ATHENS, Greece - What you remember about an Olympics probably says a lot about who you are. Is it Paul Hamm and the ugly gymnastics controversy that continues to fester like an unwashed wound? Or is it the golden performances of Michael Phelps, the American sprinters, and the American women’s soccer and softball teams?
Do you think of the failure of the outfit formerly known as the Dream Team as an embarrassment and a blot on the glorious history of U.S. basketball, or as the dawn of a new era of intense international competition that will ensure that future Olympics are packed with excitement and emotion?
Is the record for Olympic drug busts a stain on sports or a positive sign that the IOC and strict anti-doping testing are finally catching up on the cheaters and cleaning up the competition?
Do you go with half-full or half-empty?
Games offer the world's best athletics
I may as well admit it. From the time I was first aware of sports, I have been an unabashed fan of the Olympics. To me, the Games have always represented the best that athletic competition has to offer. With the death of the artificial and oft-circumvented "amateur ideal," the Olympics are today what they were when they began sometime in the eighth century B.C. – the place where athletes come to find out which is the greatest in the world.
We are a scandal-loving society, reveling in the shame of others even as we self-righteously inveigh against their sins. The Lacey Peterson case, at bottom a garden-variety domestic tragedy, is a far greater national story, commanding more and bigger headlines, than is federal energy policy, which will only determine how our children and grandchildren will live.
So it is natural that the things that go wrong at the Olympics command the headlines. And the case of Hamm, the gymnast who won the all-around gold medal because of an irreversible scoring mistake by the officials, has all the elements that make Olympic-bashers as excited as a glutton at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Fie on FIG. I was the first to write that if Hamm were smart, he would have hung the medal around the neck of Yang, the Korean he beat and gone down in history as the sort of sportsman they used to write songs about. But I also said it was his decision, because he’d won the medal by the rules, and no one could take it from him.
Gymnastics subjective? Who cares?
Later, judges admitted they elevated the scores of a Russian gymnast in an apparatus final to placate a hostile crowd. That was at the urging of officials from FIG, the same outfit that had the audacity to lecture Hamm about proper behavior.
Gymnastics is one of the most popular sports in the Olympics, and it will remain so. Women adore it and even men get hooked on it. The tricks the athletes perform are incredible. And if the judging makes us curse and fume, so what? The point is we remember it, and when the Olympics come around again, we’ll be glued to the set.
From where I sit, the controversy just adds to the show. It also reminds us that nothing in life is perfect, and play that is utterly fair is an ideal, not a reality. And all anyone can do in sports or in life is to do his or her best and let the proverbial chips fall where they may. And if the chips are loaded with sour-cream dip and land on your new Persian rug, you deal with it.
I’m in the half-full camp on the Olympics. If you look at the totality of these Games, the only conclusion at which you can arrive is that they have been a rousing success.
A month before the torch that looks like a doobie was lit, Athens was in chaos. Even the Greeks, who always figure they’ll get things done an instant before the absolute final deadline, had their doubts about whether it would all come together in time.
But they got the roof on the stadium, the subway stations opened, the trains ran on time, the armies of volunteers were unfailingly friendly, the athletes have been universally adoring in their comments on the way things have been run.
And the city that gave birth to Western Civilization with all its warts and blemishes has been a marvelous host, opening its sprawling sidewalk cafes and tavernas long into the night and early morning to the world.
Not worried about terrorists
When I left the States to come here, nearly everyone I knew asked me if I was worried about terrorists. I honestly said I wasn’t. But I was in the minority. Some news organizations sent their writers here with body armor and gas masks. Mine sent me with a pen and notepad. It’s all I thought I’d need, and all I have needed.
There hasn’t been a hint of terrorism or violence around these games. The delays caused by the by now routine checks of baggage have been minimal. And even the clouds of dust on the unfinished plaza around the Olympic Stadium haven’t dimmed the enthusiasm of the crowds.
The competition was so good, only someone even crankier than I am could have complained about the few inconveniences. Michael Phelps put on a performance in the pool that, because of the enormously greater depth of the competition, was even better than Mark Spitz’ seven gold medals in 1972. Phelps won six gold and two bronze, then stuck around to celebrate on the field with the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team when they said goodbye to their five founding sisters with their second Olympic gold medal.
The rest of the swimming team did a pretty good job, too, and Gary Hall Jr. ticked off everybody with his boasting and bitching, then nailed down one of the most exciting 50-meter freestyle competitions ever seen.
Women’s teams excelled everywhere, with the softball team running the table – nine wins, no losses, one run surrendered, a third straight gold medal.
But the track team is the one that continues to stupefy the world. Despite a surprise medal in the women’s marathon, for the most part, if U.S. runners have to go farther than 400 meters, they get in the car. But up to and including that distance, they are unbeatable.
It defies reason. Top runners no longer have to beat a few other countries, the entire world is running and training, trying to win gold. Yet the United States keeps dominating the sprints. First and third in perhaps the best men’s 100 ever, a sweep in the men’s 200, another sweep in the men’s 400.
Those eight medals in three events may be the most stunning achievement of any one team in these games, certainly up there with Phelps’ individual triumph.
Much U.S. Olympic glory
There was so much more. A British four-man scull winning a gold medal by an inch, then, after throwing up, rowing over in front of the grandstand and singing "God Save the Queen" and other classic British hits with their fans. The U.S. Women’s Beach Volleyball team winning gold, then individually thanking and hugging the ball boys and officials. An American winning the country’s first gold in fencing. Rulon Gardner winning the bronze medal, then leaving his shoes on the mat.
Okay, so as of Monday 22 athletes got drummed out of town for anti-doping violations. I see that as an indication that the testers are finally closing in on the cheaters and that the penalties for getting caught – and the likelihood of that happening – is starting to clean up the games.
Call the glass half-full if you want. From where I sit, it’s just a few sips short of brimming full.
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