An Olympic End

by Caleb Zigas on August 30, 2004

As the convention and all of its discontents officially begins in New York City, the Athens Olympics comes to a storied end. For the first time in some 1200 years athletes returned to Olympia, and now, again, it is time for them to go home. At the end of these games, several things have become clear; America’s long-held dominance in certain arenas is being contested in an interesting twist of globalization, the women in America simply outshine the men when it comes to teamwork, and the passion that parlays sports into politics remains as powerful as ever.

The return home, for the United States, will be a numerically triumphant one, having won 103 medals, almost ten more than the closest competition. But in these Olympics, rife as they were with drug rumors, threats of terrorism, and criminally low attendance, the medals have a way of not telling the entire story.

Who could imagine, for instance, that the Unites States, in two of the sports that it holds claim to have created-baseball and basketball-failed to qualify and performed below-expectations, respectively? The American men’s baseball team was nowhere to be found; in fact they were not in Athens, and the Cuban team put in a fine performance to win their gold over the Australians, though it was clear that they wanted the Americans. The story of the men’s basketball team, of course, is at this point almost old news. A group of talented young men, assembled only shortly before the competition, lost to the ten-years-together-wise Argentines on their way to their first bronze medal in the event. Meanwhile, our women, perhaps used to the lower attendance they undeservedly receive at home, simply dominated softball, basketball and soccer. The women’s teams showed a grace and teamwork that made them our standard-bearers for team sports in this Olympics. The men’s teams, underrated I think for their eventual modesty and grace, showed Allen Iverson at his best-modest, hard-working, and cognizant of just how far the world’s basketball has come. Despite his age, Larry Brown insisted on following the reasoning of an immature coach in explaining that the US never had the team they wanted. From a man who has preached teamwork his entire life, the justification seems immature.

Speaking of immature, does anyone else think that if South Korea had robbed our gymnastics program on a technical and mechanical error that has been entirely validated, we’d be adding another country to the Axis of Evil? As amazing as Paul Hamm’s comeback victory was, and as brilliant as his entire performance remains, his gold is scarred with the knowledge that there was someone there who was better-someone who deserved gold. The recent letter sent to him from the IOC suggested that he relinquish his gold willingly, a suggestion that seems headed nowhere. But Hamm had his choice. Faced with the fact that his gold was the result of a mistake, the sportsmans’ responsibility is to give the medal to the one who deserved it. Even the initial offer to share the gold medal would have been sufficient, as shared golds would speak both to the efforts of the athletes and the spirit of the games. And silver’s not too bad either. As the sagely Allen Iverson said, “If you don’t get it done the way you expected to, I think it’s important that you get it done the best way you can.” Iverson went on, “It’s an honor to be named to this team. It’s something that you should cherish for the rest of your life. And honestly, this is something that I will cherish even without winning a gold medal. I feel like a special basketball player to make it to a team like this.” Substitute gymnast and you’d have an Olympic hero, instead we are hearing grumbles about our spoiled basketball team and our own Olympic committee is throwing fits over Hamm’s medals.

Meanwhile, the Republican Convention begins in New York. On the back of an advertising campaign that used the Iraqi soccer team’s images against their will, George W. Bush has tried to use these Olympics as a way to right America’s PR ship in the world. Unfortunately, the Iraqi soccer players wanted nothing to do with his commercial, Colin Powell caused the only disturbances at the game, and our chances to extend a sort of grace in losing has been undermined by our own national interest in dominance. There are, of course, brilliant moments in these Olympics. Michael Phelps’ many medals will not soon be forgotten, nor will an American clean sweep in the 200 M. And our women teams are all stories worth telling. Every Olympics brings with it a barrage of images, both positive and negative. These will be remembered for bringing competition back to its storied home and for the way that the events showed the changing nature of American dominance. These Olympics are another example of our leaders leading us astray: Colin Powell received a chorus of boos, the US Olympic Committee has refused to hear a compromise on the Hamm medal, and Larry Brown, for all I know, is still making excuses. My nomination for Olympic ambassador, responding to the claim that America was simply not ready, replied, “That’s just not an excuse we can use.” If only we were listening better.

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