By Douglas S. Looney Senior sports columnist of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
"There's nothing else quite like them."
With that, one of the preeminent Olympic historians, John Findling, co-editor of the
"Historical Dictionary of the Modern Olympic Movement," effectively condenses years of research into six words.
Indeed, as Australia in general and Sydney specifically begin their fortnight in the dazzling glare of a world media blitz today, the question emerges: Yes, but just what have the Olympics become?
Harry Edwards, a well-known sports sociologist, is more comfortable with what they haven't become. "The modern Olympic Games," he says, "have infrequently been about just athletes and pure competition."
And that is either the joy or the curse of the Games. They are imbedded in a tangle of fascinating and maddening nonathletic considerations, the foremost being rampant nationalism. Typically, observers decry nationalism as an evil that should be stomped out. The common belief is that because of it, the Olympics keep moving further away from the ideal that the early Greeks imagined.
Not so, says a University of Pennsylvania study: "Politics, nationalism, commercialism, and athletes were intimately related in the ancient Olympic Games. We may not realize it, but in today's Games we re-create - with surprising accuracy - the climate and circumstances surrounding" the original competitions.
The study also points out that the original Games were "not only a forum in which to discuss political events, they were also the cause of political conflict."
Mr. Findling, who is also a professor at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, agrees, suggesting that the nationalistic aspects are "one of the big pulls. It's a natural part of the competition. And it's not an unhealthy thing to have."
Kevin Wamsley, director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, is in Sydney and says the "us-versus-them issue [has always been there] and recognizable, and [has] fueled both governmental and spectator interest."
The longtime (1952-72) autocratic boss of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, persisted in his notion that politics and sports don't mix.
For those who continue to object to nationalistic fervor in the Games, Findling does hold out hope, saying today's Games are "not as fiercely nationalistic because the stakes are less. We all get along better."
The rejoinder is that it could hardly have been worse. Among the lowlights that came from nationalism and the Olympics was the celebrated 1936 debacle when Hitler refused to recognize the achievements of black US sprinter Jesse Owens; the killings at the 1972 Olympics in Munich by Arabs of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches (five terrorists and one policeman also died); and the disputes involving two Germanys, two Chinas, and two Koreas. …