SPORTS COMEBACK OF THE YEAR: THE OLYMPIC GAMES
The most important lesson of the Los Angeles Games is that even though the Olympics today are beset by a host of doubts and difficulties, they can still succeed. Even as commercialism permeates the Games and nations use them for political purposes, the individual athlete can still strive for excellence, and the spectator can still be stirred to the depth of his soul.
Of the Los Angeles Games, London's Daily Mail said, "They did it their way, which may not be our way, but within those terms of reference they did it stunningly." The Italian newspaper La Stampa was even more upbeat, quoting a European observer as saying, "These have been labeled the Olympics of patriotism, of provincialism, of chauvinism, of stinginess, of capitalism, of exploitation, of U.S. isolation, of victory of professionals over amateurs, but if I were to pass judgment on Los Angeles, I would give it top marks as the best in history."
Yet only three months ago, after the Soviet Union had announced it wouldn't compete in Los Angeles, the Olympic movement appeared to be on its last legs. The Soviet-led boycott, following hard upon the American-led boycott of the 1980 Games, seemed the last straw, the final blow after so many earlier ones—the financial debacle and African boycott at Montreal in 1976, the massacre of the Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972, the black-power gestures and ruthless suppression of political protesters at Mexico City in 1968. "It isn't the Olympics anymore," mourned Al Oerter, America's four-time discus gold medalist, and thousands echoed his lament. Could the Olympics even last until the Summer Games scheduled for Seoul in 1988? The entire Olympic concept seemed outmoded. Things looked very bleak indeed.
But in Los Angeles it became evident that the Games have a remarkable resilience. The once bitter battle over professionalism (remember Avery Brundage, the longtime president of the IOC, threatening in 1972 to close down the Winter Olympics because of the infiltration of professionalism?) now seems as archaic and irrelevant as the Christian church's once virulent debate over the Arian Heresy. As Frank Deford wrote in these pages last week, "Professionalism has just sort of oozed into acceptance, and amateurism has ended with a whimper, not a bang." Not that there aren't true amateurs in the Olympics still. There are, and the Games can accommodate them, as they now increasingly accommodate athletes who once would have been considered professionals.
The tremendous cost of staging an Olympics ( Montreal is still saddled with $559.6 million of the $1 billion debt from 1976), which frightened away some potential bidders for future Games—Los Angeles won the 1984 Summer Games almost by default, and Seoul had only one rival for 1988—no longer seems so forbidding. The Los Angeles Olympics' skillful business managers, shrugging off criticism of their commercialization of the Olympic ideal, staged a spectacular, extravagant, gratifying show and ended up with a reported $15 million surplus. Doomsayers also forgot that last winter in Sarajevo, socialist Yugoslavia put on a remarkably successful Winter Games and came in $30 million under budget.
Though television has become increasingly pervasive and has given the Games a show-biz quality that some find repellent, it has become the solid financial base on which the Olympics must stand. Calgary, the Canadian city that will host the 1988 Winter Games, already has a $309 million deal—an astonishing $217.5 million more than the '84 Winter Olympics went for—with ABC (the Calgarians swung this in part by stretching the schedule to give television three weekends instead of two). The sheer financial worth of today's Games indicates that they will endure.
Of course, not everything is sunny with the Olympics as they head toward 1988 and Seoul. If the current IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, can't work out an agreement with the Soviets, who don't recognize South Korea, there could be another devalued Olympics. Even so, Seoul won't be the last stop. The Games will go on. If Seoul can't cut it, well, the eye-opening triumph of Los Angeles has revived widespread interest in hosting the Games. Barcelona, Paris, Brisbane and Amsterdam are among those vying for the 1992 Summer Olympics (and Falun, Sweden wants the Winter Games that year). Those who miss in 1992 will be eyeing 1996, although Athens seems to be the front-runner for that Olympic centennial year. And the People's Republic of China reportedly wants the Games in the year 2000. The Olympics have become a very hot item.
Brundage may be spinning in his grave, but the Games have grown beyond Avery, beyond the Baron de Coubertin, beyond ancient Greece, beyond even Soviet and U.S. boycotts. At the moment, they're alive and kicking, and the future is unlimited.