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The Daily Whim

The Daily Whim

Wed. Aug 11, 2004

Pre-Olympic Perspective

This weekend, the XXVIII Olympics begin, and the preparation is considerably different than it once was:

In the days of antiquity, heralds were sent across the breadth of the Greek empire to declare an Olympic truce in the months before, during and after the ancient Games.

Endlessly warring city-states laid down their arms and travellers were promised safe voyage to Olympia. Authority for this truce came from no less a source than the Oracle of Delphi.

It was a temporary peace willed by the gods.

Last Nov. 9, 190 UN member-states voted in favour of a resolution that had been submitted by Greece, a resurrection of the historical truce during the Olympics.

Later, on a day that Israeli soldiers killed six Palestinian militants, Yasser Arafat called for a ceasefire with Israel during the Games, this as an unofficial Olympic torch was lit at his Ramallah headquarters.

One doubts whether terrorists were moved by either gesture.

TheStar.com: “Planning for the unthinkable”

Moved or not, some seem to be saying the right words.

Marwan Abdelhamid, diplomatic representative in Athens of the Palestinian Authority, tried to reassure Greece that no true Arab or Muslim would try to harm its first modern Olympics.

“We … declare that any possible action against the Athens Olympics, by anyone invoking the name of Palestine will be considered by the whole of the Palestinian people as an action against Palestine itself,” he said.

Reuters: “Sport Gets Ready to Reclaim Olympic Games”

But words are just words. It’s actions that can kill.

Whereas the Olympics once brought a “temporary peace willed by the gods,” these Olympics can’t simply “take it on faith,” even as they return to the site of those roots. They’re relying on what has been described as unprecedented digital security, including a network of over a thousand cameras, plus 120 Patriot missiles, three NATO AWACS aircraft overhead, as well as a blimp that some consider an invasion of privacy, and enough security personnel to outnumber the athletes by a 10 to 1 margin.

Some in the media question if all that will be enough.

Just a few days before the Olympics begin, the attitude of the Greeks protecting the games seems to range from laid back at best, haphazard at worst. Blue-shirted police are everywhere, but their main function seems to be finding shade to keep out of the searing Athens sun. A half dozen of them took advantage of a large tree near the main Olympic complex yesterday to do just that.

When a colleague and I decided to see how close we could get to the Olympic stadium, only one even bothered to acknowledge our presence [...] Turns out, it wasn’t so tough to get in the stadium where 75,000 people will watch opening ceremonies Friday night. We strolled through a few checkpoints and past the huge white steel pillars that hold up the roof to check out the seats.

Just to say we did it, we walked down and took a turn around the track. Halfway through our personal 400 meters, we even stopped to take some pictures with a cell phone.

Media credentials are supposed to get you places the average person can’t go. But on the Olympic track, just days before the start of the most heavily guarded games ever? Try that two years ago in Salt Lake City and the closest you would have gotten was Provo.

Tim Dahlberg, AP: “Not exactly feeling secure”

It doesn’t sound like the way they handled security in Atlanta in the days before the ‘96 Games, either. Once can only hope the Greeks are what they call “gamers” in the sports world (because they look so bad in practice, and then shine when it counts).

While some are worried whether terrorists will come to the Olympics, there’s a genuine concern about how many people of any type will show up: “With three days to go, Marton Simitsek, Chief Operating Officer of the Athens Games, said Tuesday that more than three million tickets had been sold so far and organizers were confident of reaching their goal of five million tickets. He added that the pace of sales escalated to 85,000 a day.

Mr. Simitsek’s math concerns me, as I multiply 85,000 times 3 days, and still find them a couple million tickets shy of their goal (and at about 60% of their 5.3 million capacity). Sure, three million is a lot, but for perspective, 6.7 million tickets were sold in Sydney, and over 8 million were sold here in Atlanta. To be sure, a host of dignitaries will be there. From Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair, to the US delegation including former President George Bush Sr. and his wife Barbara, plus their twin granddaughters, Jenna and Barbara Bush. But there may be far less “common folk” than expected.

And we’ll get to meet some new characters, as well, like the new Olympic mascots, Phevos and Athena. However, as I point out over two years ago, Izzy’s Kid’s didn’t go over too well. And in two years, they haven’t improved with age: “They’re getting more bad press than the Olsen twins, and worse reviews than the latest Spike Lee flick. Olympic mascots Phevos and Athena, siblings named for a pair of Greek deities, are catching an ungodly amount of abuse around Athens. The pair were derided in various news articles, described as animated condoms and mutants from a nuclear meltdown.

Yep, they’re Izzy’s descendants, for sure. Got that same black cloud overhead.

So, let’s see … $1.5 billion in security, pleas for peace, probing media members, visiting dignitaries, angry residents, disliked mascots … what have we left out?

Oh, yeah, 10,500 of the finest athletes alive from about 200 nations from around the globe, all gathered in the place the Olympics were born in ancient times, and then resurrected 108 years ago.

Legend has it (i.e., no one really knows) that 2,494 years ago, a messenger by the name of Pheidippides/Philippides ran from the site of a great battle in Marathon, Greece, to Athens, in order to quickly bring news of the Greek victory over the Persians. After this run of some 25 miles, the legend says he proclaimed “Rejoice, we conquer,” and then keeled over dead.

I’ve always found it rather perverse that, at some point, some soul decided this would be great sport to watch, and managed to convince people he was right. But this year I find it moving that the 2004 Olympic marathon will follow that original legendary course (whether the legend is actually true or not). And that spectators will watch the shot put event at ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympics, much like spectators did in the same place in the 4th century B.C.

That’s what I’m looking forward to about these Olympics. But as is the case with every Olympics, you have to work through a whole lot of specious noise to get down to the reason the Games have lasted for literally centuries, in one form or another. You’ll hear a lot of worries (largely from the media), and a lot of complaints (largely from the media), about many things. But such secondary sensationalism can’t obscure a centuries old truth.

Despite religious persecution (Christian Rome stopped the “pagan” ancient Games after their first 1,100 year run, in 394 A.D.), multiple World Wars, occasional boycotts, and even direct terrorist attack, we still gather together to peacefully compete and celebrate and wonder at the physical capability of mankind. And in these Olympics, over 2,700 years of such human commitment all comes full circle in a special place.

We humans have few things left on this planet with that kind of heritage. In my opinion, we ought to cherish them. While we still can.


Peanut Gallery

1  JLawson wrote:

I’m sorry, I’d like something more than a shapeless blob as a mascot or emblem for the Olympics. I realize it’s politically incorrect these days to have anything resembling anything culturally recognizable for the Games (heaven forbid someone might be offended) but heck, even the Soviets had a better mascot. These just look like condiment blobs…

BTW, lost your g address – in the throes of moving and it’s in a box somewhere. Could you contact me again?

Thanks!

J.

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