The quadrennial soap opera that is the Summer Olympics gets under way again today in Sydney, inspiring the usual mixed response of blahs and hurrahs. Nobody disputes that the Summer Games have become the world’s biggest recurrent spectacle, costing more than some countries’ GDP and cornier than Kansas. But opinion is split on whether this giant sports fest is a welcome thing or a boring, scandal-ridden extravaganza to be avoided at all costs. Sports junkies and grumpy old cynics know where they stand. For the rest of us, it’s a bit of a tossup.
Let’s look at the balance sheet.
Size: The Summer Olympics are too big, critics say. They certainly have outgrown their origins as a track meet for ancient Greek city-states — and they’re still growing. There were 250 events in Barcelona in 1992, 280 in Atlanta four years later, and there will be 300 in Sydney. The number of media representatives — always a good measure of bloat — has jumped from 12,000 in Barcelona to 21,000 in Sydney. A senior International Olympic Committee member this week advocated scaling back future Games so that less developed countries can afford to host one (Africa, South America, India and China have never staged an Olympics). Others have suggested spreading the Games among several cities.
On the plus side, size-wise, is the sheer breadth of the modern Games’ appeal. Like a five-ring circus, they have something for everybody, including unusual sports that otherwise never see a TV camera: synchronized diving, keirin cycling, kayaking, field hockey, beach volleyball. Women’s sports also enjoy their highest profile here. As for dispersing the Games, devotees argue that the Greek-inspired unity of place, time and action — all the world’s best athletes at one site for just two weeks — is the whole point of the exercise.
Scandal: This has been brought to such a pitch of mastery in so many countries that we hear they are thinking of making it an official sport at both the Summer and Winter Games. There will be several events: a corruption marathon; a triathlon of short-run waste, fraud and mismanagement; doping; and gambling. All athletes are automatically eligible to participate in the latter two. This should deftly transform what has been a running sore on the entire Olympic body into a selling point for future Games.
Unscripted disturbances: These can go either way. On the negative side are the major tragedies that can scar a Games forever — the Munich massacre of 1972, the Atlanta bombing of 1996 — and the lesser foulups that simply upset people, like the barbecued doves of Seoul or the transportation glitches that plagued Nagano. That is why Sydney has rightly been at pains to keep its nuclear facilities and Olympic venues off-limits to terrorists and its wobbly trains on the rails.
On the positive side is the fact that unscripted disturbances are good value for those who find it hard to get serious about medal counts or world records. Sydney has already provided excellent entertainment in the form of sensible Australians trying to steal the Olympic torch and throw it in the ocean, sensible sharks steering clear of scary triathletes training in Sydney Harbor, and silly athletes insulting each other like chest-thumping gorillas. These are all just what one expects from a well-run Olympics. And we can’t wait to see what Sydney’s famous drag queens come up with for the closing ceremony.
The world’s longest drum roll: It may actually stand second in this respect to the U.S. presidential-election runup, but pre-Olympic hype has much the same effect as a nomination convention. By the time their big day rolls round, nobody will care what happens to Marion Jones or Ian Thorpe or the U.S. basketball team. In fact, right-minded people would rather go swimming with the sharks than watch them compete. There is no bright side to this deadly, hype-induced boredom, but luckily, it is always offset by:
Corny moments. These are the heart and soul of the Olympics. The best are unheralded, like gymnast Kerri Strug vaulting for team gold on a broken ankle in Atlanta, but they can cap years of anticipation, too. If Japan’s Ryoko Tamura and Naoko Takahashi win their judo and marathon events, as the country fully expects, those will be Grade A corny moments. If Australia’s track star Cathy Freeman becomes the first Aborigine to win gold — on her home ground — hearts will squeeze a bit. And then there are the nonathletic high points. There will be two surefire ones in tonight’s opening ceremony alone: when the North and South Korean delegations march together for the first time, and when those four athletes from East Timor walk out to represent the world’s newest country.
Boring? No way. This is the greatest show on Earth.
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