Sports Arena

The Great Games

Extravagance and Sportocracy are not new, and they cannot kill the spirit of sports.

By 8.13.12

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There must be something about Kiprotich.

Stephen Kiprotich, 23, Ugandan national, won the marathon in London's Great Games extravaganza in 2 h. 08 min. 01 sec. yesterday, ahead of two Kenyans, the second of whom is Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich, who ran the course in 2/09/37; the second place finisher, if you want to know, is Abel Kirui at 2/08/27. There was an Kiprotich on the French team, first name Abraham, but he dropped out of the race.

The name Kiprotich indicates that you come from a family within a clan of the Nandi people, who are classified by observers as falling within the Nilotic groups, East Africa, upper Nile, that area. So you will find Kiprotich's among Kenyans, Ugandans, South Sudanese.

When the Kenyans are described as great distance runners, usually the reference is to a Nandi.

Ethno-cultural considerations aside, it was a great marathon, with the young Stephen Kiprotich pulling a fast one -- making his move, as distance runners say -- at about three miles from the finish line and getting narrowly ahead of Kirui. The Kenyan team was troubled by the tragic death in May 2011 of its leader, the defending champion Samuel Wanjiru, who won his medal at 2/06/32 at the youngest age ever for this discipline, 21. Having won the London marathon last April, Wilson Kipsang was expected to prevail, but there it is. Another miracle marathoner was Emile Zatopek, the humble son of a Moravian carpenter who was a record-breaker in the five and ten thousand meters races and who ran his very first marathon, in fact, the day after he won these events at the 1952 Games. He won, with a time, 2/23/03, that was more than two minutes ahead of the number two, an Argentine named Reinaldo Gomo.

I owe this astonishing historical information to The Complete Book of the Olympics, 2012 Edition, by David Wallechinsky and Jaime Loucky, a treasure trove of Sports Facts. True, the book is focused on the quadrennial Games that Mr. Pleszczynski and I preferred not to mention by name during the past two weeks in order not to distract from the National League pennant race as well as Yankee Dominance in the American League (with due apologies to our friend Larry Thornberry), as well as the Citi Open (ex-Legg Mason), which took place, as everyone knows, at the W. H. FitzGerald Tennis Center on 16th St., NW.

But that is all in the past, and so are the Games, and so we can say it. This was, notwithstanding this that and the other thing, a wonderful Olympics. These were Great Games. We are delighted to have followed from afar, I am still chafing from Mr. Tyrrell's decision not to attend, wherein I might have talked him into letting me go along for the ride and we might have had tea (or beer) with Mr. Boris Johnson, London mayor and Greeter Extraordinaire for the Games. My aim was to persuade Mr. Johnson to rise to the call and enter the U.S. presidential race, at least as V.P. on the Republican ticket, seeing as how he is New York born. Now it is too late, and I will not mention it anymore, because now is the time to close ranks, let bygones be bygones and failed opportunities be forgot, and turn the page and charge toward vict'ry. Like young Stephen Kiprotich, who ran a truly brilliant and inspired race, and while it is too bad for the Kenyans (who did not win gold in the five and ten thousand meters, either), it was a fine day for the sport, and the marathon, like the decathlon, like so many others, you have to admit, it is the stuff of dreams, but better because it is where dreams meet reality and give us a small brief vision of truth.

And this despite the horrendous record of the sportocrats who run these events, profit handsomely from them, humiliate and oppress the better men than they who compete, and generally remind us that in every endeavor, there are those who do and those who spoil. And from the morons -- and, measuring my words, wicked and probably corrupt individuals at the AAU and IOC who brought down the great James Francis (Jim) Thorpe after the 1912 Games (violating their own rules in the process), the American sportocrat supremo Avery Brundage -- whose record, in truth, is far more interesting and nuanced than that of most sportocrats, or crats generally, and must be understood to be appreciated, the appalling snobs who tried to prevent the great Althea Gibson from breaking the color line in tennis, the moron (corrupt?) head of the International Amateur Basketball Federation (a front organization?), one L. William Jones, who took it upon himself -- though he had no authority to do so -- to give the 1972 basketball final to the communistic team from Soviet Russia, and many more.

Note, though, that one of the pleasures of sports is that they bring out the good qualities with the bad ones in human beings. Jim Thorpe was staunchly defended by the Swedes who, after all, were the hosts and organizers of the 1912 Games and it was only due to the superior fire power (money, political influence) of the AAU and the IOC that they were unable to save Thorpe's medals. Following the disgraceful attitude of the current head of the IOC to refuse to make so much as a gesture toward the remembrance of the Israeli athletes murdered at the Munich Games 40 years ago, an athlete who could be his great grand daughter, American gymnast Alexandra Raisman, showed up his callousness by making her own gesture, and a beautiful one it was.

