TOKYO — Put a few days and a few miles between the Olympics and Nagano, come down from the Japanese Alps, gain some perspective away from the intense environment, and one fact emerges above all others: The winter Olympics unquestionably are worth the time, trouble, and money.
But it is always important to focus on the basics. The Olympics are an athletic competition. Pure and simple. Nothing more or less. Men and women, boys and girls pursuing excellence. And what is a more worthy human endeavor than devoting all you have to being the best you can be? It's hard. That's why so few do it. And when you give all you have to winning, then lose, it's frightfully devastating. But still worth it.
Once, in Montana, an old football coach from a small university east of Los Angeles had students on a summer trip retracing the Lewis and Clark trail. He watched one of his football players trying to tie a canoe on top of a van. Finally the player turned, shrugged, and said, "That's not very good but it will do." Responded the coach, "Why don't you try to be excellent?" The coach walked off without looking back. Behind him, the player had returned to the van, in quest of excellence. To strive for excellence is never disappointing to anyone.
The Olympics are the perfect forum for excellence-seeking.
Too, it's beneficial that the world's order is shaken up, briefly. For example, Norway ended up second in total medals won with 25 (Germany was first with 29), ahead of the United States sixth-place finish with 13. Good. After all, in world matters, when was the last time someone said, "We don't care what the US position is. Find out where Norway stands?" And with all the problems in the old Russia, somehow bits and pieces of it can keep things together enough under the banner of the Russian federation to be third in medals. This demonstrates the indomitable will of the people.
If bigness translated into wins, the People's Republic of China would be king of the mountain. It was not, finishing tied for 11th in medals, none gold.
You simply cannot fault an athletic event involving 73 nations in which a speed skater from Belgium can win his country's only medal, a bronze. That Belarus and Kazakstan can medal twice each and Ukraine once validates the system. All who want to try are welcome and have an opportunity. Be best and you win.
But the movement does require careful and consistent stewardship.
Notably, how big should it be allowed to get? Bigger seldom is better in anything, as we have learned to our dismay. Nagano had 3,000 athletes and officials, 100,000 saplings transplanted, two sumo wrestlers at Opening Ceremony weighing a combined 836 pounds. There were 15,800 cell phones in use. And there were 8,000 members of the media, which is laughable in its excess.
Before the Games grow to 4,000 athletes and officials and 200,000 saplings and 16,000 journalists, serious thought needs to be given. If size is not controlled, the day is not too far off when there won't be anywhere in the world big enough to handle them. Already multiple sites for the winter Olympics are being considered, which seems questionable at best. Things do collapse under their own weight.
Perhaps most of all, the Olympics must not be saddled with missions that are not properly their mission. Talk of the Games as somehow playing a role in world peace makes no sense. Plus it's not necessary. It's an effort to cloak sports in political activism and give it more serious purpose. The truth is that if a role of the Olympics is world peace, it has been an abysmal failure since 1924 - failing to prevent World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and having done nothing to mitigate troubles in the Middle East.
But in providing an appropriate international venue every four years to determine the best athletes in a variety of disciplines in a generally fair manner, the Olympics are undefeated. They motivate individuals to get better - the US, for example, won its first two medals ever in the "looge" in Nagano when not so long ago the only thing we knew for sure was how to spell it - and nations to become committed to being best in something.
Excellence never requires an apology nor explanation.
And, lest we forget, the Olympics are fun.
* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is email@example.com