What? Dark clouds over all that giddiness in London--even to the point where stiff-upper-lip Brits were cheering their heads off? (And I don't mean in the manner of their former king Henry the Eighth!)
I know this is politically incorrect on both sides of the Atlantic, not to mention in China, Jamaica, and Ethiopia, but dark clouds there are. Since the mainstream media were far too lazy and impressionable to do serious reporting or even acknowledging that those clouds exist, I'd better explain myself. Before I get to a little bright silver, let me first discuss some very tarnished and sometimes-false gold.
When I was a kid, the Olympics were to me what the Holy Grail might have been to a Medieval knight. I was 13 when Roger Bannister ran the first 4-minute mile, and soon after that galvanizing event I was one of the 100 million people worldwide who listened to the radio broadcast of Bannister's epic duel with John Landy (the second sub-4 guy), in the British Empire Games of 1954 (see my article "Moments" in the September Running Times magazine). That was the year I began running myself, and the notion of going to the Olympics was for me like what the idea of playing for the Yankees or Brooklyn Dodgers might have been for some of my playmates in those halcyon days.
In my coming-of-age imagination, going to the Olympics was the ultimate daydream. It was no doubt affected by the Olympic ideal, originating in the ancient Games of Athens, of the uncompromised amateur athlete. Those naked Greek runners did not have apparel endorsement contracts. In those years of my youth, long-distance running was under the aegis of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), and a runner could be banned for life if he accepted any sort of financial compensation. When I took a job as a high school teacher and cross-country coach in 1963, the school offered to pay me $300 for the coaching, but I asked them to please just increase my annual salary for the classroom teaching by that amount, and not pay me for the coaching, so I wouldn't be banned from running for the rest of my life!
Of course, this being America, it didn't take too long for that idea to be scuttled, and some guy named Bolt can now be paid more for 10 seconds of competition than the world's best long-distance runners of the 1950s or '60s were paid for a thousand hours of competition over their entire lives. But while this dream of a beautiful ideal still lingered, I at least won an AAU national-championship medal (bronze) and patch, which still occupy a place of honor on my bookshelf. (The AAU was a badly run organization, but I didn't really know how relatively OK it was until later, when it was succeeded by the Athletics Congress (TAC), which was even more hapless, and which was itself replaced by USA Track & Field (USATF), which is little more than a money-processing buraucracy that as far as I can see does nothing for 99.9 percent of the country's track and long-distance runners, other than try to sell them stuff on its online store.)
Whatever the reasons for my youthful dreams about the Olympics, they were destined to be ruined not just by my own failure to qualify for the Olympic Trials (that's another story, for another day), but also by a series of commercial, geopolitical, and terrorist events that in my lifetime has turned the Olympics from an erstwhile Holy Grail to something more like the mortgage debacle of 2008, or Bernie Madoff's brobdingnagian heist. In brief, some of the dark clouds as they gathered:
1968, Mexico City: As quickly suspected and later confirmed, East Germany, with a population about the size of today's Mexico City, doped its athletes with drugs--and wins 9 gold medals.
1972, Berlin: Terrorists murder Israeli athletes in the Olympic village. This time, East German athletes win 20 drug-juiced golds.
1976, Montreal: As U.S. athletes win individual events, American spectators shout "We're Number One! We're Number One!" I have to wonder how an athlete from a small country, who had performed just as well, feel about that. The U.S. spectators contribute nothing to the U.S. athletes' success (and largely ignore them for the four years between Games), but don't hesitate to claim national hegemony when an American wins. And oh yes, this time the East German's take 40 golds. And the drug-doping business seems to have expanded to other events. The defending marathon champion Frank Shorter is handed a silver medal, when there is good reason to believe he'd actually won the gold. And Don Kardong, who finished a bittersweet fourth, seems to have been denied a rightly earned bronze.
