The Olympics should return to their pre-hype days

And they're off. The Athens Olympics begin today (except soccer, which started earlier but doesn't count as it's so dull). Can I offer anyone a big old helping of wild celery? I should like the Olympics more than I do. As a traditionalist I'm delighted that someone revived an old event after more than 1,500 years, instead of starting a new one that we have kept going for over a century since. I'm a bit sorry they dropped the parallel artistic competition that ran from 1906 to 1948 (I bet I could write a truly bad "Ode to a Shot put") but glad they dropped my beloved golf.

You see, I fear the Olympics may be losing their way by not knowing what they are. I'm a bit worried about logistics, pollution and terrorism in Athens. But my larger concern is that the Games could get so hugely successful they topple over, leaving behind only the weathered legs of the Colossus of Lausanne. I think they should exist, and would flourish, if they held to one overriding purpose: a world championship for sports too obscure to have significant leagues of their own. Thus I would dump tennis, basketball and hockey. But I might add surfing. And I'd certainly bring back the tug-of-war.

I am a sports fan because I admire excellence. The three great stories are man against nature, man against man and man against self. But the greatest is man against self; the struggle against nature or other men is only morally interesting if the hero can prevail by drawing fully upon his or her inner strengths but not otherwise. Canadian Encyclopedia editor James Marsh wrote in the Citizen that Aesop, an early critic of the Olympics, "asked a boastful wrestler, 'what have you earned if you beat a weaker man?'" Not much. Thus sometimes our hearts go out to the defeated underdog whose great triumph was getting there at all (archetypally the Jamaican bobsled team). But in other events two athletes, or teams, are so evenly matched that whichever first wins the inner battle then wins the prize and, with it, our justified admiration.

I also admire triumphs of the human spirit against the odds. For instance, achieving excellence in a sport without mega-salaries, endorsement fees or lurid celebrity trials. Years ago a relative sent a clipping from the Highland Games about a guy who set "a blistering pace" by throwing a 25-pound hammer 99 feet. I remain amazed, first that anyone could with practice perform such a feat, and second that they practised enough despite its uselessness just because it's cool. I could happily marvel, every four years, at the distance some people can throw cannonballs with their necks.

The original Olympic sports were, in their day, practically popular: first outrunning an enemy, and later hitting him with a pointed stick or metal disc, then leaping on him from a surprising distance and punching his lights out. But they aren't now. There's a weird, enduring glory in people mastering them anyway.

The Olympics are finally free of the totalitarian fixation with politicizing everything and proving the superiority of some obscene form of socialism by cheating (shades of Nero falling out of his chariot and winning the race anyway). But they still face a more general sort of restless modernism, compelled to move ever forward lest inner collapse occur.

The argument that the Olympics are an engine of prosperity, if they're big enough, reminds me of the old huckster's joke about losing money on every sale but making it up on volume. It didn't work in Mexico City, Moscow or Montreal, and wasn't necessary in Munich, Los Angeles, Sydney or Atlanta. Nor should it matter. Some things are worth spending money on, including a proper Olympics.

I also dislike the kind of civic boosterism that thinks if a city holds a sufficiently grand Olympics it will wind up with walls of jasper, gates of pearl and streets of pure gold. And you could avoid both by settling the Games permanently in the place they conveniently now occupy. But lest they drift into mediocrity and prove impossible to get moving again, I would rather try to harness the municipal desire to excel by telling each host city, politely but firmly, that it isn't about you, it's about the Games. And by excluding every sport with a major league of its own, even baseball, in which Canada is a contender.

In the original Olympics, the prize wasn't a precious metal worthy of Gollum or Scrooge. It was a wreath of wild celery you couldn't eat that was bound to wither. But it wasn't given in the depressing spirit of go ahead and run, you'll die anyway. Rather, it was: You'll die anyway but go ahead and run. Like throwing a shot put just because you can. And setting a blistering pace in the process.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson