August 14, 2012

YOU’D THINK A 17-day Olympiad couldn’t stretch long enough to be habit-forming, but this week, the evenings seem awfully empty.

Yes, the Paralympic Games begin Aug. 29 in London. Here in Washington we find ourselves in the unaccustomed midst of a pennant race and with a genuine quarterback possibly having taken the place of quarterback controversy.

But can any of that fill the void? No more of Usain Bolt’s shattering speed and outrageous preening. No more of Gabby Douglas’s improbable leaps and entrancing smiles. No more puzzling over the rules of handball. No more arguing over NBC’s tape delays, which became a kind of Olympic sport all its own.

Every two years, we find plenty to complain about in the Olympic Games — doping, commercialization, hype. This year brought Olympic chief Jacques Rogge’s bullheaded refusal to fittingly mark the 40th anniversary of the murder of Israeli athletes in Munich’s 1972 Games; a silly congressional temper tantrum over U.S. uniforms having been manufactured in China; an Iranian judo contestant who pleaded illness rather than face an Israeli athlete; badminton players who deliberately lost matches in an effort to face easier opponents in the next round.

Yet this year, as usual, the triumphs and heartbreaks of the athletes ended up overshadowing all controversy. There was inspiration in watching an NBA All-Star uncomplainingly play second string, for the good of the team. There was even more inspiration in seeing kayakers, weightlifters and other athletes most of us had never heard of, and will never hear of again, take their moment in the sun after years of unrelenting preparation. We cheered for the Americans topping the medal count and for Grenada (population 109,011) winning its first Olympic medal. We cheered for hometown girl Katie Ledecky and for an athlete from another hemisphere, Oscar Pistorius, who became the first double amputee to run an Olympic race.

This year, for Olympics sandwiched between Beijing and Sochi, we also could cheer for the success of a democracy in hosting the Games. In 2008, China earned the world’s admiration for its massive stadiums constructed on time, its thousands of dancers performing in precision, its state-nurtured athletes winning medal after medal. Vladi­mir Putin’s Russia may score a similar propaganda coup in 2014.

But Britain demonstrated that it doesn’t take an authoritarian regime to keep to a schedule and maintain security. National pride can generate truly voluntary volunteers. Olympic Games can survive withering, noisy press criticism. Dissenters don’t need to be rounded up ahead of time. The stadium scoreboard can flash the word “freedom” to accompany a musical number during exuberant closing ceremonies.

Still. What will we do with ourselves now?