No Real Defining Olympic Moments, but We'll Take It

The World War II President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, said he read the sports page first to be reminded of man's victories, then read the front page to be reminded of man's tragedies. The Olymp

Jerry Dowling



The World War II President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, said he read the sports page first to be reminded of man's victories, then read the front page to be reminded of man's tragedies. The Olympics never give us that choice. They are victory and tragedy, always at home on the front page and the sports page.

The greatest victory of the Olympics is the ideal itself, especially as it gains momentum in nations that are unknown, newly sovereign or simply grasping for athletic legitimacy. The Olympic ideal is the ideal of sports generally, the prayer that mind, body and spirit can be combined in good will toward their common goals and to no other ends.

But interference comes in pretty strong from money, love, fame, avarice, religious fanaticism and the other forces that make the world go around. The tragedy of the Olympics is that man is corrupted by gold, silver and even bronze.

The Olympics can never be perfect. They're as flawed as humanity and as satisfying as a world of winners and losers will allow. The same countries that provide the athletes also fight the wars.

We're relieved the world didn't impinge on these Olympics to the extent we've come to consider. Thank the Greek government's $1.5 billion security investment, since it's better to be safe.

But the heart should hope that even al-Qaeda wants to see the Olympics. The ideal of the Olympics is that inclusive. But it's the tragedy of the Olympics that the ideal is so naive.

At the end of every Olympics that aren't interrupted by bomb threats or murders, we thank and congratulate the hosts, then mop our brows and wonder, in the most wonderous way, how the world can ever do something like this. It's enough to buttress one's faith in humanity, such as it is.

When the controversies at the Olympics cut to nothing more than whether or not the contests were fairly played and honestly won, it's as much of a victory as we could want.

The doping scandals at the Olympics completed last weekend in Athens were fairly minor, telling us little except that the Hungarians might think about researching their masking agents. The Hungarians lost two gold medals and a silver to the piss man, who stripped seven athletes of their medals and took another 21 entirely out of circulation.

The possibilities for intrigue and imperfection are endless at the Olympics. Judging at the Olympics is never an entirely tidy affair. Who are we kidding? At least the corrupt judges might be competent. Some judges who weren't on the take might have been more resolute if they were.

We were bound to run into an episode like Paul Hamm's tiff with the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG). In essence, FIG violated its own rules, then applied them unevenly, though hypothetically, to open a can of worms questioning Hamm's gold medal in the men's gymnastics all-around.

The politics and favor making under FIG's actions would be a great story in itself. For whatever reasons, FIG reviewed the tape of South Korean gymnast Yang Tae Young's parallel bars routine after the window for protest elapsed, then decided the judges unfairly docked him 1/10th of a point for an incorrect start. Had the judges gotten it right in the first place, Yang would have won the gold medal.

But FIG also ruled that the score wouldn't be changed, since the South Koreans didn't protest before the end of the event. If the judges were a little courageous, or just honest, the affair would have died. Of course, discretion isn't their strong suit. After FIG violated its own rules, it sent a letter to Hamm asking him to forfeit his gold medal. So, Hamm ended up having to defend himself, even though FIG shouldn't have run the tape in the first place.

Hamm made no gesture to comply with FIG's incredible request, saying the tape showed that the judges missed enough deductions for Yang to maintain the result if they were applied. He should have been furious. Justice won out, and Hamm's gold medal wasn't further challenged. At least not officially.

Then Wheaties came out with its knighting of the true American Olympic heroes who will be immortalized on cereal boxes. The list of high honorees didn't include Hamm, naturally raising question about the perceived legitimacy of his gold medal. General Mills picked three champions who all are worthy and "include a broad cross-section of sports" as General Mills put it. A white guy, a woman and a black guy.

The white guy, Michael Phelps, won eight swimming medals, including six golds, then gave up his spot on a gold medal relay to an esteemed rival. Because the Wheaties box is supposed to spin off lots of endorsements for those chosen, we get to imagine how the marketers will sell his aristocratic generosity. It's understood that a lot of guys wouldn't be so kind. The question wouldn't even come up, nor should it. But Phelps decided to be a good sport, which is always a good story in sports.

Wheaties wouldn't have picked Hamm over Phelps even if Hamm's gold medal were uncontested. It ended right. The results shouldn't have been overturned just because of a flaw in the judging. Hamm didn't lose out on the Wheaties box because of the controversy. It's the breaks. You can't go back to change the results. That's what you thought before the marathon.

Inevitably, the big stage of the Olympics draws big fools. A defrocked Irish priest, 57-year-old Cornelius Horan, darted from the crowd wearing a green beret, a red kilt and knee-high green socks to attack the marathon leader, Brazil's Vanderlei Lima, three miles from the finish. Lima finished third in the race.

The Brazilians were rejected in their appeal for a duplicate gold medal. Now you're wondering again about going back and changing the results.

The games have to bear some responsibility for the integrity of the contest, and Lima was clearly injured by this security failure. If the Olympics can strip medals from athletes who cheat, why can't they award medals to athletes who are so blatantly cheated? Well, they can. The figure skating competition in the last winter games awarded duplicate golds over a judging scandal.

One key difference between the marathon and gymnastics snafus is that the marathon isn't, in essense, a judged contest. The criteria for winning gymnastics is the approval of judges. The judges aren't even like referees. They're more like touchdowns. If they foul up, they foul up, but if they start playing loose with replays, we might never see the end of scoring revisions. Errors by the judge, even when they're misjudgements, are part of the game.

But it was nothing from within the game that derailed Lima. The athlete had no reasonable expectation that an attacker would be among his obstacles. Failure by organizers to prevent this kind of attack deligitimizes the result. It might not be a bad idea to redress it with a duplicate gold.

The Olympics are crazy like that, for the judgment calls about fair and unfair are sometimes more absorbing than the performances. They were especially more absorbing than the performances of the USA men's basketball, boxing and track teams, though USA women's teams in basketball, softball and soccer picked them up and the United States topped its 100 medal goal with 103 medals, the most of any nation.

But that wasn't any kind of surprise. We didn't watch the Olympics in suspense that the USA wouldn't win the most medals.

The Olympics are about seeing what there is to see, which didn't include any especially defining moments this time. Then again, if we'd been offered beforehand an Olympics without a defining moment of any kind, we might have taken it.

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