At the Olympics

After his victory in the Olympic 10,000 meter run, Lasse Viren, later accused of blood doping, loped barefooted around the track holding his arms aloft, a Tiger track shoe in each hand. By the last stretch, five men waving billowing Finnish flags had filtered down from the stands and joined the victory lap to the roars of 60,000 spectators. Left behind was Viren, who had slowed to a walk and looked on with a pencil-thin hint of a smile.

Years from now I will no longer remember that the defending gold medalist had coasted along in second place before making his move at the beginning of the bell lap, ending the mounting suspense with a blistering finish. The controversy over blood doping will be forgotten. But that victory tour of the massive stadium will remain in my mind, not because of the uproar raised by Puma and Adidas over Viren's "blatantly commercial" display of his shoes, but because of the spontaneous surge of nationalist feeling by flag waving, chanting Finns for their tired hero. The only reason that this 27-minute-plus, 25-lap race held my interest for as long as it did, and I was captivated for the last 10 laps, was the chants of "Viren, Viren" and the swelling roar of the crowd rippling around the stadium just ahead of the runners.

During the eight-hour pole vault final I was vocally rooting for United States entrants Dave Roberts and Earl Bell. I fear that if I had not, the tense, close competition which featured more of athletes psyching each other and themselves than actual leaping would have been a more effective cure for insomnia than a bottle of Nytol. Certainly, as the endless, often meaningless myriad of women's and men's track heats was paraded before me, the eye searched hopefully for a familiar face and the blue and red costumes with USA lettering on which to focus.

I went to Montreal favoring those who proposed the end of all nationalist sentiment in order for the Olympic spirit to survive, even if it meant eliminating team sports which seemed to be especially conducive to demonstrations of chauvinism. It was naive to think that you can just turn off expressions of nationalism and, once in Montreal, it became evident that the culture and identity of participant nations is a part of the games. I have realized since that much of the excitement and pomp of the Olympics would be missing without individual nation's support for their athletes.

I supported athletes because I knew of their efforts to reach the Olympics courtesy of ABC-TV close-ups or their names were familiar. There was admiration for Lasse Viren, the defending champion at 5,000 and 10,000 meters who had gone on the banquet circuit in Finland for three years before returning to a rigid training regimen. But usually I was best acquainted with the American athletes. I was familiar with Dave Roberts's rivalry with teammate Earl Bell, who traded the world record from week to week during the spring. When all else failed, one could always find an American runner to urge on, for the sake of having someone to cheer for.


And there is nothing wrong with picking a favorite from one's own country; it is part of the ritual of most sports. Baseball fans throw their allegiance behind teams for no other reason than that they play home games in their city. College alumni support their old school's football teams. Even the Greeks of the ancient Olympic games, the ideal for organizers of the modern Olympiad, rooted for representatives of their regions.

The Greeks, however, went further and used victories on the athletic field to claim superiority over rival cities. This may have made some sense since superiority was measured by the physical strength and skill of soldiers. Today when such superiority claims are ridiculous, this national pride is what endangers the Olympic games. We have reached the point when individual athletes are becoming secondary to the interests of their countries. Politics become involved when participant nations see the Olympics as a threat to their reputations and there are always problems when national Olympic committees exercise control over athletes to avoid embarassment.

Several American athletes have warned against this trend away from the individual. Discus thrower Mac Wilkins, who won a gold medal at Montreal, told reporters that he was threatened with expulsion by United States Olympic officials for training away from Montreal even though he could not concentrate in the Olympic village. He went on to say that his victory was an "achievement for myself." Arnie Robinson, the victor in the long jump competition, felt that his medal was a reward for his long hours of training. "I won for myself, my family," Robinson said.

Some Americans felt more patriotic such as four gold medal swimmer John Naber ("I won by myself but for the United States") and heavyweight boxer John Tate, who draped a jacket over his imposing 228 pound frame which said, "Big Daddy Tate loves America." But they were not attributing their successes to the nation or President Ford either.

In order to return the Olympics as much as possible to sports, Olympic committees and other influential organizations must not confuse nationalist spirit with national pride. For example: In the last week there have been proposals, most notably by men's track and field coach Dr. Leroy Walker, to create national teams in Olympic sports, based on programs established in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) which increased that nation's medal output. Walker suggested that athletes be picked two years before Olympiads and undergo rigorous training supervised by the team coaches. This might lead to a few more medals. But there can hardly be a greater threat to the Olympic ideals of amateurism and emphasis on taking part instead of winning. Of course these are lofty ideals, but the United States should be honest with itself and not worry how many medals it wins. A national team concept would be disastrous for the Olympics.

National anthems and flags at award ceremonies should be eliminated. The impromptu celebrations and flag waving by fans immediately after an athlete's victory always were more meaningful and emotional than the ceremonies hours later. At Montreal, the ceremonies seemed anti-climactic and were often regarded as an annoyance since other competitions had to be halted. Their only advantage seemed to be the opportunity they afforded for standing and stretching one's legs.

The news media can do its part by not printing and reporting those idiotic cumulative medal standings. The first Olympic news item I heard upon my return to the United States was that the country was hopelessly behind the USSR in their battle for medal supremacy. After a week of watching superlative performances and the emergence of various national heroes, this pronouncement seemed irrelevant.