Five Golden Rings... Essay: ... Four Visa cards, three cold Cokes, two Nike shorts and a live feed from NBC. Yes, it's all about money. But in the most precious Olympic moments, even mass-marketers will stop and watch in awe.


What we've got here is a paradox. And maybe even an irony. You don't expect to find either at the Olympics, but starting tomorrow that's where we're going.

We're heading to Atlanta, home to the 1996 Olympics, where they've got shiny new buildings, hotels with elevators on the outside, lots of streets named Peachtree and a gigantic Coca-Cola bottle towering over Coca-Cola City.

Coca-Cola City is an amusement park, meant to amuse Olympic visitors and to remind everyone, but especially a world-wide TV audience numbering in the billions, that Coke is to the Olympics what Tara was to Scarlett O'Hara.

When you leave Coca-Cola City -- and Coke is spending over $200 million in Olympic-related advertising -- you might want to check out the new statue of Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the modern Olympics. The old baron is standing hard by the Bud Light pavilion, just so you know what's important, which may not be what de Coubertin thought was important.

Of course, you don't have to actually go to Atlanta to enjoy the moment. Few of us will. You and the kids can settle in, as will a predicted 200 million American viewers/consumers, with Uncle Bob Costas and his NBC friends on the big-screen TV. It's family entertainment at its most compelling.

You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll watch many, many, many Home Depot commercials.

Home Depot paid something like $40 million to be an Olympic sponsor. So did Visa, because at the Olympics, they don't take American Express.

You'll see more of Visa than you will of Carl Lewis, more of McDonald's than you will of Michael Johnson.

You'll fly there on Delta. You'll snap photos with Kodak. You'll read Time. You'll throw back a few Buds.

Olympic sponsors are paying 80 percent of the $1.58 billion it takes to put on the Olympics. Olympic sponsors are the Olympics, the very essence of the Olympics. Just ask them. Or ask the U.S. Olympic committee, which advertises a hot-line for civic-minded Americans to call in case we spot any Olympic cheaters. These cheaters are not athletes who take illegal drugs. These are companies who try to horn in on the Olympics without paying the requisite freight.

And you thought the Games were only about heart-clutching drama.

You can see what's happened here. It's been building for a while.

As we know, the Olympics were always based in mythology. When the modern Olympics resumed in Athens in 1896, they invented the myth of the amateur ideal, which was really a cover to keep the working classes out of the Games. And then there was the peace-on-earth, anti-nationalism myth, which flourished despite the 1936 Berlin Nazi-fest, despite the deaths at Munich, despite the U.S. boycott and the Soviet boycott. They played out the Cold War on Olympian fields -- as in 1956, the year the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, when the two countries drew blood in a water polo pool -- and called them Games.

Somehow, we were fooled, or pretended we were, except when the U.S. beat the Soviet hockey team. We knew what that was all about. Our clean-cut boys had shown the world the superiority of the American way, which makes you wonder what it would have shown if our fine lads had lost.

Well, the Cold War is over. In case you missed it, capitalism won.

In Atlanta, the New South's citadel of commerce, capitalism defines this Olympics, back in the United States after a 12-year, three-Olympiad absence during which the heart and lust for ratings grew ever fonder.

No longer is it Russia vs. the United States. It's Nike vs. adidas. Coke vs. the absent Pepsi. And Visa vs. the absent American Express. No one knows whether Carl Lewis can win again in the long jump or whether Michael Johnson can double in the 200 and 400 meters. But if you want a sure thing, bet on commercialism to be the clear winner. The athletes know what's at stake.

As Linford Christie, the 37-year-old Brit coming back to defend his 100-meter title, put it: "When it started, it wasn't about the winning. It was about taking part. That's done. That's changed. In the era of commercialism, it's who wins."

The winners win big. They get big endorsements, and the companies cash in right behind them. A gold medal can translate into real gold.

So be prepared, as I suspect you already are, for a pull at your heartstrings and a simultaneous pull at your wallet. The Olympics have always been commercial, but never so nakedly so. It's as if they've finally given up and decided to tell the truth, that the Olympics are about two things: Great athletic achievement on a world stage and selling hamburgers.

But here's the paradox. And here's maybe the irony.

It's easy enough to say that commercialism threatens the soul of the Olympics, that it cheapens them, that it makes the Games little more than a TV show with anthems and ribbons. But if commercialism threatens the Olympics, it is commercialism that saved them.

You could look it up.

Red ink, then Lasse Viren

Flash back to 1976 and the Montreal Olympics. Three important things happened there:

Many African nations boycotted, starting the string of boycotts that gave lie to the we-are-the-world aspect of the Games and nearly killed the Olympics.

Montreal lost hundreds of million of dollars, which is a lot even in Canadian dollars. This was the Olympics of the cost overrun. It became clear that the Games were so expensive, the infrastructure so expensive to build, the sites so costly to maintain, the scale so grand that the Olympics were pricing themselves out of the market.

By 1976, Coloradans had already turned down the chance to host the Winter Olympics. By the time stadium-laden, infrastructure-rich Los Angeles won the 1984 Olympics, its only competitor was Tehran, home to the Ayatollah. Red ink nearly killed the Olympics.

Then there was Lasse Viren.

You may not remember him. He was a great Finnish distance runner, in the tradition of Paavo "The Flying Finn" Nurmi.

He had just won the 10,000 meters when he made history. As soon he crossed the finish line, he stopped to pull off his running shoes. And it wasn't because he liked to run barefoot.

