I will have very little sympathy for the American or any other athletes if they are forced to boycott the Olympics, or if the games are cancelled, or if in any other way they are prevented from taking part in this wretched parody of sportsmanship, both this year and forever. The event should have been buried, without any laurels, 10 Olympiads or even more ago.
I do not think that I am a spoilsport in this. I get a great deal of pleasure and even exhilaration from watching some of the individual performances on television. The exertion and the concentration, the evidence of years of training and dedication now brought to a test, the winner drawing on one last physical or psychological reserve, all of these can be enthralling.
But they could take place and be enjoyed at other athletic meetings, when there is less dross among the gold for which the athletes compete. The prizes in ancient Greece were chaplets of wild olive; it would be a beginning if they were now as demure. The individual performances may today give pleasure. But everything else -- the professionalism, the commercialism, the nationalism -- is painfully objectionable.
The ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras set the proper standards for us. He argued that in this life there are three kinds of men, just as there are three sorts of people who come to the Olympic Games. The lowest class is made up of those who come to buy and sell. The next above them are those who compete. Best of all, however, are those who come to look on. There is of course a whole philosophy of man in this -- it is the philosopher who looks on life who alone escapes the "wheel of birth" -- and I have to admit that one side of me is inclined to it.
But we may be satisfied here to draw a simpler lesson. It is only the spectator at the Olympic Games who is free from hope of gain. It is only he who has not tied his enjoyment or his life to the hope of profit of victory. So I do not think it is for the athletes to raise their groans. As much as those who come to buy and sell, they are in it for their advantage and only this do they lose.
Sugar Ray Leonard went to the Olympics to turn professional and make every buck he can. Only this morning before I began writing, there appeared on "The Today Show" a little waif of a 14-year-old ice-skater, all sweetness and beguilement as if butter would not melt in her mouth, who thinks that she will be ready for the Olympics in 1984. I was charmed and ready to applaud: How could one take the games away from her? But when she was asked her ambition, it was to become a professional, and repeat the success of Sonja Henie.
It was before Hitler's Olympics in 1936 that Sonja Henie was approached by an American promoter in Paris, who told her that if she won the Nuremberg he would make her a professional ice-skating star. To this day no one knows if she genuinely won in the games. It is still widely believed that at first Cecelia Cooledge of England was declared the winner, but that Sonja Henie protested so violently that a skate-off was ordered by the judges, and she was then proclaimed the victor "by a margin as wide as a shaved pencil point."
She at once sought out the American promoter and became a professional. In her first 15 years she made about $30 million, when the dollar was still a dollar, and today this is the model of the little 14-year-old. It is a far cry from the chaplet of wild olive.
To the American boxers who flew off to Moscow for some preliminary matches, saying that they did not think politics should be introduced into sports, one would like to remind them of one of the solemn rites that accompanied the original games. For the duration of the Olympics, the Greek states foreswore all war. Their athletes would not have gone to Moscow now until Russia stopped making war in Afghanistan.
The modern games were of course revived by Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1896, but they did not really enjoy any prestige until 1912, when Jim Thorpe of the United States so dominated the track and field events, in both the pentathlon and the decathlon, that he and so the games caught the imagination of the world. But was this wondrous Indian athlete then allowed to keep his medals? Not at all.
He was not allowed to keep them because he was later charged with having violated his amateur status by playing semiprofessional baseball at home. Those were still days of some standards: the chaplet of wild olive had not altogether been forgotten.
The 1912 games included my favorite, competitor in all Olympics. Lt. George S. Patton Jr. of Fort Myer represented the United States in the modern pentathlon. He heard rumors that he might be chose on May 10, and sailed from New York for Europe on June 14; the events of the modern pentathlon began on July 7, and at the end of them he stood with some honor in fifth place.
Here was the amateur: how short his training. When he began to practice after May 10, he had not run for two years or swam for three, so he concentrated on those activities, He wrote a note to himself saying that he would not eat "bread, cake, potatoes, rice, cream, milk, butter, fat, sweets, stews, minces, puddings, pastry, salt meat, salt fish or anything containing sugar or starch." He could not even spell the event, writing to his aunt of "the Pentathelm team."
He came in sixth in the 300-meter swimming, third in fencing with a dueling sword, third in the 5,000-meter steeplechase and third in the 4,000-meter cross-country running. But, inexplicably, he let himself down in the event at which he should have shone, coming only 21st out of 42 in the 25-meter pistol shooting. This expert shot even twice missed the target altogether.
But did he miss the target? It was suggested that his two missing bullets had in fact passed through holes which he had previously made in the bull's-eye. The editor of his papers says that this is "entirely plausible" and I certainly am willing to hold to the explanation. Anyhow he received a medal from the king of Sweden which an act of Congress in 1928 authorized him to wear.
Altogether the story is most satisfying. One even enjoys another not to himself which Patton wrote during his brief training, when speaking of steeplechasing: "In finishing it is generally better to be on the side away from the judge." There is craftiness!
At the end of the games he wrote of the lack in the pentathlon of "any unsportsmanlike quibbling or fighting for points which I regret to say marred some of the other civilian competitions." And how hard he had tried, falling insensible at the end of the cross-country.
The decline of the Olympics can of course be measured by the decline in the attention given to the pentathlon and the decathlon, the only events in which the true sportsman is tested. It is worth recalling that it was in both the pentathlon and decathlon that the great Jim Thorpe triumphed in the same year.
His record is worth inscribing and pondering: Pentathlon: 200-meter dash -- 1st 1,500-meter dash -- 1st Broad jump -- 1st Discus -- 1st Javelin -- 3rd Decathlon: 100-meter dash -- 3rd(tied) 400-meter run -- 4th 1,500-meter run -- 1st 110-meter hurdles -- 1st High jump -- 1st Shot put -- 1st Discus -- 3rd Pole vault -- 3rd(tied) Broad jump -- 3rd Javelin -- 4th
Beside these amazing performances over so wide a range of events, it is very had to give much credit to the monotonous records which are now posted each year by competitors in a single event or only a few, for the difference is between the sportsman and the machine. Even as I am enthralled by the individual performances, I am also aware that they are radically inhuman.
Even those little gymnasts who have caught the world's fancy: They are like tight coils of wire bent this way and that by their trainers, so that they will spring mechanically into motion at the right moment. Modern athletes are even less than Pythagoras thought. They are the puppets of their coaches. It is their coaches who are the real winners and they themselves are far from any ideal of the sportsman.
As for those who "come to buy and sell," they are still the lowest, and we need not shed a tear for NBC. There is in fact precious little reason for mourning the Olympic Games if they now neet their overdue death. We might lose a few of those records which have become meaningless; we might regain a little of the spirit of sports well joined for their own enjoyment.
We should not forget that at the ancient games there was a day for boys' events, and competitions for literary composistions as well as athletics. But then those were festivals dedicated to the gods.