SPORTS WATCH

The Olympic conundrum

We send athletes to competitions around the world to engage in sports that nobody looks at except for two weeks every four years

TRENT FRAYNE August 3 1992
SPORTS WATCH

The Olympic conundrum

We send athletes to competitions around the world to engage in sports that nobody looks at except for two weeks every four years

TRENT FRAYNE August 3 1992

The Olympic conundrum

SPORTS WATCH

We send athletes to competitions around the world to engage in sports that nobody looks at except for two weeks every four years

TRENT FRAYNE

All sorts of people get carried away by the Olympic Games. My all-time favorite was a guy writing in Time magazine about Carl Lewis, the American sprinter and long jumper, the week the 1984 Games opened in Los Angeles.

“What he does is so simple, and how he does it so complicated, that Carl Lewis is a basic mystery,” this anonymous fellow wrote, warming up for the kicker. “How fast he runs, how far he jumps, may serve to establish the precise lengths to which men can go. Gentler than a superman, more delicate than the common perception of a strong man, Lewis is physically the most advanced human being in the world.”

Obviously, the Olympics glaze the eyeballs. NBC Sports paid $477 million for TV rights to the Games in Barcelona, and is running 161 hours of runners and splashers running and splashing. Sports Illustrated magazine says NBC is employing 700 people, 77 cameras and 170 miles of cable to get the job done. Meantime, the magazine itself devotes its 216-page July 22 issue entirely to an Olympic preview.

In Canada, the CTV network is staggering us folks at home with 176V2 hours of Olympic viewing and, even more telling, the Games have created such excitement at the Toronto Globe and Mail, a paper that in recent years appears to have abandoned sport, that the paper has dispatched two staff scribes to Barcelona.

Such overwhelming attention to the Olympics is at variance with what happens during the three years and 50 weeks between Games. Where is there a camera or a puzzled scribe at Greco-Roman wrestling matches, a water polo tournament or a canoe race, not to fail to wonder about the smallbore rifle shooters, prone, kneeling and standing?

For that matter, where are the people? For three years and 11 months only close friends and lovers endure a view of the performers in these events, yet whole national networks suddenly erupt with a top priority.

It’s an oxymoron that began baffling your

agent during the Montreal Olympics when, day after day, a full house of 60,000 people piled into Olympic Stadium. Even soccer filled this towering monument to cement, people watching East Germany play Poland for the gold medal. Soccer? In Canada?

Forget it

Earlier, the usual enormous throng had sat in a soft drizzly rain totally entranced by the struggle of three tall, lean high jumpers seeking the gold medal. Here were the strutting Dwight Stones of the United States, a grim and impassive Pole, Jacek Wszola, and a pale spikyhaired Canadian, Greg Joy. As darkness fell and the lights high in the stadium roof danced off the tumbling raindrops, these three held the throng often totally silent as the slender bar was raised ever higher. Then Stones fell by the wayside and the bar went to 2.25 m for the Polish visitor Wszola and the home boy Joy.

Suddenly, it was over. Wszola cleared the 2.25 barrier (whatever the 2.25 barrier is: who beyond the level of Grade 6 arithmetic can translate 2.25 m into English?) and Joy missed in three attempts to pull even.

It is easy to appreciate how drama of this nature can delight a captured audience, but since nobody entering the stadium knew the high jumpers would produce it, what were 60,000

people doing there in the first place? By contrast four years earlier I had tottered down to Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium in the line of duty for the Canadian track-and-field championships. Of course, track and field, with the star sprinters and milers and muscled decathletes, is the glamor event of every Olympics. Yet on this day of national championships in Toronto, there weren’t more than 1,500 people in the cavernous old grandstand.

This Olympic conundrum can be regarded in two ways: (a) if the Games are so popular that NBC rolls out $477 million for the television rights and CTV clears the decks for 176V2 hours of sweat and tears, why does nobody bother with these games between the Games, or (b) if practically nobody watches water polo players, javelin throwers and 5,000-m walkers for three years and 50 weeks, why does television lose its marbles over them for two weeks?

The Canadian government spends enough to make a dent in the national debt providing athletes with a living wage and sending them to competitions around the world to engage in sports that nobody looks at except for two weeks every four years. We live in a cold climate but the truth is we are not remotely interested in at least half the events of the Winter Olympics. Who flocks to watch speed skaters speed skating? What about luge? (For that matter, what is luge?) The biathlon? Bobsledding, anyone? Actually, only hockey, skiing and figure skating can attract an audience during the long gap between Olympics.

Four years ago during the Calgary Winter Games, the wind blew, the sand swirled, chinooks dived in and numerous events were postponed. Even so, when the weather was right, tens of thousands showed up to watch luge, bobsled and ski jumping. It was here that Eddie Edwards, who always came dead last, took a gold medal in people’s hearts with his courageous, foolhardy and hapless attacks on the 70and 90-m ski jumps. But in the four years since Calgary, how many thousands have lunged towards luge?

Oh, the Games produce heroes, all right, not all of them with a winner’s gold. Four years ago, there was Larry Lemieux, sailing off Pusan in the Summer Olympics. Second in stormy seas, he heard shouts for help from a sailor who had been tumbled from a capsizing boat and who was floundering in the raging sea. His clothes and equipment were dragging him down in high, whipping winds. Lemieux dived in and helped the struggling sailor regain his boat, blowing all chance for a medal himself.

Larry is a selfless guy who came from a big Edmonton family—six boys and two girls—of which he was the youngest. Back when he gave himself up, he was single and 33, a man who travelled the world as a carded Canadian athlete racing his Finn-class boat and obviously carrying the original Olympic spirit You know, winning isn’t everything.

Such isolated incidents speak well for the sort of character that Olympic training may help develop, but it still doesn’t explain why 60,000 people in Montreal paid to watch East Germany out-kick Poland for the gold.