Just 100 days remain before IOC president Jacques Rogge stands before Beijing and the assembled athletes of the world and declares the start of the XXIX Olympic Games.
What do you say we give them a chance?
This isn’t a suggestion anyone should need to make. The essence of the Olympics is that everybody gets a fair chance to show what he or she can do in open competition on a level field of play. For almost 3,000 years, these games, which must rank among the most glorious and valuable institutions human beings have ever concocted, have provided a stage for people to show what they can do.
And for the 112 years since the Games were re-established by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the Olympics have also provided a stage for nations to do the same thing. The least we can do is let China, as well as the athletes, begin these Games with zeroes on both sides of the scoreboard.
That’s what we’ve asked of the world when the Games have been held in America. It’s what Seoul and Barcelona and Athens and Atlanta and Mexico City and Helsinki and Rome and Melbourne and every other city and nation that’s ever hosted the Games has asked. It remains the most modest and basic of requests — give 'em a chance.
The thing we need to remind ourselves is that the Olympics are about sport, not politics. The horror of Munich in 1972 and the rolling boycotts of 1976, 1980 and 1984 nearly destroyed the Modern Games. The world noticed just in time to save the Games, and in the years since, we’ve done a decent job of keeping the focus on the competition.
Few of the subsequent Games have gone by in perfect serenity. In Atlanta, a home-grown idiot set off a bomb in Olympic Park. In Barcelona, Basque separatists tried their best to make a squawk heard round the world. In Athens, the depredations of the native nihilists were a nightly occurrence. In Seoul, the Games were overhung by the tension between North and South Korea.
But in all of those venues, what consumed our attention and what we remember were not just the Games, but also the hospitality and amity of the vast majority of the people hosting them.
I’ve talked to some people who feel I should be worried about going to Beijing, but they’re the sort who won’t use a toilet unless the seat has been boiled in Purell and won’t let their children leave the front porch without a helmet, cellphone and GPS device. They are people who believe their way of life is the only way of life. I feel sorry for them.
The truth is I can’t wait to get to Beijing and encounter one of the most ancient and fascinating and accomplished civilizations on the face of the globe. One of the things I am sure of is that I will find endless surprise and wonderment.
Another is that I will be captivated by the Games themselves, the one human institution that has risen and died and risen and died and risen again, impervious to all our petty and unthinking efforts to do them harm.
The reason the Games have endured and will continue to do so is because of what we call the Olympic ideal. The concept of pure, physical competition, of one individual against another playing by clearly defined rules touches something essential deep in our souls. We lard it with all sorts of other emotions, but at base that’s what it is — put two of the best individuals or teams in the world in the arena and see which one wins. And while we watch, we are sure to see things so wonderful they will stay with us forever providing a constant reassurance that there is greatness in the human spirit.
They are games — games that kids can play — but played at the highest level of which human beings are capable. And they are played by teams that represent not corporations or owners or cities but entire nations.
None of those nations are without their warts, and none are also not without much of value. Through some 40 countries on five continents, I’ve found that the latter almost invariably outweighs the former.
I would expect no less of the most populous nation in the world, a nation whose culture and history stretch back beyond even the Olympics themselves. I can’t wait to finally see it and experience it for myself, to meet its people and walk its streets, to be a guest at the biggest celebration of sweat any of us have ever seen.
A nation of 1.3 billion people is going to throw us a party. I say give 'em a chance.