James Lawton, writing in
newspaper just before the 2004 Olympic Games in
Athens, considers the Olympics in the light of drug scandals.
A CHILL IN THE SUNLIGHT
If you stand on the Acropolis you can see the new stadia glinting in the fierce sunlight,
and you understand why the Greeks are so proud of staging the 2004 Olympics. A
gnarled old man with a flowing moustache welcomes you to the soil of Zeus and says
you are going to enjoy the best days of your life. He says he has never felt so much pride.
So why don’t you feel his warmth? Why is it so hard to share in the joy of a people
who believe so fervently they have delved into their past, at potentially ruinous cost, and
found the best of themselves? It is because it is hard to warm your hands – or your heart
– on a lie, the stupendous, never-ending lie which the Olympics have become and which
no amount of breath-taking ceremony and superb sports architecture can obscure.
If you think that is too bleak a view, that people who care about sport as a metaphor
for some of the most inspiring qualities in life have a duty to believe in the Olympics,
where have you been for the last 30 years – or, for that matter, the last 30 hours? Here,
a few days before the Olympic flame shoots up towards the ancient gods, is the latest
smorgasbord of drug cheats: an Irish distance runner who was suddenly carving vast
chunks out of his personal best times, an American sprinter, a Swiss cyclist, a Spanish
canoeist, a Kenyan boxer.
It is the Spanish canoeist who perhaps shocks the most. We know about the impurities
of athletics. We know about cycling and its serial drug scandals. But a canoeist! Why,
Jovano Gonzalez, why? Not for the big money that follows an athletics or cycling medal,
we know that. For what then? Maybe to show your children, and their children, a
medal that you would always know was false.
The trouble is that such questioning has long been abandoned in the culture of sports
drugs. You do not dope to cheat, you do it to stay in the race, to give yourself a chance.
It only deepens the unease, the sense that when you have been around the Olympics for
so long, when you have been deceived so many times, these may well be one Games too
many, and that they should be happening here, in Athens, of all places, only deepens the
feeling that we are party to an ideal that is all played out. That is the killer, the dragging
of the spirit.
So what do you do at these Olympics? Cherry-pick moments of glory and grace, and hope
you have not been deceived? What, when you really think about it, is the alternative?
You could reel back the years of Olympic history and, sure, only a dead soul would not
feel surges of excitement: Seb Coe coming back at Steve Ovett in Moscow; Carl Lewis
winning gold in Atlanta in 1996 with his last jump; Michael Johnson in his gold shoes
after Muhammad Ali came blinking into the spotlight and lit the flame.
But nowadays only a fool digs into the past without questioning, however fleetingly,
what was true and what was false. You couldn’t go through the 1988 Olympics in Seoul
and ever abandon the need to ask that question. There was never a betrayal like Ben
Johnson’s. He took us to the stars with that 100 metres run, which etched disbelief
on the face of second-placed Carl Lewis. He shattered the world record, and you
knew when it happened you would never forget the coiled power that was released so
astonishingly. And then, in the grey dawn of the following day, you saw him exposed
as a drugs cheat, hustled to the airport, a stunned, inarticulate man, who for the rest
of his life will say, in a halting voice forever invaded by bitterness, that he committed
athletics’ only unforgivable sin—being caught.
We should have known then, finally, that the Olympics would never truly outrun the
sin of Johnson. The truth is that the Olympic lie has simply become too flagrant; the
drugs battle is unwinnable. That is why there is such little uplift as the Olympics come
home to Athens, to the city that stretches below you in its glory of dazzling stadia. That
is why there is such a chill in the sunlight.
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