Maybe only for being a woman who trains like a man, Florence Griffith Joyner heard a faint sneer amid a thousand Olympic cheers, but heard it nonetheless. The opening question of every victorious press conference was a variation of How (like Ben Johnson) had she managed to make such a stunning improvement in her latter 20s? With increasing dismay, she repeatedly replied, “Hard work.” Jackie Joyner-Kersee felt obliged to declare, in her typically straightforward manner, “I’m not using drugs; I’m not on steroids.” To an unspeakable cruelty, she responded evenly, “I’ve read and heard that I’ve been described as an ape. I never thought I was the prettiest person in the world. But I know that, inside, I’m beautiful.” It was heartbreaking.

East Europeans used to be the exclusive objects of these kinds of slurs. Americans often were the dispensers. East Germany’s Kornelia Ender, the Kristin Otto of 1976, looked like a man to the female swimmers in her churning wake, but not to the male swimmers, and certainly not to Roland Matthes; he married her. To add then that an East German cleared last week’s clouds is probably a bit dramatic, because they never completely dispersed. But the way Heike Drechsler lost first the long jump to Joyner-Kersee and then the 200- meter run to Griffith Joyner did have a gentle quality of sunshine peeking through. Drechsler practically had to race from one event to the other, yet the obvious pleasure she took in the winners’ company and her own achievement was somehow encouraging and brought back something swimming’s Matt Biondi had said before the depression set in, “I’m as proud of my bronze as I am of any of my golds.”

Naturally, the U.S. basketball team was inconsolable with its bronze, though it needn’t have been. As appealing in victory as Drechsler had been in defeat, the grandfatherly U.S.S.R. coach, Alexander Gomelsky, 60, thanked the Americans earnestly for inventing the game he loves and for upgrading it all the time. “I am basketball man,” he said when the specter was raised of the N.B.A.’s participation next time. “I think is good. I know Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan is not possible to beat this year. Maybe after ten years is possible.” The Soviet center and centerpiece, 7-ft. 3-in. Arvidas Sabonis, seems bound for the Portland Trailblazers. “He’s very great,” Gomelsky said with a beautiful sigh.

Within a couple of hours, another very great Olympian was celebrating. Jim Abbott, the winning pitcher in America’s championship baseball game against Japan, shrugged in reply to a recurring question, “I just learned to play with one hand.” He has only one finger on the other, so the demonstration sport demonstrated that physical perfection at the Olympic Games can be overprized. “There’s something to be said for winning a gold medal in a team sport,” he mused. “To be able to hug everybody and say, ‘Yeah.’ It increases it 20 times over.” Until it is large enough that no one has to squint or imagine. The place of innocence is no illusion: it exists. It’s somewhere in a pileup of kids whose medals didn’t even count.

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