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Knifing through the usual reports of Olympic delays and complaints and recriminations came a blunt statement from Canada last week: the Olympic Installations Board will meet next week to decide whether or not the Games will take place this summer in Montreal.
That depressing announcement received comparatively little attention, probably because everyone assumes the board's decision will be to go ahead, but it is nonetheless stunning. The unthinkable is suddenly possible. The Olympics may indeed be canceled. Even if the Games do get a green light, it is startling to learn that those entrusted to put the Olympics on could seriously contemplate abandoning them only six months before they are due to begin.
Growing increasingly top-heavy over the years, the whole Olympic idea has been turned upside down. What is supposed to be the most stimulating amateur athletic competition in the world has sagged into a morass of commercialism. COJO, the Olympic organizing committee, endorses products the way professional athletes do. TV contracts, extravagant designs for arenas, outsize expenditures on construction, tricky financial maneuvers to raise the enormous sums needed to pay for the tinselly trappings—all these take precedence over the athletes. The essential idea of the Games is lost behind an accountant's ledger, just as some people feel the competition itself is too often obscured by the ceremonies, the Olympic hymn, the pretentious lighting of the flame. The athletes have become little more than actors in a gaudy show, the primary purpose of which seems to be to entertain crowds and generate publicity and revenue for the host country.
This is backward. The athletes come first. Sport comes first. Competition comes first. What difference does it make if the tower on Montreal's elaborate stadium is not ready? What about a more important question: Is the track ready? Can races be run? Can high jumpers jump? Can javelin throwers throw? Is there a pool where swimmers can swim?
An Olympic athlete really needs only three things: a place to sleep, a place to eat and a place to compete. Since his basic expenses—travel, room and board—are paid for by his own country, why is it necessary to spend so much money on stage settings?
Montreal is a blessing in disguise. Critics have been saying for years that the Olympics should be simplified. Perhaps necessity will make this the time. Competition, yes. Show biz, no.
GOOD AND EARLY