All right, I know there's always one game on the field and another in the stands. What's crucial to athletes doesn't necessarily coincide with what's important to spectators. And I should know by now that commercial promotion reaches a hysterical pitch before each Olympics. But as a former Olympic marathoner (1968 and 1972), I'm still hurt when presumably reasonable citizens and publications make it clear that they have absolutely no idea of the true meaning of Olympic competition and of the ceremonies attendant to the Games.
Take the case of the Olympic torch. Unquestionably, its 9,100-mile passage through the nation brought forth heartfelt response. In small towns in Oregon, where I live, people sat for hours waiting for a glimpse of it. When the torch passed, the watchers were moved. Then, alas, they spoke. "I'm behind the Olympics," said one man, "although we can't seem to leave the politics out. But I must say I love to see our team beat the Communist countries." A woman said, "It's a symbol of our country and what it stands for."
The New York Times said the torch run had become "an American celebration." The Eugene (Ore.) Register Guard reported that "A genuine burst of flag-waving patriotism has erupted as the runners bearing the torch passed by." All this was said to the consternation of Olympians.
At a gathering of 7,000 awaiting the flame's arrival in Eugene on July 9, Jon Anderson, a 1972 Olympic 10,000-meter runner, after consulting with Olympic skiers Bill Koch and Dan Simoneau, was compelled to address the crowd. "Do we need to be reminded that the torch doesn't represent the United States," he asked, "that it's a symbol for all nations and people in the world? The torch represents the spirit of internationalism—a spirit of understanding and toleration. The torch is a symbol of the Olympic ideals that any nation can strive for....
August 12, 1984
"Let's remember that this torch does not represent $3,000 per kilometer, Sam the Olympic Eagle, AT&T or Los Angeles. And it does not represent the U.S. If it represents any nation, it represents ancient Greece, where wars and politics were put aside for a peaceful competition."
Anderson's words drew little but confused looks from all but the half a dozen who had appeared in the Olympics. They were cheering hard.
Later, on reflection, there seemed to be several possible explanations for this. One, ugly in its absence of hope, is that many people are simply so permeated with simplistic "go for the gold" TV advertising that they're not able to react to anything—be it spaceship, Olympics, disarmament or holocaust—with any emotion other than nationalistic zeal.
More charitably, it seemed that this was one of those times when you had to have been there, been in the Games. They were, for Anderson, Koch and the rest of us Olympians, a glimpse of a better world, one that doesn't exist except for a few weeks every four years, a tantalizing experience of what life might be like if we all had some common purpose, if we all followed the same rules.
As we have lived them, the very thing the Olympics transcend is patriotism. They don't contradict it, they just rise above it. The "politics" that everyone rues in the Games is simply patriotism gone too far. Everyone loves his or her country. Olympians recognize that, but too often people go beyond that love. "Here's a thing I don't understand," runner Henry Rono of Kenya has said. "Who does not like home? If I tell you that you have a fine house, does it mean I live in a poor one?" Is it still patriotism if you believe your nation is superior to all others? Or arrogance?
As every Olympian knows, the Games are not about nations but about individuals. The Olympics make sense only that way. This isn't to say that all Olympians are friends, but simply that they all can expect certain common values and aspirations in teammates and opponents. When they think of each other, they think of character, of technique, of toughness, sometimes of beauty. They seldom think of nationality, unless they remember the seemingly unnecessary strictures some countries place on their athletes' travel. Or the flawed systems of athletic development that friends must labor under. Americans lament that they infrequently see East German sprinters Marita Koch and Marlies Gohr in the West. British milers such as Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett have bemoaned the fact that U.S. runners from Jim Ryun to Steve Scott have had to survive a college program that seems designed to burn them out early.
Ah, but there's an essential Olympic occasion that is related to country, that of waiting on the victory stand, watching one's flag being raised. That moment is reported by many athletes to be a delicious one. It's wonderful to know that you gave your whole country a lift. But I wonder if this feeling is as much a manifestation of patriotism as it is the performer's reward—the satisfaction of a dependable person having been deeply depended upon and having come through.
But beyond that, when Olympic performance is burdened with representing a whole system, it crumbles and grows ludicrous.
