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Sun, August 8, 2004
Not always fun 'n' games
Olympics represent the best -- and worst -- of humanity
By BILL LANKHOF, TORONTO SUN

"As in the daytime there is no star in the sky warmer and brighter than the sun, likewise there is no competition greater than the Olympic Games." -- Pindar, Greek lyric poet, 5th Century B.C.

---

WHEN NICOLAS GILL carries the Canadian flag into the Olympic Stadium Friday, it will mark the 100th anniversary of our country's participation in the world's most popular soap opera.

It was Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin in 1896 who reincarnated the Olympics in its modern form, envisioning a quadrennial reunion of the world's sporting youth, based in amateurism, wrapped in idealism and surrounded by goodwill.

By the time Canada officially got involved in 1904, the modern Olympic Games were all of these. They also were destined to become a stage for the basest of human thought and deed.

Both the Games and Athens -- where the Olympics return for the first time since 1896 -- are microcosms of the human experience. Their histories are filled with intrigue -- Athens as the cradle of Western civilization and the Games as the birthplace of icons and villains of modern sport.


From the end of the 4th millennium B.C. until the present day, the city never has ceased to be inhabited. Periods of glory alternate with days of darkness through the centuries.

Likewise the Games, in their hours of splendour, have seen the likes of Paavo Nurmi, Jesse Owens and Dawn Fraser; matched in darkness by tyrants such as Hitler, the massacre at Munich, the boycotts of the Soviet Union and the United States and now the threat of al-Qaida -- all of whom have attempted to turn a global sporting stage into their political soapbox.

The sadness of Marion Jones, the scourge of steroids, the infamy of Ben Johnson and the controversy that is Tim Montgomery are not new phenomena. Olympic history is littered with shenanigans of cheating, loose women, hard drugs, scandal, disillusionment, political intrigue and, oh yeah, heroic performances.

The virginity of the Olympic institution may not even have been foremost in the mind of de Coubertin.

"His real interest wasn't amateurism ... it was the (creation of the) Games at all cost," says Kevin Wamsley, director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario.

"He wanted to mould the Games as he saw them."

Curiously, de Coubertin's Games, now marketed to the masses, never were intended for them. Born to wealthy parents in France, he identified with the aristocracy.

"He wanted to establish amateurism," says Wamsley, "to maintain a gentlemanly code in athletics. In other words, to exclude the masses."

In his time, the lower classes were preoccupied with finding their next meal.

But from April 6, 1896, when American James Connolly won the triple jump to become the first Olympic champion in more than 1,500 years, the Olympic Games have existed as a parallel universe to modern society, exhibiting the best and worst of humanity.

In other words, it's General Hospital.

Only sweatier.

THE ACROPOLIS OR BUST

Early records date the first Ancient Olympic Games to 776 BC -- or, measured in Canadian terms, about the same time as current shooter Susan Nattrass appeared in her first Games.

Athletes came from every corner of the Greek world aiming at the ultimate prize: An olive wreath and a "heroic" return to their city-states. Unfortunately, living in Toronto and being Maple Leafs fans, most of the local citizenry wouldn't know about heroic returns. But rumour has it that it can happen.

Anyway, all free male citizens were entitled to participate regardless of social status. Those early lineups included Orsippos, a general from Megara; Polymnistor, a shepherd, Diagoras, a member of a royal family from Rhodes and, possibly, a horseman named Ian Millar.

Still checking ...

Many athletes participated in the nude. No women allowed. Of course, even then the men couldn't keep 'em in the kitchen. Women disguised themselves as men and snuck into the stadium. Until, in 393 A.D., Emperor Theodosius came along and put an end to the peep show. He abolished the Games for being "too pagan."

And so began the Olympic tradition of political, ethnic and religious chicanery and interference.

RE-INVENTING THE WHEEL

De Coubertin was born in a time that saw the first stirrings of international competitions, World Fairs and cultural awakenings.

He was influenced by the Franco-Prussian war when Bismark marched through France.

"De Coubertin always blamed that defeat on the fact that he felt the French had turned a bit effeminate," Wamsley said. "He blamed it on a lack of physical fitness. He saw the Games being for men and as a foundation for military preparedness."

Archeological discoveries of artifacts depicting the ancient Games intrigued de Coubertin.

All roads -- those of civilization, thought, the arts, the glory that was ancient Greece -- lead to the Acropolis. From Goethe to Flaubert and Le Corbusier, all the great thinkers have celebrated this place: The symbol of the classical spirit across the ages.

All of this influenced de Coubertin to stage the first revival of the Games since the Emperor took his ball and sent everyone home.

"I think people took him seriously. People saw the value in what he was doing," Wamsley said. "But I don't think people understood what the Olympics really were. It was willy-nilly and people just showed up to compete.

"It certainly wasn't what it has become today."

In the first Games, 300 athletes from 14 countries competed in nine sports -- track and field, swimming, cycling, fencing, gymnastics, shooting, tennis, wrestling and weightlifting.

