By Bill Webb
The 2004 Olympic Summer Games are history now. I am a self-professed fan of the games and all the noble qualities for which they profess to stand.
"The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind, in a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play," is the description on the International Olympic Committee's Web site.
The goal is just that – a goal, not yet a statement of reality.
To be sure, the whole concept of the games is one that simply does not allow discrimination based upon politics, ideology, gender, age or most any other measure.
Some of the most enduring memories of Olympics past and present have been of unlikely friendships forged by competitors often representing opposites in political ideology and culture. Born in mutual appreciation of ability or for other reasons, such friendships sometimes last a lifetime.
For the most part, the games are an escape from the realities of nation-against-nation, pitting instead athletes against athletes in what is – in its purest form – a series of games and play. They remind us that people from other nations are real people.
I believe the vast majority of athletes approach the Olympics with the idea of competing with fairness and integrity. That doesn't describe every athlete. Testing exposes most of those guilty of doping, or using illicit drugs, to enhance their athletic endurance.
It bothers me that some athletes cheat, even though the potential for getting away with cheating has been severely diminished in recent years. (And, yes, I am very aware of recent scandals at the highest levels of the Olympics organization.)
It is bothersome that many do not compete for the joy of sport but for potential endorsements. As one commentator said, "If she medals in this event, her life will be forever changed" (paraphrased). When the stakes are raised like that, lofty principles are in danger of compromise. The joy of competition becomes a casualty.
I appreciate the testimonies of those who are able to maintain a healthy perspective, particularly athletes who unashamedly bear witness to their faith. Some of them take advantage of opportunities like the True Love Waits rally to encourage young people from around the world to make good choices.
It seems to me that generally fans look for underdog heroes. When the last distance runner finally enters the arena, fans cheer. I am impressed when a gymnast climbs back onto a high bar or balance beam after falling and ending any chance of winning. Not every champion walks away from the Olympics with hardware.
Those who do not win sometimes show the greatest grace in the games. The Greek audience interrupted weight-lifting competition with sustained cheers of admiration after one of their heroes failed to win another gold in his final Olympics. Gracefully, he removed his shoes and placed them to one side of the stage, symbolic of his retirement. Graciously, he accepted the applause.
The games are a microcosm of our world, complete with what is admirable and with what falls short of the goal.