Again and again the modern Olympics, first held for only 13 nations in Athens in 1896, have been thrown off balance by world politics. The gap between Olympic idealism and political realism widens every four years. Now the American-led boycott of the summer games in Moscow is creating an even greater gulf than those of the past.

Perhaps second only to the United Nations as an international arena, the Olympics -- and their problems -- are rooted in the dreams of a 19th-century French idealist, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the modern games and presided over them until 1924.

His reasons for reviving the games after a 1,500-year lapse, sports scholars say, had internal contradictions that in many ways contributed to the Olympic movement's troubles in the 20th century.

Coubertin believed that sport, as a suprapolitical medium like art or music, could help people rise above national differences. Thanks to the telegraph and railroad, said Coubertin, the late 1800s were a time in which people came "into closer contact with one another, met each other, and were pleased to compare themselves. . . ."

He was intrigued by the Aristotelian virtue of a Greek scholar-athlete who expressed vitality, versatility, and proportion. And he admired the British ruling elite's sports programs based on amateurism.

Underlying the Olympic revival were such concepts as: games and physical health build moral character; an athlete should play for the sake of play to benefit fully from sports; international cooperation through sport increases international goodwill; sports aesthetics should be linked with the cultural world of arts.

Coubertin was also an avid nationalist who wanted to beef up the physical prowess and athletic ability of French youth. He saw the Olympics as a way to overcome France's humiliation from the 1870 Franco-Prussian war.

Rivalry with the Germans figured in Coubertin's argument to hold modern games. "Germany," he noted, "had excavated the ruins of ancient Olympia; why then should France not restore the old splendor?"

From the start, nationalism was allowed to thrive as each country fielded a team for world competition, ruling out individual entries with no national tag. Officials would display Coubertin's famous quote -- "The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part" -- but then proceed to provide winners with a three-tier victory platform, medal ceremony, and the victor's national anthem.

Coubertin wanted athletes to be "faster, higher, stronger," a goal that has led to increased professionalization, use of drugs, and lifelong training. He intended to spread sports facilities around the globe, having different nations host the games. But the accompanying civic and national pride have only heightened political pressures.

Coubertin was also concerned about overspecialization and the influence of money on athletes. "Amateur" sport, an idea he picked up from the aristocratic athletic clubs in Britain (it was unknown to the ancient Greeks), led to the banning of professionals.

The Moscow games may test whether Coubertin's 19th-century idea of internationalism through sports can clear the hurdles of 20th-century politics.

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