August 13, 2008
Just after the Berlin wall came down, I flew to Berlin with my German-Austrian wife and traveled around the city and its eastern parts. On visiting the Olympic stadium I told the taxi driver that my uncle, a hurdler, was the first athlete the Führer’s gaze fell upon as the parade of the 1936 games began, because we Greeks always go in first, having started the games back in 776 B.C., and because my uncle was the flag carrier. The taxi driver did not seem impressed in the least.
It might seem politically incorrect to say this, but the Berlin Olympics were the best ever staged, the last time white American and European men and women competed on an equal level with blacks, despite the great feat of Jesse Owens in winning four gold medals. The first games after the war, the 1948 London Olympics, were a festival for pure amateurs, as were the Helsinki and Melbourne games that followed. The best postwar Olympics were the Rome ones (1960). Europe had rebounded from the catastrophe of World War II, and Germany had been invited to compete. I remember them well. The crown prince of Greece, now ex-King Constantine, won a gold in the dragon-class sailing in the bay of Naples. Ari Onassis, the original Greek tycoon, came into the shower room where the prince was cleaning up after he and his crew had been dunked into the filthy waters of Naples—my father was crewing for him—and got into the shower fully clothed, kissing the prince and congratulating him. That night there was a great ball in the palazzo of the duke of Serra di Cassano, with most of Europe’s reigning royals attending. For a 23-year-old, it was quite impressive stuff.
On the field, a blond German, Armin Hary, won the 100-meter dash, the first non-American to win the most prestigious of events since 1928, and an Italian, Livio Berutti, won the 200 meters. The Roma stadium went wild as the Italian led from the start, chased by three African-Americans. Three white American hurdlers came one, two, three in the 400-meter hurdles, led by Glenn Davis, and a young Cassius Clay won the light-heavyweight title in the Palazzetto dello Sport, although an Australian friend of mine by the name of Madigan almost beat him—I was certain he had won—in the semifinal. The grand finale was the Marathon, won by a barefooted Ethiopian sergeant, Abebe Bekila, who smiled all along the route leading into the Borghese gardens and down the Via Veneto, and who rightly received the greatest cheers from the crowd.
The Rome Olympics were my last, although I did attend the judo competition in Athens in 2004. The games became much too big after Rome, much too politicized, and drugs began to play a much too important role. The Cold War saw nation-by-nation medal counts, although counting was against the spirit of the games. In 1984 the Los Angeles games became the first Olympics in which corporate sponsors got their filthy hooks in deep, making the event look like one big advertisement. It’s been downhill ever since. Athlete after athlete has been caught cheating with drugs, and all records are now suspect, as they well should be. In the 2004 Athens Olympics the Greek government spent $12 billion, five percent of the country’s economy. Many of the lavish facilities built so a political party could show off to the world lie empty and unused. In my not-so-humble opinion, the only way to save the games is to do away with them.
To begin with they are much too big and too inclusive. Rhythmic underwater dancing has more to do with entertainment than with sport. Although women’s softball has been eliminated, beach volleyball has not. Watching beautifully built women in tiny bikinis playing on sand has more to do with Playboy than with what the ancient Greeks had in mind. The games, after all, were started because the ancients believed it made their soldiers fighting fit. A foot race in armor was introduced at the 65th Games in 520 b.c. The other three events were running, wrestling, and the pentathlon, which included running and wrestling as well as the discus, javelin, and jumping. In other words, the games represented real life. No synchronized swimming and certainly no Tae Kwan Do, a phony martial art that resembles touch football. (Contestants wear padding and score points by touching the adversary.) Victors back then were given a simple wreath of olive sprays and the statue and victory poem that would be created in their honor back home. They were considered to be blessed by the gods. No Coca-Cola endorsements, no cornflakes contracts, no Nike sponsorships. Only glory.
So here’s my blueprint to save the bloated, cheating, corporate games: First and foremost they have to return to their original site, Olympia, in the northwest Peloponnese, where their spirit lives on. Shaded by olive, pine, and poplar, scented by oregano and thyme, the games would be restricted to track and field, wrestling, boxing, swimming, and equestrian events. Nothing else. No tennis, no football, no baseball and other invented sports. Greed, corruption, and commercialism would be eliminated at a stroke. Only amateurs need apply. The pros have their own world championships and other drug festivals. The Olympics will remain pure, and the winners will enjoy eternal glory.
I wouldn’t hold my breath.