Sydney's Glorious Failure

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Sydney, you really blew it. Back in 1996, Atlanta's splendid incompetence set the stage for Olympic reform by highlighting the terminal unwieldiness of the five-ring circus we know as the Games. Then came the Salt Lake City bribery scandal, which exposed the seamy side of the Olympic movement. The reform bandwagon was rolling. All Sydney had to do was deliver what the Australians call a dog's breakfast for everybody finally to admit that the Games had spun hopelessly out of control. Then we could sit down and figure out how to fix things. Hey, along the way maybe we could even get rid of all those events like tennis and soccer and baseball that shouldn't be part of the Olympics.

So what actually happens? After ungallantly raising our hopes with some early snafus, Sydney turns in a gold medal performance, delivering what International Olympic Committee senior vice president Dick Pound called the "Games from central casting." Suddenly the Olympics become manageable again. The pressure for reform is off. Can anything be salvaged from this debacle? Let us not get too despondent. After all, Athens is next in line to grab the Olympic baton, and the Greek capital could yet screw up enough to undo the damage done by Sydney's success. But there are other reasons to take heart.

The more immediate good news is that these Games will go down in Olympic history as the ones at which the tide finally turned against the pharmacological approach to winning. Of course it is unrealistic to expect that doping will disappear entirely from a Games whose motto is "Faster, higher, stronger" or from any sport where vast sums of money are at stake and the winners take all. And no doubt some day soon the genetic engineer will replace the pharmacist as the preferred ally of the unscrupulous athlete. But in the meantime there's a good chance that better drug tests and more determination to apply them from the likes of the i.o.c. will create a fairer playing field on which all can compete. That Sydney has already witnessed a leveling off in results in many sports suggests drugs have been the missing ingredient. That's good for the credibility and survivability of the Games.

Peaking performances also suggest something else at work. Could it be that in many sports (we're not talking synchronized swimming here or skeet shooting) we are beginning to reach the limits of human performance? The sporting fraternity doesn't like that notion, even though it concedes that there is a so-called Omega point beyond which the human frame cannot go. Everybody agrees that no one will ever hurl a javelin half a kilometer or run the 100 m in one second. On the contrary, 30 years after American Jim Hines first broke the 10-second barrier for the 100 m on June 20, 1968 at the Amateur Athletic Union championships in California, only .12 seconds have been clipped off the world record. But what happens to a Games hooked on faster, higher, stronger when records stop being broken, either because we've reached our limits or because we've eliminated the drugs that can take us beyond them? Will we stop watching? Will the sponsorship and advertising dollars dry up? Will the members of the i.o.c. have to fly economy?

The real good news out of Sydney is that the spectators were gripped by the performances they witnessed even when records many of them set in the drug-enhanced Games of yesteryear did not tumble like ninepins (which, inexplicably, is not an Olympic event). Australia's Cathy Freeman did not come close to breaking East German sprinter Marita Koch's 15-year-old world record for the 400 m, but you would never have guessed that from the roar of a record-breaking crowd as she crossed the finish line first. And when British rower Steve Redgrave turned in what must surely rank as the greatest Olympic feat of all time by winning a gold medal for an endurance sport in five consecutive Games, his accomplishment was not in any way diminished by his failure to break the world record held by a Norwegian crew that hadn't even made the final.

The lesson of these Games is that despite all their shortcomings, the Olympics are still the greatest show on earth. They can be clean and still be compelling. And although no athlete in his or her right mind is ever going to pay anything more than lip service to the idealistic notion of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic movement, that "the main thing is not to have won, but to have fought well," we know that winning takes many forms. Brave athletes like Nigeria's Glory Alozie, whose eponymous performance in the women's 100 m hurdles just days after her fiance was tragically struck and killed by a car on a Sydney street, may not have won gold, but she won hearts galore. That's what the Olympic Games are all about. Not just faster, higher and stronger but braver too. Now if we can only get rid of that synchronized swimming.