Sports: Is There Too Much Glitz at the Olympics?

Culture Watch

George Beres is a Greek-American whose parents were immigrants, his father, Mpiris, from Tripolis; his mother, Spoutheas, from Sparta. He was a member of the planning committee for the 1984 Olympic Scientific Congress in Eugene, Ore. He was host to the Greek representative, George Papandreou, today Foreign Minister of Greece. Beres visited Olympia, Greece in 1979. He is former sports information director at Northwestern University and at the University of Eugene. He lives in Eugene with his wife, Argyro, whose family roots are in Chios. Their sons, Niko and Haralampos, are television newsmen.

Glitz of the opening ceremonies for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics made them seem much more than a century away from the 1896 renewal of the Games in Greece. Truth be known, Salt Lake City will seem more than a world away from contemporary Greece when the Summer Games open in Athens in 2004.

It's not that the Greeks might not want to replicate the fanciful marketing of the Utah Winter Games. They just don't have the resources. Therein lies the secret of how Athens could help the world rediscover the true Olympics meaning, obscured behind the commercial veneer of the 2002 Winter Games.

I was one of millions glued to the TV set during the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, Feb. 8. It was spectacular, entertaining and sometimes moving. Those who staged it deserve admiration-- except for an excess of nationalism at the start and end, and a failure to protect the natural environment.

Opening ceremonies-- while acknowledging cultural gifts of the host nation-- are intended to be generic in focus, not nationalistic. So it was unfortunate that the Sept. 11 attack on the United States got such emphasis, and that we were smothered with American gold medal-winners passing the Olympic flame like a relay baton before lighting the torch.

The 9-11 recognition was understandable and proper in a nation still reeling from the stunning attack. But it should have been limited, either to the stirring voice of the New York policeman (singing the National Anthem, not God Bless America), or the moving display of the tattered 9-11 flag.

The end became overkill when one American gold-medal winner from the past after another handled the flame before the torch was ignited. Having members of the 1980 U.S. hockey team do the igniting was nostalgia savored by Americans who can remember their unexpected upset of the USSR. But it was meaningless for other nations, some of whom saw it as a vestige of the Cold War, trumpeting a symbolic victory over communism.

Olympic principles embody higher goals that get lost in nationalistic fervor. The Salt Lake City welcoming show, while an entertaining event, was stained by over-emphasis on U.S. tragedy and achievement.

Despite the evening's marvels, it failed to adequately honor all of what our TV commentators described as the"three pillars of the Olympics movement: athletics, culture and the environment." The athletic pillar surely would dominate our attention for two weeks, maybe longer after the Las Vegas style stage production that preceded the first awarding of medals. It caused TV host, Bob Costas, to quip:"If they do that before every medals presentation, we'll be here until it's time to go to Greece for the Summer Games."

The cultural side was superb, giving places of esteem to a Native American pageant, the hoe-down dancing of western pioneers, and laying of the golden spike when railroad tracks from the east and from the west met near the continental divide.

But the environment's importance to future Olympiads and to survival of humanity not only was overlooked. It was degraded. That was no surprise to those aware of how the Utah Games ignore the 1994 guidelines of the International Olympic Committee, and instead pillage the environment around the 2002 winter site. The host committee's original $6 million budget to protect the environment was sliced to $1.5 million. As a result, the clean air plan for public transportation to events was replaced by a massive fleet of gas-guzzling SUVs. Billionaire oilman, Earl Holding, once a member of the host committee, used his influence and money to sneak away with a land swap for his resort in the area, which raped the land, and was unnecessary for the Games.

While Holding hid behind his front man, Utah Sen. Orin Hatch, the only mention of the environment on opening night came when the son of Jacques Cousteau, France's famed advocate for the earth, joined a group of other global luminaries to march into the stadium with the Olympics five-circle banner. The next time we view an Olympics opening ceremony will be in Greece in 2004. I've talked with representatives of the Greek Olympics Committee, some of whom are at the Winter Games. One of their concerns is to arrange a system of security as effective as that at Salt Lake City. The United States, viewing itself on a war footing, went to extreme effort to guard against terrorist attack on the Winter Games.

Greece will not have comparable resources for vital areas such as security and environmental protection. Nor will it be able to stage opening ceremonies as spectacular and costly as those of recent Olympiads at richer venues. But the Olympics movement will best be served if the land where it all began chooses to open with a relevant program of sensitivity and understatement. Those are qualities that can escape the marketing gimmicks and environmental exploitation that mar the Salt Lake City Olympics.

They are guidelines for returning the Olympics to the historic traditions of their origins.

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