• U.S.

Olympics: Why We Play These Games

18 minute read
Roger Rosenblatt

Eight thousand banners, did you say? Covering 120 miles of Los Angeles? Hanging from 300 different types of lampposts? O.K. Some of the brackets for the banners had to be different too; a real headache. Certainly not, you wouldn’t want to use just any colors. Had to be magenta, vermilion, chrome yellow, violet, aqua. “Festive Federalism,” the designers call it. (What does that mean?) Oh, sorry. Please go on. You were talking about construction: 3,500 construction workers at 67 different (sites, including Olympic Villages, places for the Games, training facilities, parking lots. That is, if the cars can get there. Gridlock city, eh? No! Fifty-two miles of chain-link fence? Well, you can’t be too careful. By all means, read the grocery list for the athletes. Pork, 63,700 Ibs.; beef, 206,555 Ibs.; 70,000 dozen eggs. (You do deliver?) You say that if someone laid those eggs end to end they’d stretch for 25 miles? One pooped chicken. That’s a joke, son. No harm, no foul.

But where is the center of this thing? No, not the $525 million budget or the anticipated infusion of $3.3 billion into the local economy or the 269,000 dozen cookies. One million new trees planted by a conservation group? Good for them. Nothing like a tree. The question is why. Why, as the magenta was going up at the Los Angeles Coliseum, were 7,800 athletes from 140 nations loading their gear and kissing Mother goodbye? Numbers? Here’s a number. On July 28, 2 billion people of the great trembling bipolar world will lay down their washing and watch these Games. Why?

Looking mighty Establishment in his white open-collar shirt and navy-blue suit, John Carlos sits at a table in the headquarters of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, where he now works. Behind one shoulder the American flag, behind the other the Olympic. But for a bum ankle, he says, he could still tear up the track. The last time we saw John Carlos was 1968 on a podium in Mexico City, standing in the grainy evening light rigid as an exclamation point. The black-power salute; an antique of the ’60s. He is speaking of something else:

“I was a fair-to-exciting swimmer. I guess I put as much energy into swimming at that age [ten] as I ever did into track and field. I wanted to swim the English Channel. I told my father: I want to know something about this English Channel. Why are these people swimming it? How does one swim with, you know, the sharks? How do swimmers go to the bathroom? What happens in the night? And then I learned about the Olympic Games. And I said: Oh, wow. I’d like to do that.

“Then I started to ask more questions about swimming. And my father pulled me aside, and he said: Look. Swimming is a bad way to go. You have to be in the water at least six, seven hours a day. He said: Where would you train? You can’t train in the Harlem River; you lose seven or eight guys a year drowning, which is true. And he said you can’t go to the ocean. The water’s too rough. He said you can’t go to the public pool; everybody’s trying to cool off. Everything he said made sense. So I started to walk off like with my lip stuck out. And he tapped me on the shoulder and he said: Look, man, the heaviest hasn’t come yet. They have private clubs, but you can’t join any of them. And I said: Why? Because we can’t afford it? He said no. Because you’re colored; they won’t let you in. So I walked off in a kind of mystic mood, dejected but not dejected. My old man looked at me and asked: Well, what you going to do? You gonna quit? Just look around and find something else.”

Where is the center of this thing? A man who learned how fast his legs could move because as a boy he outran cops in Harlem, who worked out in cordovan shoes on the F.D.R. Drive because his father was a cobbler and cordovans last? Does one watch the Olympics to see a spectacle of individuals? A festival of nerve? Perhaps something collective as well. Something. America bursts into song at the torch relay, and 7 million tickets go on sale.

But they said the boycott would kill the Games. Evidently not. No boycott has done real damage; not the U.S. boycott in 1980 or that of the Africans in 1976 or of some Arab states in 1956 in response to the crisis over Suez. As for this year of Soviet revenge, not only are more nations than ever sending delegations, but people are saying that the Games may be better off without an East-West brawl. Quieter countries will get a chance to strut.

But they said commercialism would kill the Games. Hardly. In a world where weapons are sold like hot cakes, who really worries about getting and spending at a sports event? To the contrary, the commercialism feels right, at least it does for the U.S. Competition in the Games, competition around them. Ever see an amateur capitalist?