And as beauty goes, it was abundant at London. The U.S. basketball team -- just take it at face value and worry another day about the issue of professionalism vs. amateurism at the Olympics, which basketball probably epitomizes more than any other sport -- faced teams that included many of their own NBA teammates and rivals, who could and did give them thrilling runs for their money, notably in great semi (Lithuania) and final (Spain) games that went down to the wire. Liberated from the pressures of the pro hoops season, LeBron James and the gang played with a grace and generosity that we do not often see. Some deep pride and goodness brought out in these hugely talented but spoiled young men by the idea of playing for the Stars and Stripes? Something in Coach Mike Krzyzewski's leadership? Sports do have the capacity to change your life, if only for two weeks.

And what a gorgeous race that 5,000 meters was, wherein Great Britain's Mo Farah beat out Ethiopia's Dejen Gebremeskel by scarcely a third of a second -- a third of a second, over five kilometers! A week earlier he had won the 10,000 meters by the same kind of margin over his friend and training partner, America's Galen Rupp. Russia's Yuliya Zaripova leaping to gold in the women's 3,000 meters steeples, kissing her icon in happiness at the end, was moving indeed, as was Ethiopia's tiny gold medalist in the women's 5,000 meters, Meseret Defar, clutching an image of the Virgin and breaking down in tears at the end. Oh the tales you can tell. And this is long-distance admiration. Next time, I shall insist Mr. Tyrrell make the scene, and get us good seats, too.

Sports are gorgeous and you try to keep them in perspective, but so do you try to keep many other things in perspective, and you usually fail. I am not sure why they make such an extravaganza of these Olympic Games whose beauty used to be enhanced by the qualities of simplicity that were part of the original idea as dreamed up -- and made real -- by the Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French person of the late 19th century. At the first Games, the marathon, since we are on to that, was fittingly won by a Greek, Spiridon Louis -- again, I owe this to the diligent research of Wallechinsky & Co. and their brilliantly understated (and often subtly witty) summaries of legendary athletes and events -- who arrived at the Games with shoes provided by his neighbors in his romantic little old Aegean village. There is some doubt whether Louis was a farmer or a soldier, actually, but no matter, he won the very first modern marathon (W. indicates that Herodotus makes no mention of an original one, though he covered the battle that gave it its name) in 2/58/50.

Speaking of shoes, there was a marathoner who ran shoeless (and won), Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila (2/15//16 in 1960 and, again winning gold four years later, 2/12/11). Sadly, he was terribly injured in a car accident a few years later.

Also on shoes, the first winner of Olympic tennis was an Irishman who played in street shoes, because he happened to be in Athens on vacation the day before the Games began and a pal of his from Oxford persuaded him to sign up. Greece was a little backward in those days, and there was no Modell's where to get gear. They faced each other in the final and, like gentlemen, John Pius Boland offered to forfeit -- how could he take the prize away from the friend who had invited him in? -- and Dionysios Kasdaglis would hear nothing of it. Boland, the authors of The Complete Book of the Olympics tell us, was an Irish nationalist who went on to have a great career as a barrister.

The astonishing speed feats of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps reminded me of another speed artist, Wilma Rudolph, who overcame childhood polio to triumph in the 1960 Games at Rome and become, to use the current cliché, a living legend.

It was perfectly in keeping with his lousy manners that IOC boss Jacques Rogge (internationally ranked rugby union in his youth, which shows you can be a great athlete and not learn anything) begrudged Bolt his hamming, which included self-designation as a legend. Legends are as legends do and it is not by making Rogge and co-conspirators rich (he said Bolt would be a legend if he returns to future Games and wins some more, increasing, the sportswriter Dan Wetzel was quick to point out, the IOC coffers) that one becomes a legend, but by the kind of human being and citizen one becomes, presumably, in relation to sports, aided by the virtues learned on the playing fields.

Thorpe, for example, lived his life, served his country, was a gentleman, scarcely complained, even when he was, in all but legal fine print, cheated out of the rights he was told he had to the film made of his life (with Burt Lancaster playing him). Bob Mathias, a great American decathlon winner, went on to serve honorably in Congress, a rarity. Eric Liddell, the Scottish runner whom many know through the film Chariots of Fire, practiced his Christian faith as a missionary in China, where he perished during World War II. There are many more, many many more. Yes, it is true sports, for all the sportocrats and profiteers and for all the wicked and mean qualities they only too often bring out in people, sports do have the capacity to make better individuals, in body and soul. I do not mean to inject politics into this sentimental and childish editorial, but it is, in fact, telling that Mitt Romney gave of himself to rescue the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002 and did not become a sportocrat in the process, and I think it says much for the future of British public leadership that London's wise, erudite, and witty mayor, Boris Johnson, led the organization of this summer's Games with such exuberance and infectious élan.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.