Connolly became the first Olympic champion this side of Zeus. A Greek with no special training, Spyros Louis won the gold medal competing against an all Greek field in the marathon and became a legend.

It also marked the birth of symbols that have become synonymous with the Games -- the Olympic flag, the Olympic flame, the Olympic creed -- and the Olympic scientifically juiced athlete.

HEROES AND HOOLIGANS

Ben Johnson isn't the first victim of American skullduggery that runs deeper than Carl Lewis' ego -- at least if Canadian conspiracy theorists are to be believed.

It was in 1908 that the U.S. challenged the eligibility of Onondaga marathoner Tom Longboat. He was eventually cleared to run, but collapsed at the 30-kilometre mark, victim of a drug overdose. At the time, strychnine was used by some athletes to improve performance. Whether Longboat was doped to give him a boost, or to put him out of the race, has been a matter of controversy.

Maybe Ben was right. Maybe by the time the Olympics arrived in Seoul just about everybody was doing "It."

So what would de Coubertin think of the Games today?

"I think he would recognize the Games," Wamsley said. "A lot of the rituals he started have been sustained. I think, though, he would be surprised how much ordinary people know about the Games. The sheer magnitude of the Games and the money that's involved would astound him."

FROM BUST TO BOOM

In de Coubertin's days, the Olympics were regional competitions. Jet travel was unknown and mass communication involved a priest and happened on Sunday morning. Which explains why only 12 nations and 645 athletes showed for the 1904 St. Louis Games.

By comparison, the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney included 199 countries and 10,651 athletes. In Athens, there will be more than 16,000 people -- and that is just the media contingent, which has gone from the age of the naked Olympian to the Naked News.

There is nothing amateurish about the Olympics anymore. In Athens, the U.S. Olympic Committee will give its athletes $25,000 for winning a gold. The Games have become an all-encompassing, global entity with the Olympic flame passing through 34 cities and, for the first time in history, touching all five continents on its journey back to the Acropolis.

In Athens, women's wrestling makes its debut, putting a new curve on de Coubertin's advocacy of the marriage of sport and Greek classicism.

THE CANADIAN WAY

In Canada, Olympians are expected to train in anonymity for three years plus 50 weeks, then emerge from living in their parents' basements to reap gold and heap praise upon a momentarily-adoring public that will slip back into somnolence as soon as the lights dim on the closing ceremony.

Only 30% of Canada's amateur athletes live above the poverty line. Unless their name happens to be Elvis Stojko or Donovan Bailey, most continue to be sponsor-starved, underfunded and ignored. Ask nine out of 10 people at Bay and Front and they wouldn't know if Nicolas Macrozonaris is the best Canadian sprinter this side of Bailey or a doorman at the ouzo bar outside Hadrian's Arch.

Then there's Fanny Letourneau. A Canadian synchronized swimmer, or a turn of the century vaudeville performer?

Your choice.

This Canadian insouciance is as much a part of our heritage as mosquitoes on an August night, hockey pucks and snowmen in January. It dates to our 1904 debut -- the first Games at which gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded -- when Canada won four gold medals. A Montreal policeman, Etienne Desmarteau, won the hammer throw becoming Canada's first official Olympic gold medallist. George Lyon, of Toronto won the golf, and the Galt Football Club and Winnipeg Shamrock Lacrosse Club won titles.

"Canada has many faces within the Olympic movement. I think the IOC would include us as long-standing Olympic supporters.

"We had a great contingent at the 1904 Games," Wamsley said. "We've had great athletes. On the other hand we're known for Montreal and there's Ben Johnson. We'll always be tainted with that."

When it comes to getting dissed, today's athletes have nothing on Desmarteau.

First, the Montreal Police Association refused to sponsor him. Desmarteau was forced to pay his own way to St. Louis. Finally, he was fired for taking time off. It was only after he won the gold medal that the force reinstated him. Some things (heavy sigh) never change.

And that Brawn Drain -- the one where Canadian sports officials fret about Canada's best athletes heading south -- is not a new story, either.

It cost Canada its first Olympic medal in 1900. George Orton -- a Toronto Lacrosse Club star -- became the first Canadian (sort of) to win an Olympic event: The 2,500 metre steeplechase.

Only one problem.

The requirement that athletes compete as members of national teams didn't come until 1908 and Orton, studying at the University of Pennsylvania, travelled to Paris as part of the U.S. team.

This week in Athens, Canada will have 267 athletes -- most of whom have been required to meet Canadian Olympic standards far more stringent than those set by the IOC itself.

We prefer, it seems, to do things the hard way.

We have 100 years of Olympic tradition, from Tom Longboat to Ben Johnson, to prove it.

It is the Canadian way, eh!



Does Canada's low-medal haul in Athens bother you?
Yes, it depresses me
No, it's just sports
I'm disappointed, but not worried
We'll get 'em in Turin
Don't care

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