Any day now, a prominent American athlete will drop out of the Athens Olympics citing security concerns. Already, some NBA players have voiced a disinclination to go. What should we think of them? You can't blame them if they are put off by the threat of bombs, or other crises, or the sheer inconvenience, the travel, the traffic and the heat. But the ones who don't go will be the unlucky ones -- we hope.
The thing to do with the Athens Games is to believe in them until we're absolutely forced not to. Anyone who has a chance to go to the Olympics is asking themselves a plain question: Is the trip worth it? The answer is plainly, yes, if only because of a principle best expressed in "The Greek Way," by Edith Hamilton. She wrote something that all American athletes should take note of: "Civilization, a much abused word, stands for a high matter quite apart from telephones and electric lights."
This could be the motto of the Athens Games, given the delays in finishing stadiums, roads, and other infrastructure, and the explosion of three small bombs in the last two weeks. Nevertheless, it's not a bad lesson, and it's one that the more cosseted American athletes could use. In fact, maybe we could all do with some Greek culture.
There are two types of athletes in these Olympics -- the ones who have worked for four years for a single opportunity, and then there are those who are simply anointed Olympians and whose desire to be there is questionable.
A trip to Greece is precisely what a kid like Kevin Garnett needs to open his already very good mind and nature -- you wonder what a bright guy like that could have done with a college education, or in lieu of that, some exposure to the ancient Greeks. Garnett declined to play for the USA this year, citing his impending marriage, and it's too bad because he needs some broadening, judging by his silly gunplay analogies before Game 7 of the playoffs between his Minnesota Timberwolves and the Sacramento Kings. "I'm sitting in the house loading up the pump," Garnett said, "I'm loading up the Uzis, I've got a couple of M-16s, couple of nines, couple of joints with some silencers on them, couple of grenades, got a missile launcher. I'm ready for war."
As Mike Greenberg of ESPN radio noted, "genetic-freak millionaires live in a world where Game 7 of a playoff series can feel like a life or death proposition."
At least Garnett, who is one of the more promising young humans in the league, had the wits to quickly apologize, and his tone suggested he really got it. "It was one-sided thinking on my part, but I'm man enough to admit it," he said. " . . . I was totally thinking about basketball, not reality."
Will the NBA players get a dose of reality from a trip to Greece? Not entirely. They will likely stay aboard the luxury liner Queen Mary 2 in the harbor, where they will be protected by the Greek Navy, NATO, the European Union, the CIA and FBI and security organizations from England, France, Spain and Israel, plus additional private security hired by USA Basketball.
Even so, no one can be completely cosseted in Athens. Without question, Greece is both vulnerable and volatile; it shares Balkan borders with Albania, Bulgaria and Turkey, and is surrounded by the Ionian, Mediterranean and Aegean seas, open to all sorts of naval traffic. It will be impossible to make the Olympic trip without getting some sense of this, or of the fact that life in that country can be a cauldron no matter how careful you are. The ancient Athenians, despite the importance they placed on poetry, were not tempted to evade facts or to sentimentalize. "It was a Roman who said it was sweet to die for one's country," Hamilton observed. "The Greeks never said it was sweet to die for anything. They had no vital lies."
Neither apparently do modern Greeks. Eighty percent of Greeks recently polled said they believe some kind of attack is "inevitable." Fifty-two percent of Americans believe an attack is likely. U.S. Sen. Jon Kyle (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate committee on terrorism, said the safest place to watch the Olympics is at home on television.
To date, no American athlete has withdrawn from the Games specifically because of security. But an NBA player is your best bet. "The players are definitely concerned," Jermaine O'Neal, the Indiana Pacers forward and a member of the U.S. team, told the Associated Press. Not even the Queen Mary seems to console Ray Allen, who cited the USS Cole, the American destroyer that was attacked by al-Qaeda in October 2002 and lost 17 sailors. "The only thing I can think of," Allen said, "is the battleship that got blown up."
But Aeschylus, for one, would argue that risk is no reason to stay home. The ancient Greeks, Hamilton remarked, believed that "men are not made for safe havens. The fullness of life is in the hazards of life."
The U.S. athletes who go to Athens will learn this. They will also learn, if they care to, that in ancient Greece, men were more whole; they acted in all capacities, and it wasn't enough to be solely an athlete. Soldiers, sailors, politicians and businessmen also wrote poetry and carved statues and discussed philosophy. According to Hamilton, "they saw what is permanently important in a man and unites him to the rest . . . that what is of any importance in us is what we share with all."
The Athens Games will be a meaningful trip for those athletes who can't afford to pass up the opportunity or those who are curious. It's for the type of competitor who wants to explore the origin of the games and the purpose of them. The Athenians, according to Pericles, were "lovers of beauty without having lost the taste for simplicity, and lovers of wisdom without loss of manly vigor."
All of these things are waiting to be seen, read and learned in Athens if one makes the effort to get there. Hamilton wrote, "For a hundred years Athens was a city where the great spiritual forces that war in men's minds flowed along together in peace; law and freedom, truth and religion, beauty and goodness, the objective and the subjective -- there was a truce to their eternal warfare and the result was the balance and clarity, the harmony and completeness, the word Greek has come to stand for . . . and in all Greek art there is an absence of struggle, a reconciling power, something of calm and serenity, the world has yet to see again." Or as an ancient poem says, "Greece and her foundations are . . . built below the tide of war."
Now, who wouldn't risk something to see that?