By MATT JOHANSON
Blast San Francisco Bureau
As it grows from snowball to avalanche proportions, Salt Lake City's
Olympic bribery scandal is burying American and international officials
implicated in the corruption and freezing the spending impulses of
corporate sponsors who suddenly question whether those Olympic rings are
still worth their $50 million price tag.
Why? Do corporations fear that Salt Lake's spending impulses have
tarnished the "Olympic spirit?" Have any officials acted in a manner
contrary to Olympic custom? Many celebrated Olympians have won success
and fame by behaving in a similar fashion.
Money and winning were dominant themes of the ancient games in Greece.
Winners received generous purses and were excused from taxes for the rest
of their lives, and victory was an obsession. Consider the example of
Arrachion, a competitor in pancratian (a combination of boxing and
wrestling). He won his final match as he twisted his opponent's foot out
of its socket. But Arrachion died of internal injuries even as his
opponent surrendered, and received his victory wreath while laying dead
on the stadium floor.
Many others, like gymnast Kerri Strug, would risk injury and ruin in
pursuit of Olympic victory. Some Olympians, like sprinter Wilma Rudolph,
would overcome incredible adversity and handicaps, but the public
remembers them primarily because they won. Those who value such victories
"Olympic spirit" as the idea that winning is the most important thing in
the world, especially when the Olympics are concerned. If so, then the
bribery allegations surrounding the Salt Lake Winter Games, and rapidly
spreading to the Nagano and Sydney Olympics, do not appear inconsistent
with the movement.
But Pierre de Coubertin, the Frenchman who revived the Games a century
ago, saw a different Olympic vision. "The important thing in the Olympic
Games is not winning but taking part," de Coubertin said. "The essential
thing in life is not conquering but fighting well." De Coubertin's
message was published in English in Athens' Olympic Stadium during the
1896 Games. Maybe no one read it; most of the fans were Greek.
If this was the standard, a host of competitors who gave their all but
didn't necessarily win would be the greatest Olympic heroes. Distance
runners Pattisue Plummer and Steve Prefontaine are two of my favorites.
More people would know the name of Phillip Boit, Kenya's first-ever entry
into the Winter Games, who took last place in Nagano's 10,000-meter cross
country skiing race. Ice skater Nancy Kerrigan would be remembered for
her stellar, silver-medal performance in Lillehammer instead of her
unfortunate rendezvous with a hit-man's crowbar.
The list extends indefinitely and is not confined to Olympians. Would not
de Coubertin agree that balancing athletic pursuits with other life
interests is a more healthy and laudable attitude than winning at all
costs? If so, then the college student trying to play ball and hold a
job, or the high school kid trying to run a 5-minute mile and earn a B
average, would be more Olympic than many Olympians. How many kids, or
adults, like that do you know?
De Coubertin's message also seems to imply that more ethical behavior on
the part of Olympics officials would be desirable. But those who control
the Olympics apparently believe in the first "Olympic spirit," so it's
unreasonable to expect any meaningful change, though they may placate
Salt Lake may, through public relations and a show of penitence, save the
image of its Winter Games. Prospective Olympic hosts will exercise more
discretion in the future. The International Olympic Committee will clean
house and may, someday, earnestly address other problems that tarnish the
movement, like drugs.
But if they fall short of your expectations, or if you tire of the idea
that second place is the first loser, then look for the Olympic spirit
closer to home in the athletes around you. The true Olympic spirit is
you find it every day.