Let the Games Begin

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I have signed on as guest columnist for The Boston Globe for the next six weeks.  I'm not used to such short deadlines, but I'm having a good time! 

 Here is my first piece on this week's opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing:

The Olympics

Our children have been counting the days until the Olympic Games.  The two younger kids even drew calendars for themselves with uneven squares, which they planned to X off as each day passed.  Just six and nine years old, they forgot this plan after a couple of days, but they remain excited.  How do they know about the Games?  The same way small children know about Mickey Mouse and Disneyland, Barbie and Harry Potter.  Global advertising penetrates our house and leaves a fine dust on every surface.

The Games are supposed to be more than cartoon characters, or dolls, or fantasylands, however.  They pit human athletes against each other with all the sweat, dust and tears of real competition.  Or do they?  While my children imagine glorious races in Beijing, the world of sport seems an increasingly murky place. The kids imagine gold medals, and I fret about China's crackdown in Tibet.  They gaze at photographs of Michael Phelps knifing through crystalline water, and I hear about endorsement contracts.  They watch on television as basketball players seem to leap cross court in a single stride.  I read articles about superstars too busy to attend the Games. 

My children believe in heroes.  I want heroes too, but real life gets in the way.  How can I watch China's Olympic divers without recalling the reports that some are competing with injuries, sacrificing themselves for national pride, and a chance at an apartment?  How can I watch the runners' rippling bodies without remembering Marion Jones?  She looked magnificent in Sydney, but last year she admitted doping, after which she lost her medals and her vaunted invincibility.  I wonder what will happen to the inspirational children's biographies of Jones and other disgraced athletes.   Will the authors attempt new editions?  Or will the books simply vanish from the shelves of public libraries?  The media frenzy surrounding Jones was real, but her records were not. 

The Olympics strive to be different, extraordinary, but Olympic athletes are the same people competing the rest of the year, and a venal sporting culture does not come clean in a moment for the Games--certainly not for a specially televised Olympic Moment.  We live in a world that rewards results at almost any cost, a world where steroid use plagues baseball, and Tour de France cyclists routinely test positive for doping.  This summer's pre-Olympics cycling spectacle hardly inspires hope.  Week after week, it seems, successive newly crowned Tour leaders are disqualified, testing positive for banned substances.  Last year's overall winner, Floyd Landis, had to give up his title, despite his legal protests.

Are athletes persecuted?  As he won his seventh consecutive Tour, Lance Armstrong stood at the Arc de Triomphe and shot back at skeptics:  "I'm sorry you can't dream.  I'm sorry you don't believe in miracles."  Perhaps he felt the doping police singled him out unfairly.  I can't speak for them.  I can say that ordinary fans would rather watch a thrilling race without anticipating a protracted law suit.  We don't watch because we doubt, but in spite of it.  Few of us enjoy the downfall of a cheating star.  We look for greatness; we long for grace.

And yet, Olympic pressure to find even the slightest edge against opponents makes cheating more attractive.  The rewards for winning could add up to millions of dollars, as commentators constantly remind us.  All that sacrifice, and it comes down to THIS, the make or break opportunity.  The Gold and its attendant fame and fortune, or second place. Obscurity.  There's a sad and cynical message for children watching.  Competition is all or nothing.  Glory has a price tag.  Once upon a time, back in the days of Chariots of Fire, the Olympics styled themselves as a celebration of excellence in amateur sport.  I wonder how athletes define love of the game in today's economy.

My children still believe in honest competition.  Readers of D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, with its magical colored-pencil illustrations, they imagine athletes as demi-gods, fleet of foot, strong of arm, noble in spirit, laurel crowned for their heroic deeds.   For my kids, the Games mean higher, faster, stronger.  For me, they also mean politics, money, and doping.  I like their Olympics better.


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This page contains a single entry by Allegra Goodman published on August 10, 2008 2:38 PM.

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