The American basketball team lost; the Iraqi soccer team won. The swimmer who was going to collect eight gold medals will now have to struggle to win seven (and $1 million in bonus money put up by Speedo). A couple of Greek runners ducked a drug test by faking a motorcycle accident. An Iranian judoist has refused to compete with an Israeli. (A story about a Muslim who refuses to fight a Jew ought to be good news, but not, evidently, this time around.) Not many spectators have showed up to watch, but on the up side, no terrorists have come to blow things up and kill people.
The Olympics–summer style–are back. It happens every four years (more or less), going back to 1896 and the birth of the modern games. A Frenchman named de Coubertin believed that a revival of the ancient Olympics–during which the various Greek city states stopped making war on each other to compete in foot races and javelin tossing–might help mankind transcend the old perils of nationalism, war, and so forth. It was a sweatier vision of the United Nations: a manifestation of globalism before anyone had–mercifully–ever used the word.
Since then, of course, nationalism and war have pretty much been the overarching themes of the Olympics. The games were called off for two World Wars. Jimmy Carter imposed an American boycott of the 1980 Moscow games in retaliation for the invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets sat out the next edition in Los Angeles. The 1936 Berlin games are remembered for their vulgar Nazi grandiosity and the way Hitler attempted to use them to establish Aryan superiority in athletics. Sprinter Jesse Owens, an American black man, denied him this one triumph in just about the only setback Hitler suffered that year.
During the Cold War, the games were seen as a measure of which system would prevail in the great ideological struggle. If the Soviets–and their East German puppets–had ever learned to make cars and computers as efficiently and expertly as they produced weight lifters, hammer throwers, and swimmers, they might have ruled the world. Even the wretched of the earth got in on the politicization of the Olympics when Palestinian terrorists infiltrated the 1972 Munich Games and managed to do what they do best: kill themselves and a bunch of innocents (in this case, Israeli athletes).
Terrorism is on the minds of everyone this time around. The games are in Athens, Greece, and this is a bad neighborhood. The cost of security is expected to exceed $1.5 billion and involve some 70,000 police and military personnel. Ships from NATO’s Mediterranean fleet will be patrolling the coast, and the skies will be secured by airplanes and at least one blimp that will not be up there to sell tires.
One is tempted to ask how NATO justifies this lavish deployment to defend foot races and wrestling matches while ignoring what is going on in, say, Sudan. But the Olympics are an elaborate, comforting illusion, and people will pay any price to defend it. The truth, however, is that hard political feelings and the lust for enemy blood (and heads) are not going vanish in a spirit of international goodwill and brotherhood while the world watches synchronized swimming and table tennis in Athens.
For believers, the individual athletes and contests aren’t really the point. The crucial thing is that the games themselves succeed. These days, they are setting the success bar fairly low. If there are no suicide bombings, kidnappings, or murders, then the games will be considered a triumph. We can all drink a Coca-Cola (or is it a Pepsi?) and sing “We are the world; we are the people.”
NBC and its affiliates will be televising some 1,200 hours of the Games. The total from the last five Olympics was just over 1,000 hours. Along with the commercials and the actual events there will, no doubt, be many stories about athletes who have overcome personal tragedy on their way to glory. This is television’s way of appealing to viewers who aren’t really dying to see whether Michael Phelps can equal the seven gold medals in swimming that Mark Spitz won in 1972 at Munich.
Even before this year’s Games formally began, there was one story that genuinely transcended the ordinary “winners and losers” narrative. In a preliminary match, the Iraqi soccer team beat the heavily favored Portuguese, 4-2. It was the greatest victory in the history of Iraqi sports, and the players managed to pull it off even without the threat of torture if they lost (which was how they had been motivated by Uday Hussein under the previous regime). The thrill of victory was so intoxicating that the Iraqi team followed up on that first improbable coup with a 2-0 win over Costa Rica, advancing to the quarter finals.
This victory has to be sweeter than any Allen Iverson will ever experience. Iverson and the other millionaires on the American basketball team that lost to Puerto Rico–Puerto Rico?–by almost 20 points, are evidence of just how far from the initial ideal of “amateurism” the Olympics have wandered. Money was once considered corrupting to the spirit of the Games, but those concerns now seem quaint. These days, drugs are the big worry. The American track and field team has already been rocked by a drug scandal, and now the host country has been scandalized by the suspension of its two great runners, who tried to dodge a mandatory screening. Next to bomb sniffing, urine testing is probably the hottest sideline going at the Olympics. Even so, no matter how much testing is done, there will be suspicions throughout the games that some winners are “dirty.”
The Olympics have strayed a bit from the ideals of their founders, but that they have been tainted by the real world shouldn’t surprise anyone. Still, for all the corruption and commercialism, the Games are part of things these days–and are just about impossible to ignore. The trick is to find something to get excited about during the extravaganza in Athens. Me? I’m curious to see if American wrestler Rulon Gardner, who won a gold in Sydney, can do it again without the toes he lost to frostbite when he got lost in the woods. I’ll pass on the badminton.
–Geoffrey Norman writes on sports for NRO and other publications.