So Botswana, a land so arid that its currency is called rain, proudly sends a yachtsman to represent the nation. And Israel cheers 30 athletes and promises 1,000 tourists, though the country has yet to win a single medal. This will be Communist China’s first major presence in the Olympics; they are bringing a contingent of 353. Egypt and Italy will be sending the largest delegations they have ever sent. Singapore wouldn’t miss it; except for boycotting in 1980, that country has participated in every Olympics since 1948.

Even war does not get in the way. Lebanon sends (fittingly) a team of skeet and trapshooters. (On the TV news recently, the shooters complained—seriously—that they were not getting enough practice.) The Irelands unite North and South for a moment to create a single team. Astonishingly, the Koreas considered doing the same. They matter, these Games: to Belgium’s cyclists, Argentina’s single sculler, Holland’s swimmers, the boxers from the Seychelles. India’s field hockey team is out to prove something against Pakistan. Kenya’s long-distance runners have things to prove to themselves. Cheers for the Chadians. Hail to the Swazis. Where else would these people come together so eagerly? Not the U.N.

Is this the center, then? An international Woodstock? “The Olympic flame is the only hope for brotherhood, understanding and dialogue,” says Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee. What else would he say? “The Olympics are the only times in the history of the world when so many nations come together in one spot in an association of friendship,” says Charles Palmer, president of the British Olympic Association. Vested interest. According to Kurthan Fisek, a professor of public management from the University of Ankara, “No single institution in the entire history of mankind has been able to equate itself with world peace as effectively and consistently.” Let’s not get carried away.

Yet not all of this is cant. Michael Jordan of the U.S. team pretends not to see the basket, then lunges toward it, as if stumbling on the court. Suddenly he leaps, glides, hangs in the air. The ball is cradled in the palm of his hand at the side of his head. Still flying, he flicks his wrist forward, as if waving hello, and the ball sets off on a flight of its own. When the hoop is scored, Jordan is airborne still. Why are we pleased?

Heroes must be part of the answer. There are those like Jordan, Mary Decker, Carl Lewis who enter the Olympics with greatness already thrust upon them; one will test their performances against their reputations. Better still, sudden heroes always seem to emerge and establish themselves, often in sports one has dismissed as boring or has paid no attention to before. Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci created gymnastics for most Americans, not because Americans never heard of gymnastics, but because they had not seen the sport performed by virtuosos. A subtle surprise of the Olympics is how individuals can transform the events in which they participate. Boxing enrages and disgusts you. Then Sugar Ray Leonard skips into the ring, and the sport is God and country.

Much of the appeal of the Olympics centers on individual heroes, yet heroism in the Games is lightweight; it bears none of the mythic armor of professional sports. With professional athletes, allegories develop with the records; Mantle was pain, Unitas skill, Ali poetry and power. The Olympic Games are too brief for spectators to construct a folklore. Personalities like Nadia float to the top for a few days, but only as they are attached to performances. The hero and the act are one. If an allegorical hero is to be found in the Games, it is youth in general. A time of life is held still. For two weeks nothing ages; at least that is the illusion. The Olympics make the illusion grand. All the world agrees to it.

Individuals compete with one another; that accounts for the Games’ appeal as well. Some athletes claim to be oblivious of the competition, but the audience never is. One need not argue the merits of winning or playing the game. The fact is that the sight of someone winning is a pleasurable thing. A rarity of the times, it is clean and unambiguous. So is losing.

In any Olympic event there is at least one athlete who does not expect to lose. Not she. She has never lost. Yet she will lose today. She will pit her enormous will against her battered body, and come in second, third or ninth. One looks for the shock on her face, beneath the fatigue or despair. The shock is everyone’s.

Individuals also compete against themselves, and the selves are complicated. “More than an athlete, I’m a human being,” said John Carlos. “I have emotions, needs, wants. I got the whole shot.” In every volleyball game, in every foot race one sees the whole shot: mind over matter, mind over mind. John Landy turns his head; Roger Bannister shoots by. On the field it often seems more than a struggle for victory; it seems a struggle for a place in the world, self-assertion through combat. Sometimes it looks sublime—in a dive off the 10-meter platform, on the parallel bars. Sometimes it looks dispassionately cruel. Either way the struggle wins the affection of the crowd, which sees in the exercise of discipline a morality play not necessarily related to sports. Throats godry merely because a fellow human being is doing all that is remotely possible.

