Time Essay: The Games: Winning Without Medals

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To put it harshly: the countries participating in the Moscow Olympics are symbolically abetting the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan. Those countries bear the burden, not the individual athletes. The other day Henry Marsh, a U.S. track star, who would have had a chance for a medal in the steeplechase, said: "How can you compete in a country which is killing—slaughtering—innocent people right next door? Personally it would have been hard for me to go to Moscow and still feel good about myself." Yet it would be much to ask of an individual athlete to defy his country's official decision and boycott on his own. That some athletes have done so is admirable, even remarkable, but the issue is no more an individual one than anything else in the Olympics. The onus sits squarely with the nations that voted to go, and they will have plenty of opportunity in the months ahead to decide if travel is broadening.

At the same time, it would be foolish to suggest that the symbolic importance of any one Olympics is vast and eternal. Every time the I.O.C. lofts one of its round-toned fatuities about the purity of the Olympic Games, there is an instant temptation to push the button and roar that the Games are the world's most significant political events. The Games have their significance, but they also come and go; the political advantages come and go; in the long run, even the champions come and go. No matter what Themistocles thought of Homer, no one would remember Achilles were it not for the heel. As for the possible collapse of the Olympics after Moscow, that would not be the worst thing either. The Games collapsed in 393 B.C. because someone (the Emperor Theodosius) held to a principle (that they were pagan), and neither sport nor the world came to an end in the 1,503-year hiatus.

What makes the boycott peculiarly tough on Americans is that so much of their history is tied to sports. The great period of American inventions, in the late 19th century, was also the era when organized sports came into their own, the one freeing time for the other. Since then, there has always been an explicit association of sports with the old success dream: every up-and-coming athlete a potential Horatio Alger hero. In some ways the modern history of the U.S. is a huge, complex athletic event; industries, immigrants and ideologies are continuously vying with one another for clear-cut victories. For capitalists, it is a special strain to be on the outs of a competition.

The strain is honorable. It would have been honorable had no other country joined the boycott of the Olympic Games. It would be honorable still if, by some measure, it were determined that the political damage done the Soviets was minimal. The essential thing in life, sometimes, is not conquering, but fighting well.

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