August 5, 2008
After lying dormant for more than 22 centuries, the modern Olympic Games were launched in 1896. Held in Athens (of course!), the first modern Olympiad attracted the largest crowd ever to have assembled for a sporting event. The athletes were truly amateurs—so much so that, when I was in college, I threw the discus far enough to have won the gold medal at the 1896 Olympics. Don’t be impressed. My toss only qualified for third place at an intramural track meet at a small college. Today, many high-school girls throw the discus farther than I did.
The greatest film ever made about the Olympics was “Chariots of Fire,” the last G-rated movie to win the Oscar for Best Picture. This stirring story about the 1924 Olympics and the intersecting athletic careers of Jewish Cambridge student Harold Abrahams and Scottish Christian-missionary-to-be Eric Liddell had a difficult time finding financial backing due to the Christian-Jewish themes. The project was rescued when a Muslim, Dodi Al-Fayed (who died with Princess Diana in that tragic car crash), bankrolled the film. “Chariots of Fire” is undoubtedly the best movie ever made about the Olympics.
Geopolitical affairs have often obtruded on the Olympic ideals of peace and global fellowship. The Games were canceled during both world wars. One of the most memorable Olympics was in 1936, when American track star Jesse Owens, a black man, won four gold medals in Berlin—exploding Hitler’s dogma of Aryan supremacy.
Who was the greatest Olympian of all time? Jim Thorpe, Nadia Comaneci, Carl Lewis, Katarina Witt? How about Abebe Bikila? The Ethiopian was one of only two marathon runners to win gold twice. In 1960, Mr. Bikila ran barefoot, breaking the heart of the sports shoe companies seeking endorsements. He won again in 1964, only 40 days after undergoing an emergency appendectomy. What a lion-heart!
In 1964, the blond, handsome American swimmer Don Schollander won gold and graced many magazine covers. In the ‘70s, one of my dates mentioned that she had a husband (those ‘70s sure were different!). Marlin, the husband, became my close friend. In 1964, he had shared Schollander’s national swim record, and his blondness and good looks, too. Marlin might have won gold, but he bypassed the Olympics to join the navy and see the world. Can you imagine an athlete making that choice today?
The 1968 games were memorable for the black power gesture of two American sprinters on the winners’ podium and the amazing feat of Bob Beamon, who smashed the world long jump record by more than a foot, becoming the first human to break both the 28-foot and 29-foot barriers.
The 1972 games were the saddest, as Arab terrorists murdered Israeli athletes in their quarters in Munich. By violating the Olympic Games with those cold-blooded murders, the perpetrators lost much sympathy for the Palestinian cause.
The decades-long rivalry between the Free World and Communist Bloc reached its climax at the 1980 Winter Games. The victory of the American hockey team, consisting of young amateurs, over the mighty Red Army team symbolized the triumph of liberty over tyranny. The guttural chant “U-S-A” never sounded so sweet. (Now that the cold war is over, is that pounding, in-your-face chant appropriate when an American athlete beats some postal clerk from Paraguay or Timbuktu?)
Besides the geopolitical undercurrents that have conflicted with the Olympic ideal of global brotherhood, the Games’ lofty aspirations have been vitiated by doping scandals and corrupt judging. The International Olympic Committee itself has compromised its own ideals by opening events to professionals already earning millions for playing their sports. Nevertheless, the noble ideals of the Olympics—striving to achieve one’s best in a spirit of genuine brotherhood and charity—endure. Many more Olympians honor those ideals than fall short of them.
One of the great experiences of my life was attending the opening ceremony of the 2002 winter games in Salt Lake City with my daughter as guests of the Olympic Committee. Karin had composed the torch relay song, “Carry the Flame” (recorded by Aretha Franklin), which captured the Olympic spirit, reminding each of us of our opportunity to be all that we can be. I’ll never forget how the crowd enthusiastically welcomed all the athletes at Opening Ceremony—Russian, French, Islamic, every single one. The Olympics provide a vivid demonstration that individual human beings can harmonize beautifully when politics doesn’t intrude.
As we observe the 2008 Olympic Games in China, let us all embrace the Olympic spirit. May the spirit of true brotherhood and sisterhood prevail—let us feel unselfish joy in each other’s accomplishments. May the Olympic Games inspire us to build a future in which the whole human race coexists as one family, working peacefully and cooperatively to achieve humankind’s maximum potential.
Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is a faculty member, economist, and contributing scholar with the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.