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....
"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.