A stage for soaring hopes
The Olympics have revealed much of the best - and some of the worst -about athletics, from Jesse Owens's run against racism to embarrassing drugand bribery scandals.
BOULDER, COLO. — One of America's greatest Olympic heroes, marathoner Frank Shorter, reflects on that exquisite day 27 years ago when he won the gold medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics. "It's something," he says earnestly, "I wish could happen to everyone."
He vividly remembers the chills he felt as he neared the finish line. Winning the Olympics, he says, is near perfect because "the reward is not deferred, the satisfaction is thorough." Elsewhere in life, he says, it's rare to have an "absolute victory."
Indeed, moments after he won - he was the first American male to win since 1908 and no American has won since - a longtime friend told him, "Your life is never going to be the same." It hasn't been.
Shorter, who generally has lived here at the foot of the Rocky Mountains since his Yale University days, instantly became an icon. He is considered the creator of the running boom in this country.
But above all, Shorter carries the Olympic torch high and bright because, he says, "being an Olympic champion is a trust."
It's a trust he takes seriously.
He wishes that others, notably the scandal-ridden International Olympic Committee (IOC), would join him. Shorter has become a poster boy for good and right in an Olympic movement that too often exhibits bad and wrong. It's a competition that tries to celebrate international goodwill, but too often is slogging along in controversies over drugs, bribery, and skullduggery.
Modern Games begin
Indeed, the Olympics actually have only been around for 103 years (the so-called modern Games started in 1896), just 1/10th of the millennium. (Historians say the first Olympics are considered to have been first held in Greece in 776 BC, in honor of Zeus.)
But because of the magnitude of the Olympic Games, it seems as if they have been around forever. They demand our attention like no other event. Shorter says that's because the Olympics offer an international stage for the "hope and desire" that beats within every human. Because of this, Shorter feels certain the games will last through the next millennium because "the people of the world want them to continue."
Today, some 200 nations compete. So huge are the Olympics that everything about them is magnified - the good, bad, ugly, and really ugly.
Nobody could have imagined the scope when the 1896 Games were held in Athens, attracting 200 male competitors, mostly from Greece. The emphasis originally was on developing mind and body. It wasn't until 1912 that athletes from all five continents showed up.
Hundreds of millions of people now sit fascinated in front of television sets around the world for a fortnight every two years. (The winter and summer Olympics alternate on even-numbered years.) They grab newspapers to learn of the heroics, listen to radio, and go in search of sports magazines.
Jesse Owens shows up Hitler
Stars are created instantly: American swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie, American figure skater Dick Button, French skier Jean-Claude Killy, American speed-skater Eric Heiden. There were Olga Korbut, Carl Lewis, Bonnie Blair, Katarina Witt, Nadia Comaneci, Brian Boitano, Peggy Fleming, and Wilma Rudolph. There was a boxer in 1960 named Cassius Clay, who became Muhammad Ali.
Arguably the all-time Olympic highlight came in 1936 in Berlin when black American sprinting and long-jump star Jesse Owens won four gold medals. He explained how he did it: "I let my feet spend as little time on the ground as possible." Owens's mighty achievements flew all over Hitler who had hoped to use the Games to demonstrate the superiority of an Aryan race.
Other tall trees in the Olympic forest were Mark Spitz, who in 1972 won seven golds in swimming at Munich, and the 1980 United States hockey team that beat the seemingly invincible Russians en route to the gold medal in the "Miracle on Ice."
Yet, way too often, politics rears its disruptive head. That's because anyone with a cause knows using the Olympics to make its point will ensure that its point is made.
A few of many examples: In 1956, China pulled out of the Melbourne Games because it didn't want Taiwan there; two American sprinters on the medal stand issued Black Power salutes in 1968; an Arab attack that started in Munich's Olympic Village in 1972 ultimately ended with 17 dead, including 11 Israeli athletes; in 1976, 31 nations withdrew from the Montreal Games because of New Zealand's racial policies; in 1980, the US boycotted the Moscow Olympics, joined by 64 others, in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; predictably in 1984, the Russians and 15 allies boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics.
Drugs, scandals - and apathy
Scandals are ongoing, too. Shorter calls the IOC an "anachronism." The accusations and facts are well-known concerning bribery and payoffs in order to get IOC members to select Olympic venues, including Atlanta; Nagano, Japan; Salt Lake City; and Sydney, Australia, which will host the 2000 summer Games.
The public seems strangely unconcerned. A recent survey in Japan says that while 82 percent of the people knew about the vote-buying involving Salt Lake City, only 9.5 percent said they had lost interest in the Olympics because of it. And 32 percent said they didn't expect reform of the IOC.
Meanwhile, yet another story recently created headlines: "Japanese Olympics Equestrian Team Hit by Corruption Scandal." Few seemed to pay much attention.
Ultimately, drugs pose the biggest threat to the Olympics. Nations can't agree on what to do. Shorter is in the lead on the issue. After all, he was expected to win his second gold in 1976 but was thumped by an East German, whom East Germans subsequently have told Shorter was using illegal substances. "Now I know why he was able to pull away from me," Shorter says with a laugh.
In the most celebrated drug case, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal in the 100 meters in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988 after testing positive for steroids.
Shorter is plugging for the creation of a single international drug-testing agency that would use blood testing (old-style urine testing is ridiculously easy for athletes to fool) and retain samples forever. Then, whenever new technology comes along, the samples could be tested again.
Yes, he concedes, this would mean many stars would be caught, and nations don't want their stars caught. However, not long ago a high European Olympic official did call for a "surgical ruthlessness" to clean up the Games.
Shorter says all that great athletes want is the chance "to compete on a level playing field."
Right now, it's undulating at best, mountainous at worst.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society