The Greatest Show on Earth

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Grand but flawed, some things are best viewed from a distance. The Earth looks wondrous from space; the Olympics through a faraway gaze. This festival rewards those who accept its flaws-some superficial, some less so-or who decide not to notice them. Amid burgeoning cynicism, and in resistance to life's habit of beating away at the mystique of things, most of us long to be inspired. We afford the Games the space they need.

We do so now as the world's best sportsmen and women, some 10,000 of them from nearly 200 nations, assemble in Sydney for the first Olympics of the 21st century. Over 16 days' competition, as they strive for new peaks of achievement, we may choose to remember some of their legendary predecessors: giants like Eric Liddell, who in Paris in 1924 took off in the quarter-mile as though fleeing fire and, drunk on spiritual passion, barely slowed till the end; or Abebe Bikila, who in 1960 shuffled barefoot to gold in the marathon in Rome. These memories will be reassuring at such moments when sport's loss of innocence confronts us.

The noble message of the Olympic Creed-"the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well" -is creaking beneath the oppressive realities of modern sport. Governments, sporting associations and the athletes themselves are pursuing victory with a hardening disregard for the integrity of sport. For the athletes who win, the rewards are lavish. For the vanquished, little has changed. "In the champion, spectators see what they'd like to be," observed former American high-jumper John Thomas, who fell short of gold in Rome. "In the loser they see what they actually are, and they treat him with scorn."

Most troubling is the knowledge that many athletes in Sydney will have succumbed to the temptation of performance-enhancing drugs. This Olympiad, the scope of sport's drugs crisis has been exposed. From credible people we have heard compelling accusations. From a tiny percentage of the guilty we have heard confessions. And we have our eyes. Turn the pages of Olympic history and compare the physiques of past competitors with those of today's: the disparity cannot always be explained by diet or training. The sad truth is that many athletes, some of them heroes to millions, have achieved what they have partly by doping; and some of sport's most celebrated contests are fought on chemical battlefields.

Even when it involves clean athletes, sport long ago ceased to be an exhibition of pure athletic ability, polished only by hard work and a venerable coach. We miss the days when young men and women, randomly endowed with raw talent, dashed straight from fields and beaches onto the Olympic track. We know that athletes today are products of a system-driven by government and corporate money-which includes agents, sports scientists, psychologists and sundry others.

The Olympic Movement has suffered for revelations about the sins of its guardian, the bloated International Olympic Committee, which has compromised itself for financial gain and whose excuses and resistance to reform have brought further shame upon it. It is timely, then, that the Games have come to Sydney, whose beauty and youthfulness will reinvigorate the Olympic Movement in a way no amount of self-justification ever could. Though precocious, Sydney -like Melbourne 44 years ago-is too inexperienced in world affairs not to be anxious about her role as host; too unsure of herself to be certain of pulling it off; and too practical to taint her Games with the smugness and complacency of which ordinary people accuse the Olympic lords. As a city eager to please, in an egalitarian country where sport is the first love, Sydney is the perfect place for the Olympics in their most troubled hour.

This isn't to forget that Sydney organizers have made mistakes that have shaken the trust of the Australian public and dimmed its enthusiasm for the spectacle ahead. In truth, however, none of these was as heinous as it was made to seem, and all will be forgotten once the caldron is lit. That is the point about the Olympic Games: they are all but indestructible. Through crisis after crisis they retain a peculiar power: they alone can arouse a dormant passion for sport in those who would claim to have none; they alone can imbue less glamorous sports with a gravity and appeal that make them, for a few days, not only tolerable but captivating.

The Olympic ideal of promoting world peace is laudable, no less so for being fanciful. As a century of bloodshed has shown, chauvinism is not easily set aside. Yet even the more cynical will concede the Olympic fortnight throws a blanket of goodwill over the people of the world, conceiving a feeling-ephemeral but strong-that we spend too much time stoking nonsensical enmities and too little in shared appreciation of the feelings and hopes which unite us.

So enriched, we may find it within us to sympathize occasionally with the athletes in Sydney, for the days are gone when champions could let their deeds speak eloquently for themselves, when their natures remained a tantalizing mystery. Within seconds of breaking the tape or landing their dismount, winners at these Games will be hauled breathless in front of cameras and microphones, and beckoned to explain all. If at these times they appear surly, conceited or self-absorbed, should we really be disappointed? They are like us, more single-minded perhaps, but invariably as vulnerable and imperfect. The difference is that their triumphs and failures are played out before the world. Nothing can strip the Games of their capacity to show emotion, even if this emotion will, in time, be packaged for commercial purposes.

About every Olympics there is this certainty: unforgettable events will occur. These may inspire joy, pity, awe, excitement or dejection, but as observers we will be liberated from the everyday. In Sydney, though the athletes will be performing in new venues, they will sense the ghosts of former champions.

The sprinters will run in the footsteps of greats like Jesse Owens, whose feats in Berlin in 1936 undermined Nazi propaganda in front of Hitler himself, and Florence Griffith Joyner, who was beaming 20 m from the tape on her way to an astonishing world record in the 100 m in Seoul in 1988. The distance runners will glide in the shadows of Emil Zatopek, who ran always as though on the verge of collapse but was invincible at the Games of 1948 and '52.

The long-jumpers will sail in the trajectory of Bob Beamon, whose first jump in Mexico City in 1968 was decades ahead of its time. The gymnasts and divers, sport's artists, will leap and contort like the sublime Nadia Comaneci, whose seven perfect scores in Montreal in 1976 changed her sport forever, and the marvelous Greg Louganis, who won dual gold in Seoul despite colliding with the springboard in the preliminary round.

We could revisit the contributions of Dawn Fraser, Al Oerter, Sebastian Coe, Anthony Nesty and a hundred other famous Olympians, and we'd have relived only an infinitesimal fraction of the exquisite human drama that is the Olympic Games. Sydney will provide another chapter. It will spawn new heroes. And they, too, will seem the greater when viewed from a distance-the kind bestowed by the passage of time. And so, in return for our tolerance, despite all their faults, the Games will live on as the greatest show on Earth.

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