The spectacle of the XXX Olympiad is in full force as you read this. It was in 1896 that the ancient games were revived, thanks to the dream of the Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin. The Baron was fascinated by the educational aspects of sport and by the enthusiasm that was generated by them. In June 1894, as general secretary of the Union of French Societies of Athletic Sports, he convened a group that was to become the International Olympic Committee. Although it was his desire to host the games in his hometown of Paris, he yielded to history and to Athens. Those first games brought together 311 athletes, contesting 43 events in nine sports. Some two-thirds of the athletes were Greek. Opening and closing events were held in a privately financed stadium, but there was no Olympic Flame. The flame was introduced at the 1928 Amsterdam Games as a symbol of the endeavor for protection and the struggle for victory. The torch run was first a part of the 1936 Berlin Games.
The Olympic ideal is one of a pure love of competition with athletes competing not for themselves, but for their country. With most Olympic competition being contested in the “non-money” sports of track and field, swimming, gymnastics and the like, this was the ideal to which I was first introduced. Yes, there was talk of “professionalism” in the Soviet bloc, but that didn’t seem to hinder the competition.
The Games introduce us to champions and heroes. Jesse Owens, Bob Richards, Bruce Jenner, Olga Korbut, Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, Bob Beamon, Janet Evans, Mark Spitz, and scores of others burst on the world scene with their remarkable performances. For all we knew, their only rewards were gold medals and appearances on Wheaties boxes. It all seems so innocent.
The win at all cost mentality that is a part of the world’s sports culture has resulted in scrapping the concept of the amateur athlete competing on the world stage every four years. I despise the concept of a DREAM TEAM, made necessary by the controversial loss to the Soviets in 1972 and our ugly third place finish in Korea in 1988. The professional all-stars may be the best team ever assembled, but they are failures as Olympians, opting for five star hotels over joining their fellow athletes living in the Olympic Village.
And then of course there is the money. So much endorsement money that repeat business is the norm. Swimmer Missy Franklin has already turned down an estimated quarter million dollars so that she can remain on her high school team. If she strikes gold in London, the endorsements will rise into the millions. Suddenly Missy’s high school career probably won’t appear so important. Michael Phelps has supposedly lost his will to train, but he continues to pull down over 10 million a year in endorsement income.
In spite of it all, we remain enthralled with these London games. We loved the opening ceremonies and the discovery that the Queen is a real live person with a personality and sense of humor. Our national pride warrants our rejoicing in the successes of our countrymen, while sharing in the sorrow of those who invest so much and come up just short. For my sport of track and field, it is a special time when the world takes notice of this pure and wonderful sport.
It is over in an instant. There will be new Olympic stars and unforgettable performances. In the meantime, the UK will be left to decide if it was worth the $20B spent on infrastructure. Plans are already underway for Rio de Janeiro 2016, while Istanbul, Tokyo and Madrid will continue their bidding war for 2020. The world will be watching.