For Americans these demonstrations of will connect with their history, or at least they feel that they connect with their history, which comes to the same thing. Everything Americans wish to believe about their national character is housed in sports: vitality, spontaneity, the bursting of bonds. No state religion for the U.S., but sports will do as well. The Puritans condemned games as antispiritual. Their heirs retaliated by fusing holidays with tournaments—football on Thanksgiving, basketball at Christmas—all blasphemies culminating in Super Sunday. Thorstein Veblen contended that sports and religion have the same genesis in a basic “belief in an inscrutable propensity or a preternatural interposition in the sequence of events.” We’ll take his word for it. In simpler terms, Americans make stadiums their churches because they trust that therein lies national virtue. Extolling baseball, Albert Spalding, the sporting-goods king, called the game “the exponent of American Courage, Confidence, Combativeness; American Dash, Discipline, Determination; American Energy, Eagerness, Enthusiasm; American Pluck, Persistency, Performance; American Spirit, Sagacity, Success; American Vim, Vigor, Vitality.” Only real piety could inspire such alliteration.

Whatever else, these displays of individual worth are simply beautiful. In a way, the Games extend definitions of beauty. Why is synchronized swimming no more beautiful than the bulging grimace of a weight lifter? Art rarely pins these things down. Painters miss it. Writers do worse, with exceptions such as Mailer on boxing, Updike on golf, Hemingway on a bobsled run: “A bob shot past, all the crew moving in time, and as it rushed at express train speed for the first turn, the crew all cried ‘Ga-a-a-a-r!’ and the bob roared in an icy smother around the curve and dropped off down the glassy run below.” The ands do it. Everything must keep moving. Housman celebrated an “athlete dying young” because the boy would never have to learn that eventually things slow down, grow old, stop.

The beauty is motion, and motion does not last. Most things ephemeral have limited appeal, but the heart of the Olympics is that things shine for a moment and no more. Did Dwight Stones really clear that bar at 7 ft. 8 in.? One saw it happen a second ago. One saw it again on instant replay. Yet the jump no longer exists, nor can it return. Billy Mills, who won the 10,000-meter run in Tokyo, said, “For one fleeting moment an athlete will know he or she is the best in the world. Then the moment is gone.” Bill Russell, pro basketball’s philosopher, likes the short-term nature of sports because it bespeaks a world of reasonable expectations. “Sports not only claims smaller bits of time,” says Russell, “it also claims smaller bits of truth … The only truth [sports] claims is the score.” Since nothing lasts, pleasure relies on memory. It is not the feats that are preserved but the joy.

Beauty also seems inseparable from excellence. Often the Games provide more than excellence, since mere proficiency presumes existing standards of performance, and some athletes set wholly new standards. “I began to run slowly,” Jesse Owens recalled. “Then faster, gaining speed with each step. My legs were moving at top speed now. I came closer and closer to the takeoff board. At the last moment I shortened my stride and hit the board with a pounding right foot. I felt my body rise in the air, and I scissors-kicked at the peak of it, flying 15, then 20, then 25 ft. through the air—straining closer and closer to the towel. And then I landed—past it!”

Reasons to do with individuals, reasons to do with nations. Ever since the Soviets announced their boycott, there has been much talk of holding a nationless Olympics, individuals competing as individuals alone. Such a plan is unlikely to work; people would identify athletes by nationality no matter what colors they wore. In fact, nationalism seems an attraction, not an impediment to the Games. People belong to nations as to families. Things only sour when nationalism brings intentions outside sports. When the Russians bloodied the Hungarians in a water-polo match in 1956, one was not witnessing nationalism but war.

So much importance is given to mere participation. Governments spend a great deal of money and effort for no purpose but showing up, for taking a place in a community of nations. Many African nations see the Games as a chance to become part of international sports. Carlos Giron, a diver from Mexico, views it wider: “You feel like a citizen of the world.” Mohammed Abdel Meguid Mohyeldin, secretary-general of the Egyptian Olympic Committee, believes that “participation shows you are interested in humanity, not merely sports.”

