WASHINGTON -- I see that the Olympics Games are again taking place. Nonetheless, the boycott that I slapped on them a couple of decades back remains in effect. I shall not watch them voluntarily. Perhaps I shall be passing through a room where the games are being boomed and blathered, but I shall avert my gaze.
Admittedly the games have suffered no setback since my boycott began. In fact, they seem to be tawdrier than ever. But my boycott has finally attracted the support of my old friend, the former Olympian, Alan Somers, who recently set a world record for the 3000-meter swim for men sixty and over. Al was a teammate of mine on the Indiana University swimming team in the early 1960s where many of our teammates were Olympians and world record holders. When I slapped my boycott on the Olympics he dissented. Worse, he chided me, attributing my boycott to sour grapes over never making the team.
Well, it is true that I never made an Olympic team but I never won a Rhodes Scholarship either, and I have never been critical of Rhodes Scholarships. Yet I accepted Al's rebuke with my usual benignity, confident that as the Olympics lurched ever further from the Olympic ideal of amateurism and good sportsmanship Al would capitulate. It is immensely rewarding to have him on my side during this Olympiad. What is more, next week he will collaborate with me in this space when we shall deplore a particularly egregious excess in this year's swimming competition.
For now Al, whose Olympiad was in 1960 in Rome, is at work reviewing David Maraniss's confused book on those games Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed The World. Among other deficiencies, Maraniss fails to report that the 1960s swimming competition was the first in which male swimmers shaved their body hair to improve their times. One of the great news stories of the games issued from one reactionary American's refusal to follow the fad. Al was the reactionary. He gained instantaneous worldwide recognition after propelling his shaggy body to an Olympic record in the trials for the 400-meter freestyle. How he did in the finals I shall leave for Al to explain. He still denies shaving has anything to do with performance and in fact wore a mustache when he broke the world record in the 3000-meter swim.
What makes this Olympiad fouler than previous games is the behavior of the Chinese government. I can understand its concerns for security. I can even understand its attempts to dissuade political protests -- I said dissuade not repress. But now comes word that the Chinese government is going to oppose displays of faith either before or after an event. Not only that, but apparently the Olympic charter is supporting the repression of religious gestures. Its charter prohibits displays of "political, religious or racial propaganda." No such boilerplate was to be found in the original Olympic charter.
One of the repellent aspects of the Olympics is the megalomania of the athletes, the coaches, even the fans. One of the saving moments is the occasional display of sportsmanship. An athlete graceful in victory or defeat is a noble sight. An athlete thanking his or her maker is equally moving. As our great quarter-miler, Sanya Richards, has said: "It's important [her quick genuflection and prayer of gratitude] because I want people to know that I'm not the best because I'm Sanya Richards. I'm the best because of God. I truly believe we can't will ourselves to win. I hope people see the same thing I see."
It will be interesting to see how the Chinese officials respond to one of the last noble traditions of the Olympics, an athlete giving thanks to God. And will the Olympic officials aid the Chinese? What will the Olympic officials do, deny the athletes their medals? And the Chinese what will they do, send the athletes to reeducation camps?
Actually, I have an answer for both groups of officials. Thanking God for victory after an event, or asking his help before an event, is not "propaganda" as mentioned in the revised Olympic charter. It is prayer. Where prayer is viewed unfavorably no civilized person should want to be.
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