It isn't how you play the game -- it's whether you win


THE hands-down Olympic favorite in our little corner of the world was the big goofy guy with earrings, a shaved head and a stars-and-stripes bandanna. The kids loved Nelson Diebel, who said that it was like a drug, man, winning the gold, the ultimate high.

What a role model, I thought ruefully: a swimmer who'd been expelled from prep school, had admitted to past problems with drugs and alcohol and looked like a biker in a bikini.

Except that after the bravado came the medal ceremony, and as they played the national anthem the bad boy of the breast-stroke choked back tears and moved his lips to the last couple of lines.

He was the first person to win a gold for the United States in these games, and the most colorful, a cartoon character come to life for the kids. There's lots for them to learn here, from how to point your feet during a dive to how to best tend goal in soccer.

But lots of what they've learned I don't like a bit, and I'm not simply talking about Charles Barkley, known to them already as the bald guy who spits at fans, elbowing a smaller competitor from Angola.

In the minds of the kids, Barkley is to basketball what Boris and Natasha are to Rocky and Bullwinkle. (Magic Johnson is, of course, Moose and Squirrel combined.) They know what to expect from cartoons.

No, the wrong message has been brought to them by the real people. The underlying premise of these Olympics is clear: It isn't how you play the game. It's whether you win.

They're still confused by Janet Evans, an extraordinary swimmer who was milliseconds short the other day and came in second. She couldn't stop crying.

"You get here, and suddenly being in the Olympics wasn't enough," said Summer Sanders, another swimmer, after she won the gold. "The silver and bronze isn't good enough."

Watching on television was like going through the stages of mortal illness in the short span between commercials. First the commentators would declare someone the golden boy, the woman to watch, the best United States hope.

By the time the event was over and our best shot had come in third or fourth, the theme was failure, disappointment, the death of expectations that had been manufactured, inflated, then --ed in the amount of time it took to have pizza delivered.

It was a little like watching the current presidential campaign.

And for the kids it contradicted every lesson you try to teach about the importance of just doing your best, of taking satisfaction in the act and not the acclaim, of having fun on the field. Even with a gold medal Summer Sanders thought the pressure was too great; even with a silver Janet Evans wept. How could you want this for your own kids?

How could any mother of a little girl look at the members of the women's gymnastics team and want that for her daughter? This is not a team of women, it is a team of girls, 14 and 15 and 16 years old, but so seemingly stoic that disappointment brings no outward display of emotion and triumph scarcely more so.

They are like wind-up toys, their springs and gears tired by the time they're 20. Now there's a horrid message for a child: growing up is the enemy. No wonder Cathy Rigby went on to play Peter Pan, and to stick her fingers down her throat after every meal.

"The fun comes in the end, with the winning and the medals," Bela Karolyi, the coach who is the Svengali of the floor exercise, has said. Tying the ego of a child to a medal is like tying a rock around her neck and tossing her in the lake.

The nice thing about gonzo swimmer Nelson Diebel was that you knew that only by growing up did he develop the discipline to get to Barcelona. Only by growing up did Ron Karnaugh make it through his indelible Olympics, in which his father died of a heart attack at the opening ceremonies and he stayed on to swim.

There was no medal; now there will be medical school. "There will be life for me after swimming," he said.

Only by growing up did Kent Ferguson have the smarts to say, after he'd barely made it into the springboard diving finals, "It is just an event, and I'm just as good a guy if I didn't make the finals as if I were in them."

That's the lesson children need to learn from Barcelona. It's not ,, even how you play the game. It's how you value yourself when the game is over.

Anna Quindlen writes a column for the New York Times.

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