Dying flame?

The Baltimore Sun

Yesterday, a reader of my blog, reacting to an item I wrote about the pea-and-shell game that San Francisco city officials played with the Olympic torch Wednesday, posed this question:

With all the problems that are popping up with the Olympics - illegal drugs, new Speedo swimsuit illegal or legal, then all the energy to guard the flame - at some point, it is time to get rid of the Olympic Games altogether? Look at the staggering financial cost to host them.

He gave me something to ponder. I wonder myself about the wisdom of continuing the Games, not that anyone has seriously suggested calling them off in the next few decades.

But my sense is that the Olympics, Summer and Winter, no longer stop everyday life and compel the world to take notice as before. Certainly not in the same way as in the 15 to 20 years after World War II, when the sports landscape was far less crowded, and not in the way they did when they were a proxy for struggles between the world's democracies and totalitarian societies, such as in Berlin in 1936 or during the Cold War.

The absence of a two-sided international morality play (with the requisite medal standings to keep score) and heightened competition for audience attention has seemingly sapped the Games of their urgency. At the same time, there is commercial pressure on the Games during a time when more and more resources are needed to fuel the Olympic extravaganza. Depending on where the Summer and Winter Games are held, the timing of the television broadcasts and the cast of competitors, TV ratings have become a crapshoot.

So the question is out there: Are the Games worth the aggravation and expense?

The answer, I think, goes beyond the Games themselves.

For many sports - track and field, figure skating, swimming, gymnastics, skiing - the Olympics are the quadrennial brass ring that keeps thousands, perhaps millions, of athletes motivated at every level - youth, high school and college. And not just in the United States, but around the world.

Granted, for 99.999 percent of those athletes, the dream is quixotic - but it hangs out there, nonetheless. And even for those without delusions about having a shot to make a national team and competing for their country, the Games still act as sort of a bonding agent for their athletic pursuit.

The fact that someone will mount a podium to accept an Olympic medal transfers further dignity to what they do as athletes day in and year out.

So are the Games themselves worth the trouble and expense? I'm not sure.

However, do those athletes whom the Games inspire warrant all the effort? Absolutely.


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