This was still the age of amateurism, the beginning of the end, as it turned out. When Viren held up his shoes, it was a moment of commercial inspiration. The shoes were Tigers. And the company paid him for his efforts. It was as if he had announced, as he might have at some future Olympics, that he had just won the 10,000 and now he was going to Disney World.

On that day, Phil Knight, who would become the CEO of Nike, must have had an epiphany.

On that day, young Michael Jordan must have had dreams of Dream Teams. Still, he couldn't have foreseen the 1992 Olympics when he and his Dream Team buddies at the gold-medal ceremony draped an American flag over the Reebok insignia on their outfits. Because Jordan and Barkley and Co. worked for Nike.

On that day in Montreal, Dave Kindred, now a columnist for the Atlanta Constitution, asked Viren why he held up his shoes.

"I was just a Midwest bumpkin," Kindred says now. "I thought maybe his feet hurt."

And on that day, Peter Ueberroth, then head of an obscure but successful travel agency, must have been watching. It was Ueberroth who took charge of the L.A. Games. It was Ueberroth who made them a flag-waving, profit-making success.

It was Ueberroth who sold the Olympic-torch tour. It was Ueberroth who made the idea of sponsorship an Olympic ideal. It was Ueberroth who announced, with no small hubris, that he wouldn't have taken the job if he didn't expect to turn a profit.

Maybe he got lucky. These American Olympics, the first in 52 years, dovetailed nicely with Ronald Reagan's morning-in-America tour. When the Russians and East Germans boycotted the Games, many thought the Olympics would be ruined. Ueberroth knew better.

America wanted winners. It didn't matter which countries we beat up on, just so long as America was No. 1. Carl Lewis won his four golds, and American athletes won American hearts.

The TV boys picked up on it right away, setting a tone for jingoism that lives even unto today, although NBC has promised to tone that down for these Olympics. We'll be watching.

Everything worked. Even the traffic moved.

It was morning in America. And the Olympics, now bigger and grander than ever, were saved by American know-how. And the American dollar, of which NBC is spending literally billions to be your official Olympic TV network.

A festival of hope

The Olympics are not only about money. There has to be something to sell. So here's the product: The Olympics are a festival of hope for humanity.

All the polling shows people believe that.

The Olympics are a fantasy. They're as schmaltzy and as real as "Chariots of Fire." The Olympics are a made-for-TV movie, brought to you by AT&T; -- not MCI.

A recent poll showed that 73 percent of Americans would choose Olympic sponsors and their five-ringed logos over non-Olympic sponsors. That's why the sponsors are paying so much to tell you who they are. Which breakfast cereal. Which wristwatch. Which hamburger. Which parcel service.

And because the Olympics sell as few events could ever sell, Jesse Owens, the most hallowed of Olympic names, is making a comeback. In time for the 60th anniversary of the Berlin Games, you can find Owens' likeness on 30 different products. Look for him on mugs, T-shirts, even on bank cards. You'll catch him on TV working, as John Wayne now does for Coors, in the latest Forrest Gump technology.

Maybe when you see Owens' likeness, you might remember that after he won his four gold medals in Berlin, he came home to nothing. He would have to support himself by running races against horses.

Even Carl Lewis, a great believer in the commercial product, finds this Owens comeback offensive. Lewis said in the Olympic column that he (or his ghostwriter) writes for a London newspaper that he has struggled throughout his career to professionalize track and field. But, Lewis wrote, "Dead man walking was never what I had in mind."

Money is not a new thing, and not new to the Olympics either. Professor David Young, who has written two books about the Olympics, discovered that the ancients, though they ran naked, ran for pay. The Games were ended in the fourth century AD because of the usual suspects: money and corruption.

It was money that brought the Olympics back to America and to Atlanta, instead of back to Athens for the centenary modern games.

"My friends in Athens say it will be the Coca-Cola Olympics," Young says. But he adds that the Olympics are too grand an ideal to be ruined even by a Coca-Cola City.

"They're so extraordinary," he says, "that they have withstood everything."

What we watch for

What is so extraordinary? We don't have to ask. It's all there in front of us.

The allure of all games is their immediacy and their surprise. No one knows when Kirk Gibson will limp onto the field to hit a dramatic home run, or when Jerry Rice will make the game-winning catch.

In a typical sports season, there may be a handful of these moments. At the Olympics, where everything is so concentrated, you get such a moment a day, or maybe a dozen. And everyone is watching. These are shared moments, some of which you never forget.

Let me tell you just one.

As often happens, the name is obscure. This time it's Kevin Redmond, a not-quite-world-class, 400-meter man out of Britain.

Maybe you remember.

He was running in the semifinal heat at Barcelona in the '92 Olympics. Maybe 150 meters into his sprint, a hamstring gave way. Redmond sank to his knees in pain, his head buried in his hands, tears flowing. A dream was over, and the loss of the dream hurt even more than the torn hamstring.

And so, on the spot, Redmond formed another dream. He would finish the race. He got up and tried to run. He could barely hobble as he grabbed his bad leg.

And then, from high in the stands, a burly man in his late 40s charged past the security guards onto the track. It was Kevin's dad, Jim.

Jim threw one arm around his son's waist and with another he grabbed his hand to hold him up. Together, they walked around the oval to thunderous ovation, father and son. Together, they made a dream.

"We started your career together," father said to son. "We'll finish this race together."

And they did.

And that's why we watch the Olympics. We watch with our hearts in our throats. We wait for the transcendent moment. Then, and only then, do we go out to buy our Big Macs.

Pub Date: 7/18/96

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