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Why we need the Olympics more than ever

Try as I might, I cannot remember how many points Michael Jordan scored in the '92 Olympics. I do, however, remember a runner named Derek Redmond limping across a finish line with the help of his father.

For the life of me, I cannot remember Carl Lewis' distance in his final long jump back in '96. I do, however, remember the way Kerri Strug wobbled as she landed a vault on what she believed to be a broken ankle.

If I ever knew how many world records Ian Thorpe held, I have forgotten. But I still remember how Eric "The Eel" Moussambani, an athlete from Equatorial Guinea who could barely swim, nearly drowned in the Sydney pool in 2000.

This is why, for all its warts, for all its critics, the Games still matter.

In the Olympics, it is not the times, not the points, not even the records that matter. What matters are the moments, those golden memories that linger long after the competition is over.

Few sports are like that. This year's Super Bowl winner may be next year's, too, and this year's World Series champion might have won it last year. But at the Olympics, the best moments often are once in a lifetime, and because of that, the emotions of the competition are dialed up beyond ordinary athletics. The winners seem happier. The losers cry harder.

Which is why we still need the Olympics. Now more than ever.

Oh, there are those who will tell you the Games are dead already. And it is true that the times have tried their best to kill them. The Games have been strangled by commercialism, smothered by politics and poisoned with drug scandals. Big money has stripped away our ideals, and crooked judges have shaken our faith.

Despite it all, the Olympics still work. And thank goodness for it.

Another torch will be lit this week in Beijing, and already the snarling in the background threatens to drown out the anthems. Yes, given its history of oppression and its mistrust of free expression, China seems like an odd site for the Olympics. Toss in the pollution and the politics, and it is easy to wonder how the Games ever ended up there. Yes, there will be protests. Yes, there will be problems. Aren't there always?

Sometimes, it is odd to hear people carp about the politics that surround the Games as if that is something new. Politics has been in the Olympics for a hundred years. There have been boycotts and protests and controversies.

People expect too much of the Olympics. They seem to expect them to stop wars and end hostilities. They expect world leaders to suddenly turn into athletes embracing at the finish line. That didn't happen at the 1936 Olympics. It won't happen this year, either.

Have the Olympics changed? Certainly. With the loss of the amateur athlete, the Games seem to have lost much of their purity. These days, some athletes seem to show more allegiance to their sponsors than to their nations. Some are even willing to switch nations for a big paycheck.

Also, the Games are harder to watch. Three of the last six Olympics, including Beijing, have been held in places double-digit hours away, which means medals are often being awarded over breakfast in America.

Just as important, the rest of us have changed, too. Once, the Games were a nice little diversion in the months when major sports didn't seem to matter as much. These days, with the Internet and 24-hour sportscasts, it always seems to be football or baseball season. Yes, the Olympics still matter; but it is fair to say they matter to fewer people.

It's a shame. These Olympics will feature Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff and Usain Bolt and Shawn Johnson and Yao Ming and Dara Torres and Libby Trickett and the rest of them. There will be tears and joy and strange anthems and amazing stories that you will uncover as the competition continues.

There is something cool about that, too. With most professional sports, there isn't much to learn about an athlete by the time he reaches the championship. With the Olympics, every event is a bit of discovery.

In that way, at least, the Games are a grand notion. Much of what you think of Australia may be because of its history of fine swimmers. Much of what you think of Cuba might be because of its excellent boxers.

And now, we will find out more about the nation of China, about table tennis players and divers and swimmers. Maybe about the rest of the country, too. To ask more of the Olympics, or of any athletic event, is asking too much.

Let's be honest. For the most part, America doesn't seem to care much about track or swimming, and it cares even less about the picnic sports such as archery and volleyball and badminton. But add an American flag and an anthem and call it the Olympics, and we'll find a way to watch.

And, yes, we'll watch the Olympic basketball team, too. I've said it before, but I'm not a fan of highly paid professionals in the Olympics. The rule of thumb should be this: If the Olympics is the biggest event an athlete will ever win, he should compete. If it isn't, he shouldn't. And if this basketball team has to settle for silver, frankly, I think LeBron James will manage to get over it.

James can have his money. He can have his celebrity. He can have his points. As for me, give me a moment.

Give me an America swimmer named Ron Karnaugh as he wears the straw hat of his recently deceased father onto the starting blocks, or a wrestler named Rulon Gardner bouncing around after upsetting the seemingly unbeatable Aleksandr Karelin, or a diver named Greg Louganis gathering himself after striking his head on the board.

These days, you have to look past a lot of ugliness to see it sometimes.

At the Olympics, however, the gold shines as bright as ever.

Why we need the Olympics more than ever 08/01/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 4, 2008 4:30pm]
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