Jewish World Review August 13, 2004 / 26 Menachem-Av, 5764

Jane R. Eisner

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Olympics should be about competition, not feel-goodism | (KRT) This, from Tuesday's comic strip "Pearls Before Swine":

"Welcome to the opening of the zebra/lion/croc Olympics," says Bob, a funny-looking announcer. "We now go down to the field for the zebras' opening address."

A zebra with spiked hair takes the microphone. "We are honored to be here today with these other species to promote the cause of peace and build the bonds of brotherhood," it says.

Back to the announcers: "What a beautiful and moving tribute, Bob," says one. "Yes, Peter," says the other, "and now for the crocodiles' opening address."

"Chomp. Chomp. Chomp." The crocodile eats the zebra. In one picture frame.

The ancient Greeks would have understood, because the original Olympics was a brutal, often violent affair where winning was absolutely everything. Victors returned home from Olympia crowned with garlands and deluged with honors and privileges more lasting than any product endorsement contract, while the homecoming for a failed athlete was described by the Greek poet Pindar as "the loser's hateful return, the jeering voices, the furtive back alleys."

Today such bald competitiveness makes us squirm. So the Olympics story seems lacquered with the veneer of warm-hearted camaraderie, punctuated with treacly features of the personal traumas athletes have overcome, masking the fierce drive that, I imagine, races through the blood of anyone skilled enough to even GET to Athens.

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Thanks to wall-to-wall television coverage and a public thirsty for feel-good tales, media coverage shortchanges true Olympic competition in favor of what one writer has called the "Personal Narrative Event." Cancer, drug addiction, abusive parents, serious disabilities - those get more attention than the gymnast's scores.

I say bring back the crocodile.

If these games are supposed to test human ability and endurance, then let's not pretend it's circle time in kindergarten. I'm not a competitive athlete; I race only against myself, thereby assuring one of us will win. So I am fascinated by what drives the swimmer, the runner, the javelin thrower to push body and mind faster, farther, longer.

It may be mildly interesting that Ian Thorpe, the Australian swimming superstar, was in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, and that Michael Phelps, the American wunderkind in the water, had attention deficit hyperactive disorder in elementary school. But the Olympics were not reincarnated a century ago to recount stories of personal suffering; the Games live in the moment two rivals dive from the starting block and cut through the water in their race for primacy.

"Where once athletes had to be virtually invincible, now they must seem vulnerable, as if winning sympathy was even more important than winning the event," writes Mary McNamara in the Los Angeles Times.

To restore competition to its proper place, we need not return to the gory days of old, when naked Greek men would compete in the "pankration," a savage combination of boxing and wrestling in which participants were sometimes strangled to death, and nothing was forbidden except biting and gouging. Let's hope centuries of civilization have taught us more than how to create the best mix of performance-enhancing drugs.

So sacred were the ancient Olympics that a truce brought warfare to a halt during the Games. Today, we need a cease-fire barring anything other than pure competition.

Jane R. Eisner is a columnist for Philadelphia Inquirer. Comment by clicking here.

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