Pierre de Coubertin, who launched the modern Olympics during 1896, envisioned games free from the scourge of nationalism, where athletes of all countries would come to engage in friendly competition.
And during the first decades of competition, the games often lived up to de Coubertin’s ideals, as young men competed against each other with no thought of material reward. All that changed during 1936 in Berlin.
Adolph Hitler’s government saw the games as an opportunity to showcase the achievements and glory of Nazi Germany — to show the world a powerful, confident nation ready for world leadership. To that end, elaborate facilities were constructed to serve as a stage for the German victories that Hitler and his lieutenants expected, victories that would show the inherent superiority of the “Aryan Race.”
As we all remember, Jesse Owens gave the führer a reality check, but the template had been established. The games lost their innocence.
The games are no longer tainted by racism or by the imperial ambitions of a revanchist Germany. Today’s Olympics are a glittering spectacle of marketing, nationalism, multibillion-dollar event venues … and athletic competition.
Despite (or maybe because of) the hype, the games are compelling and fascinating. Thanks to the Olympic Training Center, many of us who live in the Pikes Peak region have uniquely personal links to the event. We know the athletes; we know the folks who work with them and support them; we’ll be supporting them as they compete in Beijing.
But the modern Olympics, designed more than a century ago to bring the best athletes of all nations together, might need a little tweaking in the future to realize that goal.
If you’re a Kenyan distance runner, for example, you might be one of the 10 best marathoners in the world, and never see Beijing. Or if you’re an American basketball player, you might be among the elite — but you won’t be going to China.
Nations participate in the Olympics, not individuals. If you can’t make your national team, you’re out of luck.
This has led to curious anomalies, such as African distance runners who have moved to the United States, become citizens and represented their adopted country in the Olympics.
We’ve welcomed our speedy new Americans, even though they might have displaced some of our slow-footed compatriots. But when the process is reversed, we seem to have problems.
Consider the case of Becky Hammon, once a wildly popular basketball player at Colorado State. A smart, athletic point guard from South Dakota, she led CSU to the NCAA tournament and took an otherwise undistinguished team all the way to the Sweet Sixteen.
She went on to a brilliant career in the WNBA, and was named to the all-star team last year — but she wasn’t invited to try out for the Olympic team.
So, Hammon made a deal with … the Russians. She’ll be representing the former Evil Empire in Beijing.
We sympathize with Hammon — and with every athlete who sits at home while the less skilled march proudly into Beijing’s spectacular new stadium. Admittedly, we’ll be rooting for our homies — but we’ll rejoice in the achievements of everyone fortunate enough to participate.
And if Hammon sinks a three-pointer at the buzzer to beat her compatriots on Team USA — well, with most Coloradoans, we’ll have mixed emotions.
So … let the games begin!