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All things considered, it is doubtless a blessing that these bloated, multi-billion dollar, over the top, new-world Olympics only come around every other year. We couldn’t handle any more.
The Games have become voracious beasts. Even as the last echoes out of Beijing were fading thankfully into the memory bank, the drumbeat for the next round of winter wonderland epics in Vancouver, only 18 months away, was being sounded. As the late great Ned Martin used to say, “Mercy.”’
Without question the Games are majestic. The exquisite pageantry mounted by the so-eager-to-please Chinese, spreading the message of their renaissance to the entire universe, is a new measure of all that.
And the Games can surely be thrilling. If you don’t get a charge watching the winner of the marathon enter the stadium for the victory lap as 100,000 people rise in joyful tribute to a person they’ve never heard of, then you ought to go back to playing cribbage for amusement or stick to re-runs of “I Love Lucy.”
Most of all, the Games can be touching. The winner of the men’s marathon at Beijing was a frail but relentless gentleman from Kenya who, after crossing the finish line to win his nation’s very first gold medal, dropped to his knees, closed his eyes, and blessed himself while an estimated 3 billion people watched worldwide. Other comparable examples were the little noticed handball finals, which were mighty important to tiny Iceland, also seeking its first gold. It is said that every TV set in that entire remote nation was tuned to the event. At three o’clock in the morning.
It’s that sort of stuff that testifies to what the Olympics are really all about and gives these mere Games special meaning. And there were dozens of examples this time around, as is ever the case. But they were buried by too many glitzier events dominated by celebrities and manipulated by hucksters, which in the end had little to do with the spirit of the Games but were rather all about money, as is increasingly the case.
One takes nothing away from Michael Phelps, king of the swimmers and reigning celebrity of the Beijing Games. His was a performance for the ages. But for my tastes it was soiled by the heavy-handed parlaying of his magnificent works into instant riches. It was needlessly crass for there to have been so much emphasis on the $1 million bonus he got the moment his fingernails touched the wall of the pool clinching his seventh gold, which tied him with Mark Spitz. That cozy little arrangement came courtesy of Speedo, his swimsuit sponsor.
Then, within hours of winning his historic eighth gold, Phelps -- with too much fanfare -- signed a multi-million dollar deal to promote Frosted Flakes, making him a stablemate of Tony the Tiger. Nutritionists the world over -- noting that the cereal in question has three times the sugar and one third the fiber of old standby Wheaties -- were appalled. One of them, a health expert from New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, noted tartly, “All things considered I would rather see him promoting oatmeal, or even Cheerios.”
But if such spoilsports were chagrined, the hucksters were delighted and one of them the very next day loftily proclaimed that over the next four years young Phelps’ eight gold medals would be worth a minimum of $20 million. That will be, of course, on top of the estimated $5 million a year he was already making off his swimming when he arrived in Beijing.
Yes, I well know that the arguments about what constitutes “an amateur” and how to protect these Games from “brazen commercial exploitation” were lost some time ago. Moreover, swimmers, like baseball players, deserve to cash in on their talents. But is there no limit? More to the point, you keep wondering how many millions of bucks that marathon champion from Kenya will be able to reap from his achievements.
The playing field has become grossly uneven. It’s hard to take our gold medal in men’s basketball seriously with it being won by a team of NBA all-star, multi-millionaires in what is being called “our national redemption.” That their road to glory was paved by hideously one-sided romps over the likes of Angola makes one squirm the more. Some redemption! And now, in the wake of USA’s “shocking” loss of the gold in our national game of baseball, some are demanding we send a team of major league baseball all-stars next time. It may not be so much redemption that they have in mind as revenge. Again you wonder, “Is there no limit?”
There were examples of more traditional controversy at these Games but no more than has become normal.
Drug testing failures were minimal but only the naïve believe that’s a dead issue. There was much anger over the work of judges, most notably in wrestling, but that’s hardly a new problem. The soccer match between Brazil and Argentina almost ended in a brawl. Exchanges of beanballs sullied the meeting of the Cuban and U.S. baseball teams. A crucial tennis match ended on a very questionable ethical point.
China still has a lot of explaining to do about the true age of its elegant little gold-medal gymnasts. As Mike Bianchi, an Orlando columnist, noted: “These girls were so young they danced their floor routine to ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider,’ played ‘patty-cake’ between events, and used their gold medals for teething rings.” That’s pretty nasty but it may not be far off the mark.
More egregious individual incidents of poor sportsmanship littered the proceedings, albeit again no more than usual. First prize goes to the Cuban chap who kicked the official in the face as a protest to the scoring in tae kwon do, which leads to the question: Why is tae kwon do an Olympic event to begin with? Or synchronized swimming? Or NBC’s favorite, ‘‘Bikini Beach Volleyball.’’ Or even baseball, for that matter?
Second prize goes to Jamaica’s Usain Bolt. He diminished his stature as “the world’s fastest human,” which has always been the Games’ ultimate individual distinction, with his needless arrogance and silly showboating. The young man runs like the wind but he has a lot of growing up to do.
Third prize goes to Ms. Anne Donovan, coach of the American woman’s basketball medal winners. A quintessential out of control Olympic zealot, Donovan publicly branded Becky Hammon, an American citizen from Liberty College, as “a traitor” for being on the Russian team. It was subsequently learned that Hammon played for Russia only because she was not even invited to try out for the American team and now competes professionally in Moscow. In other words, Hammon had every right to do what she did and the Americans had no right to complain unless you subscribe to the theory -- as Donovan apparently does -- that the beloved Cold War rolls on and on and on.
As they say “they are only games.” But then politics, geopolitics, misguided notions of Nationalism, and hang-ups about cultural supremacy have forever invaded this precious turf. It was no more shameful this time than it usually is. In fact, given all the ridiculous and largely baseless concerns about China being qualified or competent to host this complex event, it could be argued that no host country has ever risen more impressively to a greater challenge.
It is a wonderful tribute to a Great People.
The Olympics are not about politics and discussions about how these games will affect political issues are irrelevant. But if the Beijing Games erased tired and thoroughly flawed old notions about one-fifth of the human race then they have never served a better purpose.