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Simple footrace to a rush for gold


The ancient Greeks probably had no idea when they scheduled the first Olympic Games in 776 B.C. that the simple footrace held in honor of Zeus would evolve into the lavishly produced, heavily hyped, ratings-conscious, drama-laden, up-close-and-personal international extravaganza it has become.

Or so you would think.

Recent archaeological research, however - specifically, the discovery of an ancient Greek parchment, found at the bottom of an ancient Greek trash can buried in a mound of volcanic ash outside a souvlaki drive-through - shows that, even nearly 3,000 years ago, the founders of the Olympics did have some inkling of what was ahead.

On the parchment (its certificate of authenticity is pending) are the minutes of a meeting of the First Olympic Games Organizing Committee, dated 777 B.C. The meeting was attended not just by Heracles and Pelops - both of whom have been credited with founding the Olympics - but by a third, previously unidentified man as well.

What follows is an edited transcript.

Heracles (chairman and son of Zeus; aka Hercules): Welcome gentlemen. I appreciate you coming, and I know you join me in wanting to make this homage to my father the hugest event the world has ever known.

Pelops: You know it, big guy. I see hordes; masses even - big, big numbers.

Louie the Prophet: Not to be a wet blanket or anything, but just what makes you think that? Huge crowds? For a simple footrace? What's the draw? I know we are pretty far along in the planning process here, but if I could just run another idea up the flagpole. Instead of athletic prowess, we make it about singing ability, and we call it, get this, "Greek Idol."

Pelops: That's absurd.

Heracles: We already have our idols, Lou.

Louie the Prophet: I'm using the term loosely. Hear me out. What I envision is starting with a large group and, based on their singing performance, we narrow the group down, at a painfully slow pace, building suspense until a winner emerges - one winner, none of this silver and bronze stuff you're talking about. Trust me, the day will come when second and third place mean nothing in our society.

Heracles: How would it be clear who won?

Louie the Prophet: Judges. We'd have judges. Celebrity judges. And they can make or break these poor dopes. We can take the agony of defeat to whole new levels.

Heracles: Nobody would want to watch that.

Louie the Prophet: I'm telling you, twice as many people would watch that as would watch your sporting event. We could squeeze all the drama out of the participants that we can - just like we plan to do with the athletes, except it would be better because these wannabe singers are emotional wrecks already. And if there's no drama there, we can, like, you know, manufacture it.

Heracles: No, no, absolutely not - this is supposed to be about athletic prowess.

Louie the Prophet: OK, OK, but try this one for size. We stick with the athletes, but rather than bothering with the sporting events, we focus strictly on their sex lives, and we call it - are you ready? - "Desperate Olympians."

Pelops: You are so going to Hades, Lou. Are you sure it's Prophet and not Profit?

Louie the Prophet: I'm telling you, this will work. After a while, people are going to get bored with watching a discus being thrown. The athletic contest alone is not going to stand the test of time. What if instead we take all the athletes, strand them somewhere challenging and see what happens? We could call it "Survivor, Mount Vesuvius." They're still competing, but they're also being mean-spirited and catty and conspiring against each other.

Heracles: Interesting, but it seems somewhat contrived.

Louie the Prophet: And you're saying the Olympics wouldn't be? Is it really any different? All you're doing is hero building.

Heracles: What's wrong with that? I'm a hero, you know.

Louie the Prophet: Heroes are fine, but after a while, people need something more, like seeing a hero crash. Picture this: "Olympic Fear Factor" - between events we have the athletes eat bugs and entrails and other gross stuff.

Heracles: I don't know, it seems so ... impure.

Louie the Prophet: Exactly! That's what people are going to want. In the future, purity is going to be soooo yesterday. This way, you won't just see a person fail, you'll see them humiliated. There won't just be tears; there'll be absolute degradation. That's what will get you the viewers.

Heracles: That's a myth. The world will never become that jaded. And besides, profit isn't what this is all about. It's about the brotherhood of man - maybe someday woman, but for now, man. It's about national pride, but it's also about the world coming together, if just for a few days once every four years in the summer.

Louie the Prophet: No, soon enough it will be every two years, and we'll have them in the winter, too. And there'll be luge and ice dancing and something called curling.

Heracles: Whatever. The point is the Olympics will never become all about money. We are above that. Our purposes are noble. For instance, we plan to have all countries cease their wars during the Olympics.

Louie the Prophet: Yeah, right, that's really going to happen. With all due respect, Heracles, your thinking is naive and short-term. The day is going to come, 3,000 or so years from now, when everything is about making money, and anything that doesn't make money - big, whopping loads of money - will have no reason to exist. And when that day comes, your Olympics - the thrill of competition, the innate drama of it and whatever little mini-dramas the producers can come up with - are just not going to be enough to keep viewers. People will turn away. Mark my words.

Heracles: I'm sorry, Lou. We appreciate your input, but we're sticking with the original plan.

Louie the Prophet: Wait, wait, hold on. Just one more thought: "CSI: Sparta." We start off with a dead body ...


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