Going for the gold at the Games

The Olympics are here again. I know there are many who think the Games are mostly humbug: millions and millions spent by nationalistic governments (including ours) on a bewildering variety of sports, many of which arguably aren't even sports. Synchronized yoyoing, anyone?

It's a published fact - but not much publicized - that we are paying our medal winners prize money if they bring home the gold, silver and bronze. Plus, we've got our millionaire NBA team in Athens, and young swimming phenom Michael Phelps inked a million-dollar advertising contract before he won any of his multiple medals. So the glorious days of the amateur athlete, at least at the highest level (maybe the three guys from Burundi are amateurs), are over.

And there's no question that the old men and women who run the world try to politicize the Games. Already in Athens there's been an Iranian judo guy who refused to compete against an Israeli judo guy.

And yet I find myself glued to the television every day, swept up by the sight of finely trained young men and women from all over the world competing their hearts out. Or holding back, which is another side of the same coin of competition.

There's plenty to learn and relearn about human nature simply by watching the Olympics, if you can tune out all the jingoistic commentary and flag-waving by the has-been and never-was announcers who keep trying to make the Games sound like a subdivision of the Iraq War.

The Olympics, at least the events not reliant on judges - stuff like swimming, and track and field - pit fellow humans from everywhere against one another in the only worldwide competition, apart from the World Cup, that everyone everywhere watches.

There are moral lessons in competitive sports, too. That's why great writers like Hemingway, Lord Byron, A.J. Liebling, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin along with too many others to mention have written reams about sporting events and sporting personages.

For example, I was gassing last week at Zingaro's in lower Queen Anne with a fellow columnist who toils for one of the local dailies. He was bragging about our Olympic basketball team, how athletic they were. Basically how they were a lock to win the gold medal.

I thought of that while watching that same team, full of NBA millionaires, run out of energy right after their pregame drill, where they were throwing down thunderous dunks from above the rim. Unfortunately, once their game started against little Puerto Rico, our overpaid hoop mercenaries had to make some shots a bit farther away from the basket than above the rim - and found themselves getting thumped by a team that played together instead of by themselves.

At the end, a couple of American players were trying to start fights, the delirious crowd was cheering for the underdog and I was cheered by the fact that effort and preparation, coupled with a good attitude, can still sometimes triumph over bullies possessed of more natural ability.

As a side note, the only American who seemed to be playing hard the entire game was Allen Iverson, a much-maligned and much-misunderstood young guy who is sheerly the best player in the NBA and who, because of his size (6-0, 160), always plays hurt and always plays more intensely than anyone else on the floor.

Iverson aside, the lesson was there for any kid watching. Do your homework and practice. The tortoise still beats the hare, most days.

It was also fun watching the aforementioned swim phenom Michael Phelps fight over the noise of a crazed national media and - at only 19 years of age, still living at home with his mom - win three golds and two bronzes in the first four days of the competition. And then handle every pre- and post-race interview with a bubbly grace.

Reporters and commentators put immense pressure on Phelps to win eight gold medals, something no one in the Olympic pool has ever done. He seemed to be ignoring all that, swimming hard and smiling every time he climbed out of the water.

Phelps seemed a walking billboard for the idea that the competition, not the hype or the money, might actually matter most.

The best thing about the Olympics is that it takes our minds off the mess we seem to be making in the world and at home. No new jobs, an ongoing war to nowhere, 60 million Americans now without health insurance - it all seems to recede into the background for the two-weeks-plus when athletes are going at each other in structured competitions over there in Greece.

There's a lot to be said for the Olympics, and even in a culture of incredible waste, this money seems to me to be well spent.

Ignore the jingoistic press. Ignore the attempts by alleged commentators to inject patriotism and politics into pure sport.

Just sit back and watch finely trained athletes do what finely trained athletes have done since the Greeks got this whole thing rolling in 776 B.C.

If you let yourself, you'll really enjoy the entire spectacle.

Dennis Wilken can be reached at qanews@nwlink.com.

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