Such interest creates not one spectacle but two: the spectacle of the Games and that of those watching them. If television cameras had a “reverse gear” that could be applied from country to country, one might see quite a show of Peruvians, Thais and lowans privately gasping and clapping as they watch the action. Excessive communications are said to work against human feelings, but here the effect is the opposite. Not a show of world peace, perhaps, but something valuable, nonetheless, in a shared set of relatively benign emotions on so vast a scale.

Yet the feelings are not entirely formless, either. There are very few historical experiences that the world holds in common. The Olympic Games are one. “A tradition,” says George Liveris, president of the Greek Shooting Federation, and once an Olympic participant. “They are the longest lasting social activity that exists.” Maybe that accounts for the remarkable success of the American torch relay. On the roads, the cheers for the torchbearers came out sounding like old-fashioned patriotism, but the impulse seemed to go both broader and deeper, to a connection with Greece, with the past, with everyone’s past.

Perhaps this connection is tied to the dreams of peaceful coexistence that the Games seem to promote. “The ideological differences between the Greeks of Sparta and Athens were fully as profound as those between the Soviet Union and the United States today,” says Historian and Journalist I.F. Stone. “Nevertheless the Games provided the chief Pan Hellenic festival at which all Hellenic peoples came together under a kind of truce on war and politics.” No sports fan, by his own admission, and no cockeyed optimist either, Stone nonetheless sees the early Games as “a symbol of badly needed unity among the peoples, just as the Olympic Games today could be a symbol of unity among all members of the human race.” The question is what power such a symbol has, and how long its effects survive. It is easy to point to the 1,503-year hiatus between Emperor Theodosius’ suspension and Baron De Coubertin’s resuscitation of the Games and conclude that the world did not need them, but the world has only painted itself into its deadly corner in the past 40 years. If, as Stone says, the Games really are a symbol of the “human fraternity,” who these days would remove such a symbol?

Or is the appeal of the Games simpler than all this? What one has here, after all, are simple contests, simple consequences, the simple delight of observers at basic human activities. Remove the 8,000 banners, the 52 miles of fencing, and the scene is pastoral. Someone jumps or throws a discus. Someone swims. People play ball. Close out the noise, remove the fancy equipment, and one could feel that the Games show the world rediscovering itself in absolute serenity and innocence. Nothing is supposed to be innocent any more, of course, but it is hard to read corruption in the 400-meter freestyle.

In a few days, gridlock. Los Angeles airport will quake with arriving jets. The freeways will turn to stone. Athletes will start digging into the 70,000 dozen eggs. The 3,500 construction workers, having put up the bleachers and the Styrofoam signs, will relax at home, ready to watch ABC’S closeups and moments of Olympic history and expert analyses. No, the hotel never got your reservation. Sorry, this ticket is good only for the first round of archery. The world will look at California, which in turn will look as laid back as Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Yet the place should survive. For the moment there is a mixture of frenzy, anticipation and smog. This Saturday the final torchbearer will be prepared to do the final leg, the name of the runner kept secret till the last minute by L.A.O.O.C. President Peter Ueberroth, who, after five years of haggling, deserves some fun.

Henry David Thoreau (second cousin three times removed) is sitting in the Los Angeles Coliseum, watching the U.S. pigeon team peck away at the grass. The Games are 23 days away. Thoreau is the Olympic commissioner of track and field. Good-natured to his toes, he looks like everyone’s favorite ice-cream man. His seat overlooks the finish line, where all the races will end. Below and around him, workers hammer and drill in preparation for the opening ceremonies. A theater; a set going up. The gateways to the seats have been painted magenta, vermilion, chrome yellow, violet and aqua. The sky is merely blue. Is track and field the center of the Olympics, Mr. Thoreau? Definitely. “Everyone can understand it.”

His second cousin three times removed was all for things readily understood. “Simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth and see where your main roots run.” On a wall outside the Coliseum, the motto of the Games: CITIUS, ALTIUS, FORTIUS—faster, higher, stronger. Simplify the problem. Now the workers are washing the track. A light breeze swirls in the vast cone. Suds fill the lanes where the kids will run.

—By Roger Rosenblatt

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