DO the Olympic games bring countries together or foster antagonism?
I was intrigued by the question after I heard former Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg on NPR this week say he doesn’t believe in the pollyanna view. He said they don’t bring countries together but rather, with the focus on medal counts and winning at all costs (including cheating), they ramp up nationalism and increase global friction.
Certainly, there isn’t any love being shown to the Democratic, western-leaning country of Georgia by Russia. And inside China, the government’s clampdown on free speech — the jailing of dissident group members and underground church pastors — hasn’t produced a “We’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony” Coke moment.
Add this to the usual gymnastic judging disputes, throw in the latest wrinkle of athletes playing for other countries for the money (see: South Dakota’s Becky Hammon earning $2 million to play basketball for Team Russia) and your Olympic bubble is burst.
So many of course had their bubbles popped during the doping scandals of recent years. In Sydney in 2000, American television could not get enough of track star Marion Jones. But she was stripped of her five gold medals after lying and eventually admitting she used performance-enhancing drugs. She watched these games from a jail cell.
There is a feeling of distrust that lingers every time an athlete breaks a world record. You can’t help but hear the whispers. I certainly hope that is not the case with the winners in Beijing. And so far, for the most part, the athletes have not flunked drug tests.
Now, bad feelings between China and the United States are growing because of an investigation into the age of Chinese gymnasts who under IOC rules, must be 16 years old.
One can’t escape the cloud of past cheating that lingers over the games like a blanket of Beijing smog. And Rosenberg may be right about the Olympics lacking a world peace bump.
But having been a spectator in two summer Olympic games, I can’t shake the feeling of closeness to all peoples — Americans, Europeans, Asians and Africans — that pervaded at those games. I can only conclude that being there is way different than watching a delayed media event that is sanitized and jingo-ized before it reaches your living room.
As I look back, it was the little things that made me realize we are all human, we are all of the same planet.
In Los Angeles in 1984, there was so much of the positive. Recently I was reminded of that day we watched Carl Lewis win the 100 meter race, grab the American flag and do a victory lap. He later also won gold in the 200, a record that was broken just this week by phenom Usain Bolt of Jamaica.
That same hot day, my wife, myself and friends found shade under white tents at USC and drank cool ale in the “Olympic Beer Garden” set up by the U.S. and other nations. Today, if you go to USC, a small plaque marks the spot of that international watering hole.
I will never forget attending team handball at Cal State Fullerton’s tiny gymnasium during the ’84 Olympics and being swept up in Team Iceland fans’ enthusiasm as they chanted “Ees-lund!” “Ees-lund!” The Iceland fans welcomed me in and taught me how to cheer Icelandic.
While the Atlanta games certainly had their problems, I’ll always remember watching Michael Johnson run the 200 meter and set the fastest time. Again, as that record was broken this week in Beijing, the TV cameras flashed on Johnson. I thought he would be sad. Instead, he jumped and cheered — again for Bolt — who surpassed his record time by running the race in 19.30 seconds.
Johnson’s sportsmanship, Carl Lewis’s class, Iceland’s fans, trading Olympic pins … these are a few Olympic memories that may not bring world peace, but from time to time bring a smile to my heart.