Image tattered but ideals remain for some
SYDNEY (CP) -- As American sprinter Thomas P. Curtis lined up for the 100-metre heats at the first modern Olympic Games, he looked over and saw the competitor from France pulling on white kid gloves.
Asked why, the Frenchman replied: "That is because I run before the king."
But being mindful of the king of Greece was just one part of the 1896 Games experience.
Curtis, in a 1932 article reprinted 24 years later in the Atlantic Monthly, recalled how one American swimmer, used to heated pools, was horrified to discover how cold the Mediterranean could be.
After an 8,000-kilometre journey, his Olympics lasted the length of time it took him to get back onto the start float after diving into the icy waters.
More than a century later, a pair of incidents on the track and in the pool at the Sydney Games, show the contrast between then and now.
Unlike 1896, it seemed for the U.S. 4x100 relay team at Sydney, the only royalty was on the track.
The athletes posed like bodybuilders, draped in U.S. flags after their win. Even their own teammates criticized their clowning as they received medals from former secretary of state Henry Kissinger.
"We really didn't mean to offend anybody, we just were on out there enjoying the moment, " Maurice Greene said in apologizing later.
On the other end of the scale in the Olympic pool, Eric Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea became an unlikely hero when he finished last in a 100-metre freestyle heat he had to swim alone after the other competitors were disqualified.
It took the novice swimmer one minute 52.72 second to finish -- 50 seconds slower than the next qualifier.
His thrashings caught the imagination of a near capacity crowd in the 17,000-seat arena and people were soon on their feet cheering.
Around the pool people watched and yelled encouragement. In the media workroom, reporters stopped what they were doing and watched the lone figure slowly, methodically working his way down the length of the pool.
Moussambani has only been swimming since January and was racing more than 50 metres for the first time in his life in the preliminaries. The 20-year-old trains in a 20-metre pool with no lanes.
He had it easy.
The other member of the swim team, a woman, had never swam in a pool. She trains in a crocodile-infested river while her coach drives beside in a boat holding a shotgun.
Now that's the Olympic ideal.
It's hard to find it sometimes at Games that have become a billion-dollar business built on the backs of terrifically talented athletes, a competition where you might have more luck getting a top athlete by going though his sponsor rather than his country's representative.
"When you come here and see all the commercial stuff, you wonder where everything goes," said long jumper Richard Duncan of St. Catharines, Ont.
"It's becoming less and less athletes based and more corporate-based."
The commercialism of the Games bothers show jumper Ian Miller of Perth, Ont.
"I find it troubling," Miller said.
"When I was a little kid this was my dream -- to come and do this. Then you find out that times are set for your events around when television wants to show them. It goes on and on. You start to wonder if the tail is wagging the dog. What happened to sport?"
While some athletes view the Games as too big, too corporate, others find it an island of idealism in sport's turbulent ocean of greed and egotism.
For basketball players Steve Nash of the Dallas Mavericks and Todd MacCulloch of the Philadelphia 76ers, playing for the Canadian team at the Olympics was like the first day of spring after a long, cold winter.
"This is much more for pure reasons, this is much closer to the game you played as a kid," said Nash, the Victoria native who was the sparkplug that helped drive the men's basketball team into the playoffs.
"You're playing for free, you're playing for pride, because you love your country and want to represent your country well."
MacCulloch also found the atmosphere in the Canadian dressing room refreshing.
"Nobody is looking for their next contract," said the Winnipeg native.
"It's all about love, passion."
Sometimes, when you think the Olympic ideal is as dead as the standing broad jump, something happens to make you believe the flame at the stadium burned for a reason.
It might be Cathy Freeman wading into the crowd with tears in her eyes to find her mother after winning the 400-metre race.
It's the sight of athletes swapping clothes and walking around in other countries' uniforms on the last day of the rowing regatta.
For Duncan, it's the kids that give him hope.
"I think the last pure element is the little kids that come up to you and ask for your autograph or the people that ask you for pictures or the Canadian fans up there waving the flag," he said.
"They just want to see you do well. That's one of the reasons I keep jumping. It definitely isn't because of the money, the sponsorship. It's something deeper than that. That's why most of the athletes are competing here."
Nash won't bring a medal home from the Olympics, but he managed to spark excitement and earn its respect. Maybe that's what the whole thing is about.
"This is the pinnacle of my athletic career," he said. "I think the Olympics will stand the test of time. I think the Olympics will always be an unbelievable event."