Time Essay: The Games: Winning Without Medals

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Still, even if the viewer could suspend politics, would it also be possible to see the Games purely as sport, without attaching any moral element to them? Deciphering one particular game, May Swenson wrote: "It's about/ the ball,/ the bat,/ and the mitt." Few others see sports as cleanly. Every golden age from the Greeks forward has made the connection between body and soul, between physical and moral education. The key to the connection is youth. The simple fact that athletes are young traditionally brings them closer to goodness, or, as the Romantics believed, to heaven itself. The demonstration of excellence in anything is implicitly moral. It can even seem supernatural. One need not be a sports fan to appreciate an element of unexpressed awe in athletic events, especially in the Olympic Games, which began as one sort of ritual and continue as another. All ritual suggests the presence of the sacred.

For Americans, the connection between morality and sport has never been in doubt. The interesting thing about Frank Merriwell was not simply that he won everything, but that he was perfect in every way (he settled strikes, wrote hit plays). Similarly, the disappointment in someone like Bruce Jenner is that he is merely perfect in one way, or rather in ten. The All-American Boy is first an athlete. Only in America could Shoeless Joe Jackson be considered tragic instead of pathetic; could an old man of the sea vow to be "worthy of the great DiMaggio"; or could national leaders make mad displays of their athleticism in order to prove how fit they are for their job. Courage, selfdiscipline, resourcefulness, will, stature, coolness under fire—all are terms that Americans like to associate with themselves and with their athletes. Even in these hard-boiled times, what American soul does not quiver in some monumental epiphany at Breaking Away or Bad News Bears or Rocky?

Yet what exactly is being quivered at: the presence of beauty, sublimity, God? Coubertin might have been dreaming to apply his idea of "fighting well" to the meaning of the Olympics, but he was right about attaching the general idea of struggle to virtue. That struggle is what people admire in sporting events, in the Olympic Games above all. They make an illogical leap from the virtue of the athlete to the virtue of the Games, and then, without a pause, to the virtue of the setting, the framework of the Games: hop, skip, jump. What those in the Moscow boycott are doing by taking themselves out of that process is to prevent symbolic, irrational connections from being made on their behalf. Conversely, they are insisting by their absence that the participating countries acknowledge frankly their implicit approval of the Soviets.

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