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Real World Games

Back in the early 1970s, when the Shah of Iran was still firmly ensconced on his Peacock Throne, he launched a campaign for Tehran to be selected as the host city for the Olympic Games.

But in making their pitch, the Iranians insisted on one condition: the name of the long-distance race would have to be changed. After all, they argued, it could hardly be called The Marathon because the Shah, in particular, did not care to be reminded about that distressing episode in his country's history.

They were, of course, referring to a certain battle that took place on the Plain of Marathon in 490 B.C. The invaders from Iran (which was then called Persia) entered that fray a prohibitive favorite, but were soundly thrashed by the upstart Greeks.

Once the victory was assured, an exuberant Greek warrior ran non-stop from Marathon to Athens – a distance of 26 miles and change – where he breathlessly proclaimed the glad tidings. Think of Paul Revere without a horse and bringing good news to the populace.

And since the Olympic Games began as a Greek entertainment, it was only natural that the endurance race would be named in honor of the epic run from Marathon, and that it would continue to be called that when the Olympics were revived as a quadrennial spectacle in Athens in 1896.

As for the objection of the modern Persians (the Shah and his cohorts), well, let's just say that losers are rarely allowed to call the shots. With their refusal to call the race The Marathon, Tehran's chances of hosting the Olympics went from slim to none.

This is just one example of how the real world – the world of history and politics and war and revolution – can impinge on the otherwise innocent endeavors that take place on our Olympic playgrounds.

Berlin, 1936
Consider, for instance, the highly-charged political atmosphere that greeted the athletes who competed at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Although the start of World War II was three years away, Hitler was already full of swagger. In one of his pre-Olympic boasts, he predicted that Aryan supremacy (a Wagnerian fantasy that arrogant Germans embraced as philosophic truth) would prevail over all less fortunate competitors.

Yet when that grandiose theory was put to the test, it was exposed as an utter fraud. In particular, the great African-American sprinter Jesse Owens made a mockery of it by defeating his Aryan rivals – and everyone else. He wound up with three gold medals, and a share of a fourth, a dazzling performance that many regard as the greatest individual achievement in Olympic history.

In fact, the only clear-cut example of German superiority in Berlin that summer was in synchronized goose-stepping. But that was a non-medal event.

The Prosecution of War by Other Means
The Olympic Games did not return to Germany until 1972 when the host city was Munich. And there the real world came crashing down on the sporting events in the form of brutal violence. Midway through th competition, Arab terrorists stole into the Olympic Village and killed members of the Israeli Olympic Team. It was, without question, the darkest moment in Olympic history.

Nor should we forget the long-running theme that defined so much of the Olympics for four decades. From the late 1940s until the late 1980s, the games were caught up in the tangled fears and clamorous rhetoric of the Cold War.

On both sides of the Iron Curtain, the sporting events were viewed as a litmus test of which system – democracy or communism – produced the better athletes. It was mostly nonsense, of course, but it was also quite harmless.

You may recall that it was the renowned 19th Century military strategist von Clausewitz who said that war "is the continuation of diplomacy by other means." The Olympic competition during the Cold War years could be viewed as a benign update of that bellicose assertion: the prosecution of war by other means. Hey, better that than missiles and bombs.

Ivan Has a Tantrum
Unfortunately, missiles and bombs and other weapons of destruction came into play in the fall of 1979 when Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan. This act of aggression cast a shadow over the 1980 Summer Games, for which Moscow had been selected as the host city.

In response to the Soviet military action, President Carter called for a U.S. boycott of the Olympic events in Moscow. As the celebrated sports columnist Red Smith wrote at the time: "If Ivan won't behave in a civilized manner, then we won't run around in his playground." It was the first and only time that American athletes did not compete in the Olympics.

Winter's Heated Competitions
For the most part, the Winter Games have been spared the strife and political controversies that, from time to time, have marred the Summer Games. For example, Germany was also the site of the Winter Games in 1936 (they took place in the Bavarian resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen), but the Nazis did not seize that occasion to trumpet their views about Aryan supremacy. They saved that propaganda for the summer competition in Berlin.

Even so, events from the outside world often had a way of making their presence felt during the Winter Olympics.

A case in point was the last time the Winter Games were held in Japan. That was 1972 when Sapporo was the host city. To a large extent, the games that year were overshadowed by another epic event. For the big story to come out of Asia that winter was not the Olympics but President Nixon's historic visit to China, a diplomatic breakthrough that dramatically changed the geopolitics of the Cold War.

And as the world's most accomplished winter athletes gather in Nagano this month for the 1998 games on snow and ice, they may have to compete for attention with events taking place in neighboring arenas outside the sports domain. For in many ways, the most heated and stressful competition in Asia this winter is the struggle for stability that i being waged in the financial centers of Korea, Hong Kong, Indonesia and – to a lesser extent – Japan itself.

As the late Gilda Radner was so fond of saying: It's always something.

Written by Gary Paul Gates

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