Among the more amusing anecdotes testifying to the quadrennial Olympics' latent capacity for sheer nuttiness over the many years is this little gem, culled from a 1984 Atlantic Monthly essay written by Stefan Kanfer, a scholar of the often wacky subject.
It seems back in the 1970s IOC head Avery Brundage, who never met a despot he didn't like, invited the Shah of Iran to bid for the 1984 Games. Among Brundage's fiercest determinations (and he had many) was the desire to give every corner of the earth -- no matter how remote or turbulent -- a chance to host the festival. It was a privilege the Middle East had never enjoyed.
So even after the Shah got chased into early retirement by the Ayatollah Khomeni, in that historic upheaval you no doubt fondly recall, the Iranians remained serious contenders even though they had imposed one extraordinary condition. The Iranians made it very clear that there would be no marathon staged in any "Tehran Games" on the precious soil of ancient Persia.
After all, the fabled 26 mile foot-race was inspired by the epic battle won by the Greeks over the Persians in the memorable showdown for control of the ancient world that ended in 480 BC. Some 2,500 years later that little matter was "still a preoccupation" for Iranians, the IOC was informed. The festival's signature event and strongest link to its ancient roots would therefore be quite impossible.
As it turned out, by 1984 Brundage was gone, Iran was warring with Iraq, and the Games were in LA. Nearly 30 years later Tehran and all the Middle East remain unfulfilled in their quaint yearning to have a slice of the action. Some might say they don't know how lucky they are, although I would not count myself among them. Wacky as they may sometimes be, the Games persist and remain worth having; just as long as it's not in your own backyard.
The Olympics are masters of survival. In their modern revival they've prevailed over terror, two world wars, dozens of smaller ones, professionalism, bribery, Hitler, drugs, bankruptcy, Brundage, blood-doping, huckstering, profiteering, politicking, egregious nationalism, suffocating bureaucracy, runaway hypocrisy, and television. They consistently get mired in mindless disputes rooted in enmities so old and deep none can recall how they began and fewer still any longer care. Yet the Games triumph. For that, you can thank the athletes. And the athletes alone!
Given the nature of the times it was inevitable that pessimism for the British Games -- centered but hardly confined to London -- would scale unprecedented heights. In official circles there was fear. Heads of state held their breath. All over there were predictions of chaos. Grumbling among the workaday stiffs of the jolly olde land was widespread and entirely reasonable.
Then an American presidential candidate who is a presumed expert on the subject came along on the eve of the opening and pronounced the preparations inadequate, inferring smartly that the worst should be expected. It was not a very useful contribution to the discussion, let alone statesmanlike. It's a matter of some delight that all the prophets of doom -- very much including the American politician -- now look rather silly.
You can thank the Brits. No matter how much they grumble, they always rise to the occasion. Having been there and done it before -- no matter what "it" happens to be -- rather helps, one supposes. They stiff upper-lipped their way through three weeks of mass confusion and high demand, with a certain cheeky patience and charm while mocking the anxieties along the way. Take a bow, mates.
It was the second time in memory the Brits have done a smashing job in highly difficult circumstances to give the Games and the concomitant cause of international good will a terrific boost. In 1948, with the nation still digging out from the rubble of the Blitz and its populace still on rations while struggling to get back on its collective feet, they revived the Olympics with an effort old-timers insist was the most gallant in the history of the opus. Gifted as they are at high pomp and artful circumstance, no one does it better.
Over the years the establishment of a permanent home for the Olympics has often been proposed; an idea that makes too much sense to have much chance of prevailing. But should it ever get wings the Pooh-Bahs decked-out in their very best blue blazers ought to crawl on their hands and knees to the Queen Herself and beg to be allowed to turn her realm into an international playground every four years. Methinks she would not be amused.
On the fields of play where it most counts these games were simply wonderful. They are always dandy but this time the levels of intensity as well as excellence seemed ratcheted higher than ever. No doubt it has something to do with genetics and even more with the sharpening fury of the competitive nations who increasingly see this stuff as a vehicle of self-promotion. Every country has an agenda. The small-fry seek to be the mouse that roars. The big-shots see it as a measure of their legitimacy.
That it's become more a thing about "nations" than "athletes" can be deplored until the cows come home but there's not a dang thing that can be done about that unless you ban all the anthems and burn all the flags and dress all the competitors in plain white duds, sans frills. Fat chance!
The strident Nationalism is out of control. The Americans are the worst offenders if only because they are the dominant presence both in terms of numbers and noise. Their rhythmic "USA" chants get downright belligerent. Once upon a time we laughed at the Germans for such antic behavior, bordering sometimes on mere idiocy. Enough, already!
Moreover, why is it such a big deal that the US should finish on top? As the richest and most powerful country with the largest budget, finest facilities, and most extensive educational system for the grooming of performers what possible excuse might we have when we don't? It seems more impressive that Britain with about one-sixth the population should win well more than half as many medals.
It would help if the so-called "Medal count" were not so aggressively emphasized. But there's even less chance of that being curbed with the media led by the all-embracing octopus of a TV network that's in charge understanding so well that gold, silver, and bronze are the coin of the realm. Otherwise, NBC did a fine job. The immensity of the task is almost beyond comprehension. Bob Costas reaffirmed that he's the absolute best. Did he have a single slip of the tongue in 17 days, or ever drift into banality? Many others did well but we could have done better with less cheerleading.
The Games remain less than perfect. It remains an embarrassment to have our so-called "Dream-team'"of NBA all-stars annihilate third-world patsies en route to another "Gold." Did they really have to whip poor Nigeria by 63 points? Do they have no shame?
Something was lost when they let the professionals with their enormous wealth, majesty, and ego intrude upon this show. On the other hand, there was no such complaint when Andy Murray gallantly whipped Roger Federer in the tennis finals in one of the more wonderful moments of the entire festival.
But then some would ask, what is tennis or basketball doing in these Games? Why shouldn't the Olympics be restricted to all the sporting disciplines that don't dominate our attentions all the rest of the time which, of course, was once the case. Maybe they should bring back tug-of-war, once a major event. It's a bit of a dilemma. The games have become swollen. They've been trying to get it right more than a century and will keep at it, no doubt.
In the meantime, we can celebrate in memory a long chorus line of splendid youth who made this frolic that Red Smith used to like to call "the global clambake" one of the happiest and most glorious ever. Given the nature of the times, that was quite a gift.