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Thursday, September 14, 2000

The best and worst of us

The world's only truly global event offers a compelling view of the human condition

By MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

  Every two years, we are reminded of this basic, implacable truth: There is the Olympics and then there is every other sporting event.

 World Cup, Stanley Cup final, World Series, each of these events can transfix large segments of our species, but nothing highlights both the disparities of the human condition and the greatness that elevate it like the Olympics.

 Has there been a greater national letdown than Ben Johnson's failed drug test in Seoul? Canadians remember the moment they learned of Johnson's cheating as well as they do Paul Henderson's goal in 1972. The emotions were wildly different, the depth of feeling exactly the same.

 GRAFT AND BRIBERY

 Critics are right when they remind us that the five Olympic rings are a perfect symbol for the Games. Each is interlaced with another, no one ring breaks free of the network. Nothing changes.

 The site selection process for the Olympics could be a model for graft and blissful bribery for any fledgling arm of organized crime. Yet, while the image of the games has been tarnished, the International Olympic Committee remains largely undisturbed.

 The committee's claims of a new openness are as unfathomable as those made by officials from Beijing, believed to be Toronto's chief rival for the 2008 games. There is little to inspire belief the IOC would go against type and reject Beijing because of China's vicious persecution of her own people.

 Cheating is the grandest unofficial Olympic sport. The reigning Olympic queen of the pool, Michelle Smith de Bruin of Ireland, has fallen into disgrace after being charged with tampering with her drug tests and a wisp of suspicion will colour every achievement in Sydney. No medal is secure until the tests, no victory can be added to the archives until the chemists say so.

 Worse yet, the IOC and the International Amateur Athletic Federation have proved themselves more sensitive to pressure than a small-town sheriff. The lifting of the two-year ban of Cuban high jumper Javier Sotomayor to permit him to compete in Sydney is just the most recent example of the gross inequities carried on behind closed doors.

 And yet, behind the shoe deals and the jingoism, the drug tests and the commercial exploitation of an event founded on the principles of amateurism, the Olympics continue to captivate. That fact -- that the world still carries such a passion for the Games -- stands in testimony to the greatness of the event.

 GOOD WRAPPED IN BAD

 For every corpulent IOC member, a lithe runner from a tiny African nation trains in tattered shoes.

 For every pampered sprinter, there is a swimmer from a small town whose Olympic odyssey was built on countless 4 a.m. alarms.

 For every strutting basketball millionaire, there is a Clara Hughes, the Canadian cyclist who has been so tapped for money for training that she has demonstrated oxygen measurement equipment at trade shows. Hughes took home two bronze medals from the Atlanta Games.

 For every Sotomayor, there is gymnast Kerri Strug, who nailed a landing with a badly damaged foot and lifted the U.S. to a team gymnastics gold medal before having to be lifted herself on to the podium by her coach.

 So much good wrapped up in so much bad. Or is it the other way around? With the Olympics, you always wonder.

 Perhaps that's why you always watch.