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Olympics 2004: Despite Problems, Olympic Ideals Endure

The Olympic Games have long represented ideals of humanity's highest callings -- a universal quest for peace, moral integrity, and an exalted mix of mind, body, and spirit that transcends culture. From the outset of the modern games, its organizers have looked to ancient Greece as the source of those ideals. However, with the integrity of sports now threatened by corruption, commercialism, and doping -- not to mention the wider problem of terrorism and war -- those ideals appear in peril. Yet were they ever truly real, even in ancient Olympia? Maybe not. But as RFE/RL reports, the Olympic spirit is alive and well nonetheless.

Prague, 6 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In the beginning, Greek mythological figures Zeus and Cronus wrestled for kingship of the universe.

This month in Athens, America's Tim Duncan and China's Yao Ming -- near-mythological figures of the U.S. National Basketball Association -- will battle for kingship of the basketball court.

The Olympics have come a long way since their start in ancient Greece and their modern return in Athens in 1896.

And yet, some things never change.

The founder of the modern games, French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin, sought to portray the Olympics as representing our highest callings. That included a universal quest for peace and moral integrity that were supposedly a part of the ancient games.
"I personally still believe that the Olympic Games are a vehicle, a representation of our better instincts, our better attitudes. This is worth fighting for, worth preserving"

Yet scholars say that much of what we understand as the Olympic ideals, rooted in ancient Greek tradition, are actually the product of a massive public relations campaign started by de Coubertin 100 years ago.

"Well, a lot of it is spin," says Pieter Broucke, an expert on ancient art and architecture at Middlebury College in the U.S. state of Vermont. "We're talking about the very end of the 19th century. Romanticism is still very much part of that picture. Just the whole idea of reviving an ancient tradition, an ancient event such as this, fits right into that notion right there."

Broucke has spent 12 years excavating remains at an ancient stadium not far from the first ancient games in the Greek town of Olympia.

He and other experts tell RFE/RL that some Olympic ideals remain worthy aspirations, but others never made much sense.

Take the notion of amateurism. For nearly a century -- until 1988, when the policy on amateurism was dropped -- Olympic officials rigorously monitored athletes to ensure they never received money or gifts in exchange for their athletic performances.

The rule was meant to emphasize the purity of sport, by stripping it of all connections to commerce. In reality, it meant the exclusion of many athletes who could not afford to train without outside financial support. It also meant that many world-class athletes were stripped of their Olympic medals for even minor violations.

In the end, it amounted to class discrimination, says English writer David Miller, author of "Athens to Athens: The Official History of the Olympic Games and the IOC."

"This idea that only amateurs could take part was utter nonsense. It was a kind of protected exclusivity. You know, 'We don't want these working-class chaps here. We don't want the postmen, the dustmen, the bricklayers -- these uncouth laborers. This is a sport for gentlemen,'" Miller says.

American Jim Thorpe is the best example of such discrimination. Thorpe, who broke the world records in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, was hailed as "the best athlete of the world" by the king of Sweden and showered with accolades.

But he was later publicly humiliated, stripped of all his medals and prizes, when it was discovered he had taken money for playing in a semi-professional baseball game.

"That was an appalling affair, because he took a few bucks for playing in a minor baseball game -- I think it was $10. It was sure victimization. And here was one of the greatest guys that ever trod a sports field -- in multiple things. I mean, he was a brilliant, brilliant American football player," Miller says.

De Coubertin and others justified this strict adherence to amateurism in part by harkening back to the ancient Greeks, who they said were all nonpaid athletes.

But according to the Belgian-born Broucke, ancient Greek athletes in fact received generous gifts and compensation for victories. Athletic prestige was prized by city-states, which often used it as political propaganda -- much as modern governments bask in the prestige of victories by their own athletes today.

"The victors received as an official prize a laurel wreath, which is not necessarily all that much. But then their respective city-states, the equivalent of their countries nowadays, would put up dedications to them at the sites in Olympia. These would be much more valuable statues -- bronze statues, life-size -- of the athletes, with a long inscription that would celebrate the victor [and] also the city-states with which the athletes would be connected -- statues that don't really have much function besides propaganda," Broucke says.

But where in years past they were scrutinized over pay, now athletes are under the microscope for doping. Performance-enhancing drugs are widely considered to be the major threat to the integrity of sports today.

Suspicions hover over many top athletes, most recently American star sprinter Marion Jones, and the Athens Games are unlikely to pass without some doping scandal.

Still, veteran Czech journalist Frantisek Bouc, believes there's reason for some optimism. "I think the current anti-doping system is working quite well and the filter is quite high. So whoever tries to cheat is under big danger that the cheating is going to be revealed and he's going to be suspended. So I wouldn't be afraid that the doping issue is going to ruin the Olympics," Bouc says.

Another problem facing the Olympics is violence. Unlike never before, this year's games face the threat of mass terrorism.

Yet the ancient competitions was hardly immune to violence, despite the much-promoted "Olympic truce" in which all warring ceased in order to allow competitors from across Greece to travel and take part in the quadrennial event.

In reality, the truce was at times broken, and British historian Nigel Spivey says in "The Ancient Olympics" that there was even a full-scale battle at Olympia itself in 364 B.C.

That leaves corruption -- surely a modern problem, right? After all, recent Olympics have been plagued by scandals involving officials from cities hoping to host the games allegedly bribing Olympic officials.

But Broucke, the U.S.-based scholar, says the ancient games offer plenty of corruption examples, especially during the later Roman era, such as under notorious Emperor Nero.

"Nowadays, the Olympics are only sports events. But in antiquity, there was also playing the lyre and singing and playing the flute, and things like that. And so, Nero was very good with the chariot but also very good at singing, even though we have some evidence that his voice was not all that good. But he managed to win absolutely everything he participated in. Either Nero was extraordinary, or there must have been some corruption there. And I would suspect, strongly, the latter," Broucke says.

Despite all this, none of the scholars suggest that human foibles take away from the Olympic ideals. If anything, they say these shortcomings reinforce why the Olympics ideals remain enduring goals for humanity.

Miller sees the Olympics as a unique forum for human endeavor. He cites the story of Josiah Thugwane, who rose from poverty in apartheid to become South Africa's first black gold-medal winner at Atlanta in 1996. Thugwane went on to use the money from his fame to teach himself to read and write.

"I personally still believe that the Olympic Games are a vehicle, a representation of our better instincts, our better attitudes. This is worth fighting for, worth preserving, does represent something that, you know, exists in all of us," Miller says.

More stories about the Olympics from RFE/RL:

Muslim Women Athletes Move Ahead, But Don't Leave Faith Behind

After Medal-Winning Glory, What Next For Former Soviet Athletes?

For Some Athletes, Behind The Medals Lies Real Gold

Games Struggle For Spotlight, But Prestige Remains