Those who despair for this world love to romanticize about how the old Greeks were such a peace-loving lot that they would call off wars during the Olympics. Why can't we be so civilized?
But what is so saintly about taking a brief recess from slaughter when you know that as soon as the last olive wreath is dished out you're going right back to slitting throats? At the risk of sounding like Pollyanna, I submit that the modern Olympics play a greater role for good and peace in the world than the ancient Games ever did.
We often miss the point when it comes to the Olympics. Either we act terribly sophisticated and prattle on about the predictable human imperfections of the Games—greed and politics and steroids and what have you—or we go to the other extreme and gush about the emotional minutiae, anecdotes of young athletes being impressed to learn that their colleagues from the other three corners of the globe also put on their Nikes one foot at a time.
But what really matters about the Olympics—what counts most of all—is that billions of people across the earth are left with a singular image: The nations of this planet can come together and get along. Yes, only at a festival; yes, only for a couple of weeks. But they can do it. The model for later, more significant congregations is there for all to see. And we do see it.
How curious that in this competition, it's the pageantry that counts most for the watching world. The opening ceremonies are the most appealing to the general populace, the closing ceremonies are second, with all the running, jumping and throwing trailing behind. What other important institution so celebrates ritual above substance? And I say this, too: As I sit here in Seoul barely hours after the Games have begun, someone—I don't know her name yet—some little sprite named Olga or Nadia or Mary Lou, will become the biggest star. The modern Olympics give medals to all sorts of athletes, but lately they've given birth to a little girl who is the future. The world's child is what we seek here.
Unlike the demographics of football viewership (or the soap opera audience), the Olympics appeal to a representative cross section over all the lands. Remember? The whole world is watching. Well, who isn't? Only North Korea and Cuba, of any athletic consequence. Plus, I suppose, uninvited South Africa. It is mere coincidence that the first two are Communist. What they share is that they're failed societies run by entrenched ideologues—Kim and Castro—who have only themselves to blame. They don't understand (as Gorbachev and Deng surely do) that it's hard to sell sacrificial ideology now that everybody else in the world is wearing blue jeans and watching the rest of the people marching together. The Olympics and other world convocations that are so visible to the world's citizens make it more difficult for national leaders to continue to ask their citizens to go to war for old-fashioned practical, acquisitive reasons. Sap that I am, I honestly believe that happy cross-national demonstrations such as the Olympic Games are helping to stymie the warlords.
Very shortly now the annual Nobel Prizes will be handed out, and one year it might make sense for the committee in Oslo to consider the president of the IOC for the peace prize. The incumbent, Juan Antonio Samaranch, possesses all the public personality of a bowl of cold turnip soup, but his symbolic status can't be ignored. In a very real sense, the president of the IOC has become the ceremonial head of state of the nations of the world, a secular pope with quadrennial services for all the earth's communicants. Surely, for many nations, walking in the opening ceremonies—literally, a place in the sun—means more even than voting from some desk deep in the back rows of the UN General Assembly.
Of course, Samaranch, like all the other boy Brundages in the IOC, is forever going on about the Olympic movement. Poppycock. The Olympics are nothing more than a very handsome bureaucracy that puts on a good show every four summers (and a pretty good cabaret every fourth winter). And in the world today, a good show on television is worth more than any ethereal movement.
The Olympic moment. We see it, and it registers with us that—why not?—it can work. Only damned fools can't appreciate the wider implications of modern Olympics cooperation, and if it's just Kim and Castro who choose to stay away, then we really may be catching on.
The point is not to take a break from war for the Games. The point is to learn from the Games how to avoid war. So give the quick and the brawny their due, and then proclaim loudly again that one nimble little girl is the metaphor of the Olympics now, the only one we need take away in our hearts.