Amid stories of US basketball defeat and Michael Phelps' doomed quest for seven gold medals, the true spirit of the Olympics shone through this week with uncommon clarity. In the unwatched sport of judo, a 23-year-old Israeli, Yudi Vaks, was scheduled to fight a 24-year-old world champion Iranian judoka, Arash Miresmaeli.
At the last minute, Miresmaeli forfeited the match at the behest of the Iranian government, which has refused to recognize the existence of the State of Israel since the Islamic rebellion in 1979. "I refused to face my rival in sympathy with the oppressed Palestinian people," the repulsive Miresmaeli told the media. So-called "moderate" Iranian President Mohammed Khatami lauded Miresmaeli's non-show, calling him "the champion of the 2004 Games" and promising that he would now have a cherished place in the "history of Iranian glories."
Meanwhile, Vaks lamented the fact that the Iranians had quashed the match. "Mainly, I feel horrible for him," Vaks said about Miresmaeli. "I can't even imagine the way you would feel. It's bad enough to lose a match, but this is even worse. His government did not let him fight. That is not the way I wanted to win. ... They don't have the right to not recognize us. Israel is a democracy; Iran is not. ... So I feel terrible on a personal level and on a national level, as well. I don't think we need to have a quarrel between our countries."
Let's be honest for just a moment. This isn't about friendly competition. The only reason many of us care about the Olympics is because we want to watch American athletes beat the snot out of everyone else. The idea that the Olympics revolves around some phantom "family of nations" ideal is purely delusional. American public passion for the Olympics has withered ever since the fall of the Soviet Union because America has lacked a real, political rival, not because America has lacked athletic rivals. Who wants to watch America and Britain go at it? It's boring. When Al Qaeda fields a team -- and hey, if "Palestine" can have one, why not Al Qaeda? -- you can bet Americans will care again.
Historically, the memorable Olympics were memorable specifically because they belied the "family of nations" concept. The 1936 Olympics were memorable because black American Jesse Owens embarrassed the vaunted Aryans before a steamed Adolf Hitler. The 1980 Olympics were memorable because the American hockey team upset the heavily favored Soviet team to take the gold. The 1972 Olympics were memorable because the Soviets cheated at basketball to defeat the previously undefeated U.S. national team.