As if the answer were easy, Themistocles, when asked whether he would prefer to have been Achilles or Homer, replied: "Which would you rather be, a conqueror in the Olympic Games or the crier that proclaims who are the conquerors?" A navy man, Themistocles saw no honor in being out of things. He would not have understood the U.S. role of spectator to this year's Olympic Games, or how a country whose national pride has so often been hoisted in those Games could settle for the bleachers.
Right now, the U.S. feels none of that particular sort of pride. Instead many Americans, including those who would have been competing in Moscow, are wondering if what they are feeling is any sort of pride at all or merely the discomfort of having taken a difficult moral position that is beginning to feel a bit tight at the neck. After all, aren't those young men and women just playing games over there? Is the U.S. a spoilsport?
Were it not for the remarks of the presidents of the International Olympic Committee, the political significance of the Olympics would probably never be in question. Yet as recently as July 14, Lord Killanin opened a session of the I.O.C. by expressing his great fear for the future of the Games "if politicians continue to make use of sport for their own ends." Steady as the Olympic torch, that sort of mindlessness has been passed from I.O.C. president to I.O.C. president, from Avery Brundage to Killanin, and soon, most likely, to President-elect Juan Antonio Samaranch, who sounds a lot like his predecessors. All owe their conventional wisdom, if not their tone, to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Games. Decreed Coubertin: "The essential thing in life is not conquering, but fighting well." The words are charming, and perhaps even true, but they have never applied to the Olympics.
Certainly, nothing in the ancient history of the Games supports the idea that they are apolitical. Brundage lamented that in ancient Greece wars were suspended for the Olympics, whereas today the Olympics are suspended for wars. In fact, the first Olympics were dry runs for wars. Once, in 364 B.C., the Eleians turned a dry run into the real McCoy and swooped down on the Pisates during the Games. They won. The modern marathon,"inspired by the tale of a soldier who ran 25 miles to report a victory, commemorates both politics and conquest. As for the glory of fighting well, one needs only to read Pindar on the ignominy of the losers.