They are certainly flawed, these modern Olympic Games. If it is their ideal to bring together the finest athletes on the planet, to create the toughest possible competition, then their structure and rules are peculiar indeed. There is that nettlesome distinction between eligible amateurs and prohibited professionals, a vestige of 19th-century class discrimination that either makes hypocrites of Olympians or keeps them pure—pick one. Selection of athletes by country guarantees some of the best will stay home, and some of the worst will take part, as well as allows governments to freight athletes with the political burdens that have so troubled these Games. The International Olympic Committee itself, an autocratic body that carefully chooses its own succession, seems unable or unwilling to come to grips with the Games' problems of growth and expense. The last bastion of noblesse oblige (17 of its 76 members are titled), the IOC has grown irresponsible, blithely skimming its operating funds from television's millions while requiring little in the way of cost control from Montreal's organizers, who now are more than $1 billion over budget.
The dream of many Western athletes—an open Olympics run by the athletes themselves or by administrators of their choosing—cannot supplant the IOC's spectacle without support from the Communist nations, which are satisfied with things as they are. Thus major improvements seem far away, and each Olympic experience will remain almost entirely unpredictable, defined as much by its accident of participants, spectators and locale as by official intent. Beneath the patronizing umbrella of the IOC, the Games are varied and ambiguous, striking each participant or spectator differently, providing each with memorable moments from their maelstrom of beauty and pain, courage and disappointment.
The Olympics then are an imperfect, threatened preserve, but with such chances, such opportunities that one is compelled to return, even after witnessing Munich's horror. William Exum, the head manager of the 1976 U.S. track team, says, "I believe the greater the joys of competition, the more those in the upper echelon of officials can be forgotten. Let us keep our attention on the sense of what we are attempting."
Even that spans all categories. The carnival of Olympic athletes—that unwieldy mixture of thick, scarred wrestlers, soaring basketball players and dainty, precise gymnasts—is not a microcosm so much as a selection of deviates, prodigies illustrating the diverse ultimates in human development. Some never seem to distance themselves from the obsession that has brought them to the Games. A weight lifter, perhaps, sees his performance as far more than the display of a skill; it is a way of life, an embodiment of a driving vision of power. Some, those haunted by the necessity to win, never understand that upon waking the morning after the contest we are all equal again.
When I was an Olympian, as my event—the marathon—approached, I prayed only to do my best, feeling that to hope for victory when there were 42 kilometers of rough road to cover was somehow presumptuous." I realize now that I was freed by this, that driving to the limit with a full appreciation of the odds against winning allowed me entry into a splendid region, filled with wonderful performers, at peace even as we ran. When Frank Shorter won our race in Munich, he did not throw his hands skyward at first, but clasped them to his head, saying to himself, "My God, what have I done?"
In Mexico City in 1968 the IOC ruled that only five athletes from each country could march in the closing ceremonies. As this seemed proof that the IOC had ceased to understand even Olympic founder Baron de Coubertin's creed that the important thing is not winning but taking part, the ostracized athletes, upon discovering a section of the stadium moat unprotected by steel spikes, determined to crash the festivities. Mexican soldiers filled the moat, but were wedged aside by the New Zealand and Harvard rowers, who held them at bay with cries of Thermopylae Pass while the rest of us leaped down and helped each other scramble up to the field. Suddenly waves of Mexican security men broke upon us, burly mustached troops disguised as Boy Scouts, swinging long poles. I was caught by two of the police and carried back in the direction of the moat. I struggled free, my clothes torn, one shoe ripped away, and ran for the infield. There the official delegation from one of the African nations—tall men in flowing white robes—parted and stood with their arms raised, tents waiting to receive me. As I reached them I was wrapped in a warm sweetness among swirling gowns and great dark bodies. That was Olympic sanctuary. Let us pray it is recoverable.