SYDNEY — "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. (For these Games, North and South Korea have agreed to march in as one team in the Opening Ceremony.)
Boycotts, too, have been a way of life, all based on nationalism. The first modern-day boycott was in 1956 over the Soviet invasion of Hungary and trouble at the Suez Canal; 31 nations withdrew in 1976 over the South Africa race issue; the US and 64 other nations boycotted the 1980 Games in Moscow; in 1984, the Russians and 15 other countries retaliated by refusing to compete in the Games in L.A.
No wonder historian Michael Beschloss suggested in an interview on the "Newshour with Jim Lehrer" that "you've seen moments during the century in which participants were about as nationalistic as they could have gotten." Few seem to think there is any reason to think that nationalism will decline and an emphasis on the individual athletes will increase.
Certainly there will be individuals who streak across the landscape by covering themselves in Olympic glory - the likes of Mark Spitz in 1972, Nadia Comaneci in 1976, Mary Lou Retton in 1984, Florence Griffith Joyner in 1988, and Carl Lewis repeatedly.
But, for the most part, nationalism continues, Findling says, because people enjoy it. Hearing one's national anthem played can emotionally move a nation. Findling admits that he will keep a close eye on the medal counts to see how the US is measuring up.
Another academic, Brian Martin of Australia's University of Wollongong near here, suggests nationalism will maintain a firm grip for practical reasons: "If a country does not participate in the Games, then its athletes cannot participate either."
Sociologist Edwards points out the "positive aspect of this nationalism" in that it "brings people together in a particular nation irrespective of race, ethnicity, or social-economic background." A classic example in the US was the victory in 1980 by the American hockey team over the highly favored Soviets.
The US won 101 medals in Atlanta four years ago, 44 gold, tops among all nations. Seeing how the Americans fare this year clearly will attract broad attention, Findling says, but obviously minus the deep nationalistic feelings of the cold-war years, when the US and Soviet Union fought by proxy at the Games.
Still, the US flagbearer at the Opening Ceremony, kayaker Cliff Meidl, has that old-fashioned nationalistic feeling, saying he is "so proud to be an American."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society