There was one print ad I saw during the pre-Olympic period that billed itself as THE [COMPANY] 1984 OLYMPIC TRACK AND FIELD SCORECARD. Each track and field event was listed, with the Olympic record and the year it was set. But nowhere appeared the name of the athlete who set it. Instead, there was only the name of a country. This chart would have had you believe that in 1968 the U.S. sprinted the women's 100 meters in 11.0, that in 72 Finland ran the men's 10,000 in 27:38.40 and that in '80 Russia lumbered through the women's 1,500 in 3:56.60. None of those countries moved an inch. Instead, their respective citizens, Wyomia Tyus, Lasse Viren and Tatyana Kazankina, set those records.
The advertiser presumably didn't care about them. It apparently cared only about using the Olympics to sell its products, and it figured that most prospective customers would be more com Portable seeing a recognizable country than some unfamiliar athlete's name. Or maybe if it didn't use the athletes' names it could escape any obligation to pay them a little something for appropriating their magnificent performances to associate with its product. As a teammate of Tyus's, a friend of Viren's and a witness to Kazankina's run, I found that obscene.
I concede that a few of the year's ads and commercials distinguished themselves by honoring, some quite movingly. Olympic ideals. But for the most part they were at least as bad as the aforementioned "scorecard." To me the most shameless was a magazine ad that showed a field of runners breaking out of the blocks. "It used to be, nobody ran the 200-meters in under 20 seconds," began the text, "and nobody offered [the advertiser's product]....
"Then in the '68 Olympics, pressed by two other runners who themselves broke the Olympic record, somebody finally broke through 20 seconds with a world-record 19.8....
"That's the way it is in sports. Doing things that have never been done before. That's the way it is at [the sponsor's name], too...." The advertiser never revealed the name of the man upon whom it had hung the whole ad. I sat and stared and choked every time I read that "somebody." I raged at the obliteration of this man and his marvelous achievements. For the "somebody" so blithely unidentified happened to be a roommate of mine in the Mexico City Olympic Village, name of Tommie Smith.
He was the sweetest mover who ever drew breath. His conscience was like the rest of him, well formed. He cared, and continues to care, about his people. "Somebody," they called him. He ran the 200 in Mexico City with a sore leg and won it anyway. And they didn't even mention his name.
"Somebody," they called him. Well, "somebody" didn't do it. Tommie Smith did it. And afterward he and John Carlos, who had been third, stood on the podium with their upraised fists in black gloves.
And now a company wants to claim some kind of vicarious credit for Smith's performance, but it evidently doesn't want anyone to recall his name, much less that indelible scene. Smith's gesture was to him a compromise. He had considered boycotting the Olympics. But he ran. I remember him coming back to the room. "I'm glad that's over," he said. Glad to have won, glad to have found a gesture to express his conviction that we all had some distance to go before we had, in Martin Luther King's phrase, "made real the promise of democracy." A day or so later, when he and Carlos had been banished by the U.S. Olympic Committee and I helped carry sacks of hate mail that were arriving for them, I began to realize how wrong Smith was. It wasn't over for him, and it isn't yet.
Images of beauty and perfection are unforgettable. Words, even vividly ringing language, get old, turn to cliché. But what Tommie Smith did, the run and the fist, wasn't word but flesh, flesh become symbol. And some company called him "somebody." Which brings us back to an Olympian's sense of the Olympics. It doesn't matter whether it's a big company or the Soviet Union, every corporation or state that wishes to be represented in the arena has its own bureaucratic hang-ups, prime among these being an inability to deal at all well with individuality. But in the Olympics, all you get is individuality. Smith himself chose his gesture and cause, they weren't foisted upon him by other people who neither knew nor understood him.
So an Olympian's eternal problem is that he or she always feels inclined to tell people how they ought to feel about things, about the meaning of the torch, or the sense of the Olympics as a glimpse of a golden age. But people will feel what they will feel, no matter what an old Olympian might say.
This essay must seem fanatical. Why all the fuming? The only answer I can venture is a memory. When you make the Olympic team, you have separated yourself, lifted yourself. The places are so few, the competition is so fierce, that Olympians inevitably feel special, feel envied. I remember when Anderson, made the team in 1972. He barely caught Jack Bacheler for third place in the trial. Then he took a tearful, triumphant lap and embraced me on the far turn. All I could think to say to him was "You just changed your life."
Neither of us knew all the ways that would be true. We only knew that we were going to walk for a while, to run, in a treasured place. I, for one, never imagined we would never be able to come back.