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SPORTS: Games are-or should be-all about the athletes

August 11, 2008

At the same time, those same athletes, thrust into the spotlight, will find their failures magnified along with their successes. Media who normally shun gymnastics, or aquatic sports, or track and field, or cycling, or rowing, or even Taekwondo, will suddenly become instant experts, lifting up the victors and damning the vanquished.

How well I know. It was my good fortune to cover three Olympics for the local daily: Seoul in 1988, Barcelona in 1992, and Atlanta in 1996. The first two I did on a solo assignment, which forced me into my own marathon of sorts, scurrying here, there and everywhere in an attempt to cover both the "locals"-athletes with Indiana ties-as well as the marquee events. Twenty-hour days were the norm and I would arrive home exhausted for several weeks afterward. That said, it was the unquestioned highlight of my career as a scribe. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Now it requires nothing more than an agile thumb with which to click the channel changer and follow as much of NBC's exhaustive coverage as I can. And yes, I do anticipate there will be moments during the next two weeks when I'm awake in the wee hours, watching Greco-Roman wrestlers from Turkey and Bulgaria.

The Olympics in general and these games in China in particular have their detractors. Just before the start of the Games, I received an e-mail news release from a magazine called Multinational Monitor. COMMERCIALISM IS OVERRUNNING THE OLYMPICS, the headline on the release shouted.

And I thought to myself, this is news? Were these folks not around for Atlanta in '96?

That horse is not only out of the barn, it's been doing laps around Churchill Downs for about 30 years ... wearing a Nike swoosh. The commercialism of Olympic sports is no different from the commercialism in all sports. Hey, you have to pay the bills somehow.

Aside No. 1-My Center Grove Little League team in 1956 was sponsored by J.C. Wilson Funeral Home. Was that commercialism ahead of its time?

Aside No. 2-I did learn from the release that the Beijing Olympics have a "frozen dumplings exclusive supplier." That's good to know.

Of course, this is China's coming-out party on far more than the frozen dumplings scale, and therein lies my hesitation to completely embrace these games. It is a communist country. It does have a horrendous human rights record. It does, on many levels, control and oppress its people. It is using these games as a propaganda stage.

In an ideal world (and there is no such thing as an ideal world), we would prefer our sports and our politics to operate on separate planes. Yet going as far back as Hitler's 1936 games in Berlin, that's been a naïve notion. The '76 games in Munich became a platform for Palestinian terrorists to make their own horrible mark. The '80 Moscow games and the '84 Los Angeles games turned political football into an Olympic sport.

For better, and worse, it is impossible to ignore China's large, looming presence. But in the long run, it is doubtful-in my view, anyway-that these 16 days of sport will dramatically affect China's place in the world order.

And so, I will look to the sport and the sportsmen and sportswomen. I will watch Michael Phelps' attempt to win eight gold medals in these games that commenced on 8/8/08. I will watch with fascination the Olympic quest of another swimmer, 41-year-old mother Dara Torres, to defy time.

I will cheer loudly for our Indiana divers and gymnasts and all with Hoosier ties.

In the end, I will hope that, despite the commercialism and the political overtones, these Olympics are really about the games and those who have devoted their lives to perform on this stage.



Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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