Are the Olympic Games worth it?
The expectation of amazing feats trains the eyes of the world on Beijing, despite the Olympics' frequent betrayal of their founding principles, says James Lawton.
Every four years we ask the same question, the big one: Why do we still bother with the Olympics? |Why give credence to an idea which collapsed under its own idealism in 1936 when Hitler in Berlin proclaimed his belief, not in international brotherhood, but the existence of his own master race?
Why give China, with its appalling human rights record, the chance to show development has brought it to a point of superiority over America in a chase for medals that will be less about sport than propaganda?
Most of us know why we bother with the Olympics, why I will be packing my bag for the ninth time since Montreal 32 years ago. We bother in the hope that they will get better and not be at odds with the true meaning of sport. We go because we know we will see something we will never forget. Something we hope will not be revealed a fraud.
A fraud like the one exposed in Seoul in 1988 when we believed we had seen an astonishing example of athletic power. Then we learnt that Ben Johnson had, when running his breathtaking world record time of 9.79 seconds in the 100m, been drugged up to his eyeballs.
If anyone had the innocence required to feel betrayed they would agree that what they saw would always be remembered. Johnson flew from the blocks and ran so hard that a look of disbelief spread across Carl Lewis’s face, and then looked back in triumph pointing a single finger at the sky.
Also seen was Linford Christie finishing with bronze, which turned into silver when Johnson was disqualified, and reviling Johnson’s cheating ways. Christie later tested positive but explained it must have been because he drank ginseng tea. His career ended a decade later with a suspension for being found with traces of an illegal substance in his blood.
In Beijing, British sport is guaranteed one dilemma now that the legal pleadings of Dwain Chambers have failed. His fight against the British Olympic Association (BOA) rule that those convicted of drug-related offences are banned from the Olympics took us into a collision between the world of sport and the real one where the law says that you cannot be punished twice for the same offence.
As Chambers waited to hear his fate, there was a much less complicated response to 400m favourite, Christine Ohuruogu, whose explanation that she missed three straight drug tests out of forgetfulness was accepted by the English track authority and the BOA.
Ohuruogu provokes the same doubts that were raised by Florence Griffith-Joyner, who improved dramatically in the months before Seoul where she won 100m gold. “Flo-Jo” did not test positive once in her career. Her rival, however, Evelyn Ashford was dragged from the stadium, screaming her protests. Griffith-Joyner died at 38 from a congenital brain abnormality, but never outran the doubts which built when she retired from the sport on the eve of mandatory random drug testing.
Doubt, of course, is always at the other side of almost every Olympic glory, but what glory. In Beijing, the battle between China and the United States will take on an epic quality.
There was always the war for medals between America, the Soviet Union and the mini-state with the most efficient drug factories in sport, the German Democratic Republic.
However, amid the controversy and politics, there is least one man or woman who found on the Olympic stage the opportunity to become immortal in the hearts of all those who saw them.
Munich '72 will always be remembered for the massacre of the Israeli athletes and coaches. But there was also the elf of Munich, or was it the angel, Olga Korbut, a gymnast who captivated the world.
Four years later she was encountered in Montreal, pale and with mascara-smudged tears, eclipsed by another dazzling teenaged girl, Nadia Comaneci of Romania. We knew, then, how they made the gymnastic angels. They gave them drugs that retarded their growth as young women and stopped their periods.
There was also the Finnish middle-distance runner Lasse Viren, a brilliant double gold medallist at 5,000 and 10,000m who was accused of blood doping before it was made illegal.
Lives were not lost, at least not physically, in Montreal but there are memories of young Nigerian athletes at the airport waiting to fly home after orders to boycott the games.
Archie Moore, the boxing champion who had brought them said: “You see these kids yearning to compete in the Olympics, you watch them working over the years and then see them when all their hopes are destroyed. I've seen some cruelty in my life but this is right up there.”
British greats include Steven Redgrave starting in Los Angeles and finishing 16 years later with five gold medals. Matthew Pinsent settled for four in Athens. When he did so he had tears in his eyes and talked of how much work had to go into that burst of effort on the water. That is what the Olympics should mean. Who will shine when China's athletes come to life and take on the might of America? At 7ft 6in Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets will start with an advantage as he leads China against the Americans in one battle on the basketball court.
Most likely to cast a shadow on Chinese hopes are Michael Phelps, the American swimmer trying for eight medals and Usain Bolt, the Jamaican 100m world record holder who has been christened “Lightning” and has not aroused any suspicion of drugs.
Britain’s hopes lie with cyclist Victoria Pendleton or yachtsman Ben Ainslie or the brilliant, 14-year-old diver Tom Daley. Maybe Steve Williams, the one survivor of Pinsent's boat, will produce another winning performance. Perhaps Paula Radcliffe will run and redeem the agony of Athens four years ago.
Radcliffe pulled a blanket around her shoulders, shivered and wept. She cried for herself but it might have been for the plight of the Olympics. Yet she fought to return, to resume the pain and, who knows, maybe find something that made sense and joy.
Even in controversy, the Olympics offer a superb stage for extraordinary individual ability and commitment which, we always want to believe can be achieved cleanly. Most people do it, of course, in one form or another. Every four years.