A Second Chance For Olympic Reputation

olympic torch
In The Land Down Under, about as far as you can get from the home of the Olympics, Sydney is preparing for games that hope to wash away the sporting world's sins.

It is not just the Olympic movement that is on trial during the Sept. 15-Oct. 1 event in Australia's largest city. The image and role of sports, a giant entertainment industry as well as a test of skill, are up for grabs as the 21st century begins.

Since the last troubled games in Atlanta in 1996, the Olympic movement has been on a downward spiral, hit by cronyism and kickback scandals that have tarnished its once-proud rings. Fan hooliganism, drug-taking, player gambling, and off-field behavior comparable to that of the wildest of rock stars make sports headlines as often as record-breaking performances.

The Olympic Stadium newly constructed in Sydney for this summer's Games.
Can Sydney, a city of 4.5 million founded by convicts and guards in 1788, change all that, or has sports lost an innocence it cannot regain under the pressures of commercialism?

Optimists believe it is still possible—and necessary—to return to the ideals of the first modern games in Athens in 1896, when competing was the thing, not winning.

"Sydney is going to be a seminal event for the Olympics and sports," said Professor Ken Hawkins of Australia's Central Queensland University. "We need to get back to the old ideals."

Realists say the world has moved on and it is time to accept the games for what they are—a contest where everyone involved is motivated by making money, not just winning a gold medal.

Dr. David Garlick, director of sports medicine at Sydney's University of New South Wales, compares what has happened to the Olympics to the shift in attitudes in the 1990's towards the marriages of Britain's Royal Family.

"Who would once have investigated Britain's royals? It is the same with the Olympics. The rise in education and cynicism has led to a willingness to question authority," he said.

"The growth in professionalism and commercialization plays on the weakness of humans and raises the pressure on sports people to go for the money, using any possible aid to win."

There will be plenty of competition at Sydney before the Olympic torch is handed on to Athens for the 2004 games. More than 10,000 athletes will compete in 31 sports in a nation that is one of a handful to take part in every modern Olympics.