"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
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
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
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. …