27 JULY 1996, Page 46

High life

Trust me on this one



They say that sports are a mirror of the larger society, which means we're in a hell of a mess. Instead of developing character, today's athletes receive doc- tored education requirements, under-the- table bribes, tens of millions of greenbacks (in certain sports, that is) and forgiveness of felonies. The Olympic Games, pompously proclaimed as the epitome of sportsmanship, are tainted by drug-taking and big bucks. If this is sport, I'm Jesse Owens.

Take, for example, the Chinese women's swimming team. In Atlanta, they have come nowhere near the times they set last spring that put them at the top of the world rankings. The reason is simple. They were doped to the gills when they set the records, and tested positive less than a month later during the Asian Games. What's the Chinese word for sportsmanship? I'll have to ask my buddy David Tang. We are now at a stage where we accept a degraded sporting environment that devalues everything — a world in which our kids are breathing a poisoned air unaware that there's clean air to be breathed if only Coca-Cola, CNN and NBC would let them. In fact, these are not the drug Olympics, as some have called them; I prefer to call them 'the substance that covers up the drugs' Olympics.

Starting with the opening ceremony, where competitors sauntered in waving happily and out of step, I noticed an Alge- rian with both hands in his pockets talking to his neighbour who may or may not have been picking his nose. This set the tone for me. The grotesque 'dream team' of Ameri- can seven feet and taller Afro-freaks slam- dunking a ball through a hoop is a sports nightmare as far as I'm concerned. Sport in Ancient Greece derived from martial arts, like the javelin, the shot-put, wrestling, boxing and chariot racing. I guess basket- ball derives from certain of our ancestors jumping up high to grab mangoes, coconuts, even bananas.

I wonder what Pheidippides would have made of the corporate highjacking of the games? Mind you, Pheidippides never ran from Marathon in 490 BC to announce vic- tory. He was an Athenian general who found himself in Sparta during the battle. Known as a great runner, he was dis- patched to Sparta — back then a three day and night run among wild animals —to try to get help. The wily Spartans did not com- mit themselves but waited for news of the outcome. The man who ran and died announcing victory was an out of shape hoplite who had not seen close-quarter action, as was the fashion back then. Milti- ades, the victorious general, was worried that the Athenians would torch the city in case of a Barbarian victory, ergo the out of shape soldier's old college try. Amazingly, even serious scholars insist it was Pheidip- pides, but the poor little Greek boy knows better. As they say in Tel Aviv, trust me on this one.

My two favourite Olympics are obviously the first games in Athens 100 years ago, and those of Rome in 1960. In 1896 there were no women, nor beach volley-ball. George Tsiklitiras won the first gold medal in the standing long-jump, after the Ancient Greek practice. All in all we won 80 per cent of the medals, including the marathon. Everyone who competed was as pure an amateur as Pheidippides.

Everything about the Rome games is etched in my memory as if they took place Yesterday. Armin Hary, the blond German sprinter, winning the 100-metre race and the black American runners complaining that he got a false start (they would, Wouldn't they?), Livio Beruti, the Italian, winning the 200 — the last time two whites won the two fastest races. Glenn Davis, a white American hurdler, winning the 400- metre hurdles, and the beautiful Wilma Rudolph, a black American, outsprintng all her rivals. I write this from memory. I am not looking at the record book. The then Cassius Clay beat an Aussie friend of mine, Tony Madigan, in the semi-finals of the light heavyweight division, and every- one, including Clay, thought Madigan was robbed. The Ruspolis and the Serra di cscsanos gave balls in their palazzos, and the then crown prince of Greece, Con- stantine, won a gold in the dragon class in yachting. Ari Onassis ran into the shower and got under it fully clothed in order to embrace our future king. Those were the days. Oh yes, and every team marched in unison, led by the Greeks. Not a single athlete picked his or her nose.