LOS ANGELES — I'll confess. I'm still a sucker for all this Olympics stuff. No, it's not the red, white, blue, star-spangled us-against-the-world part of it that gets to me. It's more the beautiful simplicity of thousands of athletes from all over the world engaging in friendly play.
The Olympic movement has gotten a bad rap of late. The media have been writing with a vengeance in recent years about the corruption of the organizers, the shameless commercialism of the promoters, and, of course, the alleged use of performance enhancing drugs by athletes. Every day, in fact, it seems there are new revelations about designer drugs and who will or won't be invited to represent the United States in Athens.
Then, too, there is all the skepticism about whether Greece will even be prepared to host an event of this magnitude. And the worries about whether terrorists somehow will try to strike a callous blow on the biggest of all sporting stages - and the running concerns about whether countries will even risk sending their athletes to compete in an affair blanketed with such uncertainty.
I remain convinced, though, that at heart, the Games are inherently good. Nowhere else do the ideas of individual, country, and humanity blend so seamlessly and harmoniously together as in those five interlocked rings. And, when you strip away all the negativity and cynicism - and once the weeding out of all the drug cheats has finally run its course - what you're left with are athletes still fulfilling modern Olympic Games founder Pierre de Coubertin's original vision of "building a peaceful and better world ... through sport."
To the ancient Greeks, the Games were a sacred affair, and they regarded their champions as heroes of mythic proportions. The term "Olympian" itself refers to Mt. Olympus, where the Greeks' greatest gods resided. All we need do today is watch the superhuman skills of a Gail Devers as she skims over the hurdles or a Michael Phelps as he strokes across a swimming pool to gain an understanding of how such graceful athleticism could have aroused that type of reverence. Olympians offer us hope that we, too, can reach for the stars and that we, too, can strive to achieve the seemingly impossible.
I ate, slept, and breathed the Olympic dream as a youth. For a dozen years I devoted myself to becoming an Olympic swimmer, my role model a German backstroke champion named Roland Matthes. And while my goals were never realized, the lessons I learned about hard work, dedication, and commitment during the journey continue to guide my life today.
Now our society tends to trivialize the Olympic dream. In our all-or-nothing instant gratification culture, the Games have become a dichotomy of gold medals or dismal failure.
The Olympian's career, however, is as rare and delicate as a rain-forest orchid and just as glorious to behold under scrutiny. Far from the limelight inhabited by NBA great Tim Duncan and tennis star Venus Williams (both pros who are 2004 Olympians) are athletes such as Kristin Armstrong. A 30-year-old cyclist who is in no way related to Lance, Ms. Armstrong was overcome by tears when she finally earned a coveted spot on the US team after dreaming of becoming an Olympian for 23 years. Behind every household name, such as Olympic gold medal sprinter Maurice Greene, is a parade of lesser known Olympians such as Nicole Teter. The 31-year-old 800-meters specialist earned her first trip to the Games after finally breaking through on her third trip to the US Olympic Track and Field Trials.
All the athletes who will be competing in Athens have sacrificed the better portion of their lives to reach this summit. We won't be privy to the countless hours they've spent honing their skills, the financial hardships and sacrifices they've had to endure, or the physical and emotional setbacks they've had to overcome along the way. They are the real survivors of this summer - as they are every fourth summer - and unlike their reality TV counterparts, there were never any immunities granted to them along the way.
Many of these athletes' events will be completed in a matter of minutes, if not seconds. And, while only a handful actually possess the talent to step even higher and set foot atop the awards podium, we should revel in all their successes and glory because the message their stories inspire about perseverance and the pursuit of perfection ring as true today as they did when the Games were first organized a few millenniums ago.
In an era saturated with hostility and strife, it's fitting, perhaps, that the Olympics are returning to Greece for the first time since they were resurrected in 1896. I can think of no better way for the world to take pause and regain some long overdue perspective on the nature of open-mindedness, cooperation, and solidarity.
The two weeks of the Olympic Games are a true microcosm of life, complete with all life's twists and turns and ups and downs. At their best, the Games are a glorious celebration of peace, humanity and, most important, hope for a better world. And maybe, in the end, it's precisely that hope that captures what the Olympic spirit is really all about.
• Tito Morales is a freelance writer who swam competitively at the University of California, Berkeley.