Olympics

Here we go again. That quadrennial monument to wretched excess called “The Olympic Games” in all of its sound, fury and bombast is about to alternately enthrall and infuriate us.

My money this time is on there being a lot more of the former than the latter. That’s an opinion vested in a huge respect for the Chinese people and genuine amazement at the miracle they have wrought over the last generation.

These Games, I believe, have every chance to be the best of the modern era, which dates back to the breakout Olympiad of 1960 in Rome when the concept veritably exploded.

Of course, the Conventional Wisdom here in the West seems mighty skeptical. There are indeed legitimate concerns about these Games and all that is foolish to dispute. But acknowledging that a task will be tough, even hazardous, and harping on all the ways it could go wrong are two very different things.

It has seemed in the long lead-up that the Western CW is rooting for problems, and rooting for the Chinese to endure embarrassment, and rooting even for them to fail and thereby be reduced as a people and deflated as a nation.

This unreasonable attitude comes as no great surprise to this observer, a seasoned cynic. No matter the subject, the CW always tends to delight in the nasty game of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Here we go again. Everyone is agitating about the intrusions of politics and cultural clashes and meddlesome government interventions and ancient enmities with all of it threatening to mar what’s supposed to be lyric games of speed, strength and grace that celebrate the promise of youth.

Once again, it is the potential for controversy that commands the greatest focus. The reason is simple, although few can bring themselves to admit it. People love the tensions and turmoil. Take away all the nationalistic nonsense featuring all the anthems, and flag-waving, and grossly excessive attention on the medals’ competition of the nations, and the thing would bomb. The passions that fire the Games are not so different from those that inspire all other forms of international agitation up to and including warfare itself. It has been so since the Games were conceived a mere 2,784 years ago.

John Kieran--noted wit, savant, New York Times columnist, and giant of the radio days as host of “Information Please”--spent his last years ruminating up in Rockport and among his many works was a notable history of the Olympics. John’s erudite study makes clear that the modern Games are just as wild, wooly, and downright wacky as the ancient ones done by the Greeks. Some points that John makes include:

According to Pindar, the Greek poet, Zeus and Kronos, mightiest of the gods, wrestled for possession of Earth itself on the high peaks hovering above the playing fields of Olympus. So the early games, beginning in 776 B.C., were religious rites and woe be to he who defiled them. Coroebus of Elis won the first event; a 200-meter footrace in a meadow. He was crowned with a wreath of wild olive laced in a garland woven from the twigs of a tree Hercules had planted in the sacred grove of the Temple of Zeus.

The winner brought glory and the favor of the gods to his province or town and in return was honored for his lifetime. But when Ebotas was the winner in 752, his hometown of Achaia was insufficiently adoring, in his opinion. So he slapped a curse upon the place and for the next 296 years, Achaia won nothing and suffered hard times. Finally, on the advice of the Oracle of Delphi, the good burghers woke up and raised a statue of the long-dead Ebotas. Bingo! Sostratus of Archaia promptly won the foot race for boys in 456 B.C. and all was well again.

The year that chariot races (since dropped) were added to the program, the winner was Pelops, a youthful warrior, and the prize was the hand of the lovely Princess Hippodamia, daughter of King Enomaus. But before Pelops prevailed, 13 other chaps failed and all 13 were promptly put to the sword by would-be father-in-law, Enomaus.

As the games grew in size and expanded in reach they got nastier. By about 300 B.C. they were boxing with mailed fists in an event called “The Pancratium” and fatalities were routine. So too was cheating. When at one Olympiad a boxer used dirty tactics to kill an opponent, the judges banished him in disgrace and awarded the championship to the opponent who was, of course, dead. But he was crowned, nevertheless. Interesting!

The first games to be scandalized were in 344 B.C. when Eupolus of Thessaly was convicted of bribing three opponents to fix fights. He was disgraced, heavily fined, and banished. By now the Games had their own formal code of honor and violators paid a stiff fine.

Inevitably, the Games were for men only until well into the third century B.C. It was Belisiche of Macedonia who liberated them by posing as a man and winning the chariot race at the 128th Olympiad. You may recall that was precisely the manner by which the Boston Marathon was finally purged of its gender hang-up some 2,300 years later. They call it “progress.”

The point is made. When you get right down to it the Games haven’t changed that much over the last three millennia.

China will have its hands full these two weeks. They have prepared as no nation ever has. The people, driven by a stunning pride, a remarkable sincerity and the touching conviction that the Games are their ticket to acceptance on the world stage, have made a Herculean effort to achieve the near impossible. With their phenomenal work ethic and surpassing attention to detail you can bet on the games running like clockwork as long as extraneous pressures do not overwhelm them.

But they need breaks from forces well beyond their control like--above all--the weather. They need Beijing to be dry while the hot winds that roll off mountains and desert to the north and west stay temperate. But they also need the softer, gentler breezes out of the south and east to flow easily and move along the industrial smog that sits over the center of the country like a straightjacket all summer. If it sounds like a contradiction that’s because that’s what it is.

Yet the physical factors--variables of climate and weather that will affect the quality of the games--are minor compared with the political and public relations issues that could affect this nation’s status in the world community long after all is said and done. Should there be incidents, how will they deal with them? The government has implacable foes. Can it be goaded into reactions that will make them look like fools? The notion that these games can be protected from politics has always been absurd but no host-nation has ever been more vulnerable. If a huge and highly accomplished international media corps gets aggressive, will that ancient neurosis that has so long confounded China’s better judgment again prevail?

People make light of China’s fear of the outside world. Many are derisive about that. But if you know a little history or take the pains to do so, you may discover that the “outside world” hasn’t always treated China very well.

Anne and I had the great pleasure of visiting China this past spring for the better part of three weeks. We are stunned by what they have accomplished. Much may remain to be done. But their strides of the last 20 odd years compare brilliantly with the forward thrust of any nation in the annals of time over a comparable period and that includes our own. This country deserves a break.

Let the Games begin. We are rooting for China!

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