by | Jul 23, 1992 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

They ran naked, for one thing.

Really. In ancient Greece, or so the legend goes, Olympians sometimes ran their races in the raw. Nude. A-buffo. Today, Russian athletes don’t have a flag or even an anthem. But they have shoe contracts.

Progress, right?

To moan that the Olympics “ain’t what they used to be” is to say Shirley Temple doesn’t wear pigtails anymore. Tell us something we don’t know. From a small, simple ritual that featured one race and a prize of an olive wreath, the Games have evolved — if you can call this evolution — into TripleCast, a
$125 act of stupidity in which the American couch potato can watch everything from water polo to the modern pentathlon minute-by-minute, day-by-day, on his cable TV. Even Zeus couldn’t handle that. I don’t care if they all ran naked.

These days, the Olympics are big. I mean BIG. Looking back on where they came from and where they are now gives you the feeling of a farmer who put a male and female rabbit in a cage, then returned one year later. Whoa! Where did all this come from?

Ah, but the Olympics rarely look back — not on the bad stuff, anyhow. Although they almost died several times this century — the 1904 Games in St. Louis were such a fiasco that the Greeks put on another Summer Games two years later just to convince people the Olympics should continue — the closing ceremonies still end with the words, “See you in . . . (wherever the next Games are scheduled). Already, they are building stadiums in Atlanta for 1996. Already, hotel rooms are booked. Already, Jane Fonda has picked out a dress.

And we haven’t even found out who the world’s greatest athlete is this year.

Think about what the Games have become! Reebok. Butch Reynolds. Yugoslavia. Steroids. Badminton. Charles Barkley. These concepts would have baffled the ancient Greeks. And they invented math.

Yet as we head toward the year 2000, there is no stopping the whopping. The Olympics continue to bloat into this massive flying zeppelin, swelling fatter and fatter with demonstration sports, corporate sponsorships, professional teams, drug tests and camera wires.

Who would have ever guessed that from Point A, as in Athens, we’d now be at Point B, as in Barcelona? A few Olympic traditions, and their modern day counterparts:

* Ancient Greece: The Olympics consist of one event, a footrace, that takes less than a minute.
* 1992: Sixteen days, 28 sports, about 10,000 athletes and 9,000,000,000 commericals.

* Ancient Greece: Boxers try to get an edge by sticking nails in their hard leather gloves and shred their opponents’ faces.
* 1992: Boxers must fill a urine beaker before they can exit the building.

* Ancient Greece: The Games feature an event called Pancration, a bloody man-to-man battle in which anything — scratching, kicking, eye-gouging — is allowed.
* 1992: Badminton is an Olympic sport.

* Ancient Greece: Emperor Nero insists on competing in the Games, accompanied by 5,000 bodyguards.
* 1992: Michael Jordan arrives in Barcelona.

* Ancient Greece: Nero competes in the chariot races, falls out of his vehicle but is helped up by fearful competitors, who let him win the race without a struggle.
* 1992: Larry Bird.

* Ancient Greece: All wars are suspended during Olympic Games.
* 1992: Yugoslavia.

* Ancient Greece: The mother of Peisidorous, a boxing champion, disguises herself as a man to be in her son’s corner.
* 1992: Sandra Farmer-Patrick runs the 400-meter hurdles in a two-piece, sequined, bikini track suit.

* 1896: A Greek water carrier named Spyridon Louis wins the marathon but refuses a barber’s gift of free haircuts for life because he wants to preserve his amateur status.
* 1992: The U.S. basketball team is staying in a $900-a-night hotel.

* 1908: Dorando Pietri, an Italian marathon runner, hobbles into the stadium, dazed, weak, and is helped across the finish line by sympathetic Olympic officials.
* 1992: Butch Reynolds sues the Olympics to let him compete.

* 1904: The St. Louis Games, due to poor organization, take four and a half months to finish.
* 1992: NBC begins its promotion campaign.

* 1904: The St. Louis Games feature a competition between “uncivilized tribes.”
* 1992: British soccer fans arrive in Barcelona.

* 1912: Jim Thorpe is stripped of his two gold medals and erased from Olympic history books because he was paid $2 per game for playing semi-pro baseball the summer before.
* 1992: Reebok spends $20 million on a Dan vs. Dave ad campaign — before either one qualifies for the team.

* 1920: The swimming competition is held in a moat.
* 1992: Olympic swimmers will wear warm-ups designed by Henry Grethel.

* 1920: Charley Paddock, a barrel-chested Californian, wins the 100 meters after drinking a pre-race glass of sherry and a raw egg.
* 1992: Ben Johnson is back again.

* 1924: A French spectator pokes an American student for “loud rooting.”* 1992: “USA! USA! USA! . . .”

* 1932: The first full-scale Olympic village is used, and athletes love it so much that some cry when they have to leave.
* 1992: Carl Lewis books his hotel suite.

* 1952: The USSR competes for the first time.
* 1992: The Unified Team competes for the first time.

* 1976: East Germany wins more gold medals than the United States.
* 1992: East Germany?

* 1976: African boycott.

* 1980: U.S. boycott.

* 1984: Soviet boycott.

* 1988: South African and Cuban boycott.

* 1992: No boycott.

And that’s just a taste of it. There is no stopping the Olympic explosion. Big goes to bigger. The Games are like that giant marshmallow man in the film
“Ghostbusters” — massive, frightening and yet appealingly childlike at the same time.

After all, the idea of the Games — the best athletes in the world, brought together in one single, harmonious competition — is exactly what the ancient Greeks were hoping for. Of course, they never figured on Nike, Chuck Daly, Latvia, Estonia, Summer Sanders, Bob Costas or the Synchronized Swimming team.

But, hey, they ran naked. What did they know?

Let the Games begin.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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