Even back in the Cold War period when the Soviet stallions and geldings were flaunting their pharmaceutically enhanced muscles, I opposed the Olympics. I swam on a swimming team (Indiana University's) with teammates that actually were Olympians and world record holders. They accused me of being miffed about never making it to the Olympics. Of course, I never made the team. I hardly made it into the viewing stands for the Olympic trials. Yet, as it turned out, I did not have to make the team. Bob Knight, the legendary Indiana basketball coach, had it right when he said, "Tyrrell, as your writing career has prospered your athletic career has too." Yes indeed, I am often introduced as a former world-class swimmer, so why should I have bothered training and missing out on all the fun of a college boy? I had the best of it: a lot of fun in college and no long hours in the pool. The legend will never die.
Yet back to the Olympics. The Olympic spirit died sometime back in the 1930s when Hitler politicized what the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, envisaged as an apolitical celebration of health and athleticism. Stalin continued Hitler's work. With the dictators' politicization came another body blow to old Pierre's Olympic Ideal, the end of amateurism. All athletes from totalitarian countries and from nationalistic countries were essentially professional athletes. Now there is no distinction between an amateur and a professional, and the crass commercialization that has come to dominate the Olympics is appalling. Moreover, in America, the sentimentalization of Olympians is positively sickening. Is there not one athlete who made it to the Olympics from the land of milk and honey, with a silver spoon in his mouth, with parents who adored him, and one voluptuous break after another? Did every member of the United States team have to overcome hardship, rejection, episodes of poverty, and diseases almost too horrible to mention -- but not quite? We the public are regaled with stories of what one prima donna athlete after another suffered or thought they suffered.
This summer, as the Olympics are perpetrated in London, I shall go down to the neighborhood tennis court and watch the children and the old folks play. A game is a game, and sometimes a game waged by octogenarians is really heroic.