1980, Moscow: The United States government decides to boycott the Moscow Olympics, forbidding its citizens to participate--even though America is advertised as a "free country" and the Olympics are supposedly about individuals competing, not nation-states. And the reason for the boycott? The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, to fight bad guys there, and America does not condone invasions. Do I need to put an explanation point after that last sentence, or invoke that handy word "irony"?
1984, Los Angeles: An eye foir an eye, the Soviet Union reciprocates with a boycott of its own. The people most hurt are the Soviets' own citizens. Sorry, Russian gymnasts: Your arch-enemy Hitler is long dead, but the soup Nazis of the world still rule: No medals for you!
. . . And so on, through the years: the Games get even bigger, more costly, and more prized by national governments as trophies, the way the heads of mooses or bears might be prized by the owners of upscale hunting lodges. In much of the media, the Olympics become a "medals race," not unlike the "arms race" of the Cold War years. And as the Games become ever larger spectacles, corporate sponsorship and control (and, more to the point, profiteering) continues to expand. If I might invoke that handy word "irony" just one more time, what do you think of all those athletes of enviably lean and fit physique being paraded around by two of the world's largest junk-food traffickers?
2012, city of Dickensian waifs who'd be very grateful for a bowl of watery soup, please: Nearly all of the vices are now at their zenith (except the terrorism, fended off by a massive army of soldiers and police, at English taxpayers' expense). The medals race again is rampant, with none of the sports reporters (who are not known for their thinking, in any case) ever questioning whether a nation has legs and lungs and can perform athletic feats. Nations and corporations don't have heartbeats and can't breathe, which may partly explain why they do so little to prevent air pollution. And by now, the "we're number-one" delusion has spread from the Americans to the British. The British singer Morrissey makes a well publicized objection to the "blustering jingoism" of his countryment. And the Denver Post writer Steve Lipshen writes, "This year's Games reflected the most stereotypical traits of Americans: jingoism, cockiness, and hubris, all presented by McDonalds and Coca-Cola."
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So, after all that, how can there be any silver lining? I'll mention three moments out of the thousands spewed across the ether by NBC and the Internet, that lifted my spirits in spite of all that has gone so wrong with my youthful ideal.
1. The last 10 seconds of the men's 10,000 meters: Gaylen Rupp catches up with the East African super-runners who've been outrunning American runners for Rupp's entire life, and passes them with a big smile on his face, to win the silver and come within a half-second of the gold . . .
2. Rupp's training partner and friend, Mo Farah, turns his head the instant he crosses the line first, to see and celebrate his friend's having taken second.
3. And the last 30 seconds or so of the women's 10,000, in whichTirunesh Dibaba smoothly pulled away from her formidable rivals and sailed to the win with a big smile on her face, like a kid on a playground swing.
Thesw three moments (among many, I'm sure) were not about competition between nations, but between individual humans at their best. Significantly, at least for me, Rupp and Farrah weren't teammates on one of the artificial, corporate- and government-funded "teams" that wore the uniforms of their countries (many of which maintain huge military arsentals to war against each other in less sporting ways). Rupp and Farah are citizens of different countries, but in training together became real teammates. The smiles on Rupp's and Dibaba's faces weren't manifestations of national or geopolitcal righteousness, or corporate success, but of the human spirit at its best. Contrary to a recent ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, a corporation is not a person! Neither corporations nor the governments they largely control have spirits; only the people who form them do.
The Supreme Court, in its blasphemic declaration that corporations have "personhood," reminds me of the old men of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) who a few decades ago ruled out any Olympic running events for women longer than 1500 meters, in the belief that women can't safely run for longer than about five minutes. Maybe the troglodyte denizens of these institutions will eventually die off, but in the mean time I get a big kick out of seeing that despite all the corruption the gladiatorial spectacles thrust upon us every four years now embody, the real strength of the Olympics is alive and well in the some of the individual athletes. And I don't care what country they come from or who paid for their shoes.