SALT LAKE CITY — For a few moments before the speed and the tumult flooded the cameras at the Winter Games, the multibillion-dollar colossus of the Olympics struggled with its soul.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, a Nobel Prize winner for peace, presided benignly but candidly. The subject was heroes - young women whose names will not appear on the roll call of champions in Salt Lake City, but whose lives have liberated and inspired the victims of subjugation, crime, and racism around the world.
Who, after all, are the real heroes of humanity? Three of them sat beside Archbishop Tutu last week in a media conference room not far from the ski slopes and ice arenas, which are now riveting the world's attention on fun and games and artistry and strength. But the Olympics people know that while a lot of what's happening in Salt Lake City displays a kind of heroics that is real and praiseworthy and irresistible to audiences, it is also self-serving. So the Olympic movement tries to recognize that world networking also must serve higher causes.
Which explains the presence of Tutu and the less visible heroes of humanity. One was a woman from Nepal, Babita Maili Lama, who had been drugged and forced into prostitution. She escaped to build a network that has brought freedom to other women trapped in the brothels of India and Nepal.
Beside her were Malika Asha Sanders, a lifelong civil rights activist from Selma, Ala., and Kavwumbu Hakachima of Zambia, who has led a campaign to force public awareness of physical and sexual child abuse.
They were there at the invitation of the Reebok Co., which has a long and profitable association with world athletics. At the Olympics, it presents its Human Rights Awards. But in making the presentation, Reebok had to acknowledge that not all the world loves the international reach of some of the heavyweights of the corporate West. A fourth winner of the award, Dita Sari of Indonesia, rejected it and did not appear in Salt Lake City. She had been honored for leading the fight for high wages and better working conditions for millions of impoverished Indonesian factory workers.
She said, according to the company, that it would not be appropriate to accept an award from a company that produces products globally. Reebok expressed its regrets.
Tutu addressed the question gracefully but without evasion, drawing on the experience of South Africa. Many of the multinationals once had eyes only for the profit, he said, and had exploited people pretty cynically in the nations where they operated.
In South Africa, the exploited took it long enough and then forced a change. The multinationals, he said, have learned and should learn that listening to the needs of those little people is actually good business, that images matter and sensitivity matters.
Tutu offered his reflections amiably. He needed no heavy footwork to make his points. He didn't have to say that the Olympics extravaganza deserves its visibility, but the world is still divided between haves and have-nots. Millions of taxpayer dollars have funded the Olympics in Salt Lake City, and when it's over, some operators here will profit for years to come from this money.
That was not on Tutu's mind. The little presentation of those awards mattered more. And his message was unequivocal: The evil in the world can be overcome. The goal needs leaders and models. Yet although his own witness for freedom has made him one of the world's most admired figures, he still seemed privileged to be part of a ceremony honoring brave young women.
Do athletics have a social role? They do, he said. They can bring prestige and camaraderie to people who need it badly. But the woman from Zambia may have come closer. For people who have little, she said, doing something in athletics "brings acceptance." The world loves a winner. But, she seemed to be saying, it should also look harder at those it has made losers.