Pure sport is like pure water: refreshing but increasingly rare. An obscure high-jumper, who has never before cleared record heights, arches over the bar, leaving it jiggling but still standing as he falls ecstatically into the pit. An Olympic swimmer, a full body-length behind going into the final lap, edges out her archrival in a final, desperate stab at the wall. This is 1992 and the world casts a wary eye. Did steroids give him that extra spring? Is she grinning over the medal or the endorsement bonanza it will bring her?
Perhaps purity is asking too much. After all, some ancient Greeks took bribes for losing, and after the Roman conquest, Emperor Nero was declared chariot champion without winning a race. Maybe it is enough that competitors go “swifter, higher, stronger,” as the modem Olympic motto exhorts, providing their countrymen with a surge of pride and the rest of the world with a vicarious thrill. And yet sometimes—in that intensely personal way of the global village—there is so much more. On July 25, as about 12,000 athletes from 172 countries—including 312 Canadians— march into Barcelona’s Montjuic Stadium, they will carry not only national flags but their own stories of commitment and courage, triumph and tragedy—stories that have the power to transcend sport, to inspire.
Consider Silken Laumann. The tall, hard-muscled sculler has a winning smile to match her world-championship times, and soon two billion TV viewers will know her story. Laumann, 27, who lives in Victoria, was warming up for a competition in Germany when another boat accidently slammed into hers, smashing her leg and, apparently, her Olympic hopes. But 10 weeks, five operations and countless hours of determined effort later, Laumann will down her cane to compete in the Games, no longer a gold-medal favorite but still a sculler to be reckoned with. “I’ve had to change my goals,” she says. “But I really believe that the Olympics are about personal-best performances. If that means you’re a gold medallist, then that’s great. But there are a lot of great athletes at the Olympics who don’t win medals.” Laumann, says Canadian Olympic Association president Carol Anne Letheren, “truly understands and lives by the Olympic ideals day by day.” Or, as Canadian canoeist Larry Cain puts it: “She is one tough lady.”
Or consider Joe Ng, a top table-tennis player from Willowdale, Ont. In 1986, doctors found a a cancerous tumor in Ng’s chest. He underwent an operation and chemotherapy, but returned quickly to training—at first, a half-hour a day was all he could manage. Now 28, in remission and about to play in his second Olympics, Ng says: “When you’re in a hospital
bed, you feel the clock ticking away, because you don’t know what the future holds. But when you get out and they tell you everything’s going to be OK—it’s given me more confidence in myself.”
No, there is no shortage of inspiring stories, including those of the disabled athletes who will stage two exhibition wheelchair races at the Olympics and a full schedule of events in Barcelona starting Sept. 3. But neither can anyone deny the unsavory side of Olympic competition. Canada uncovered a steroid cesspool with its Dubin inquiry after the Ben Johnson scandal at Seoul in 1988, and since then Ottawa’s anti-doping efforts have been impressive. Will Canada be under special scrutiny in Barcelona? “No,” insists chef de mission Ken Read. “Everybody realized that it was an unfortunate situation, and at least in Canada we’ve taken steps to try to deal with it.”
The changing political world will also wave its banners in Barcelona. There will be contingents from the independent Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia; the other former Soviet republics, still squabbling among themselves, will compete under the oddly inappropriate name of the United Team. South Africans, black and white and finally free of a three-decade Olympic ban, will participate as well, while the Germans will fly a single red-black-and-gold flag. There will be separate teams from breakaway Croatia and Slovenia; the remainder of old Yugoslavia will take part under the Olympic flag. Canadians, in the midst of their own political troubles, may view the parade of splintered nations with special interest.
For the Olympic movement, the Yugoslav civil war is a kind of cautionary tale. In Sarajevo, the besieged Bosnian capital, the stadium where 60,000 people cheered the opening of the 1984 Winter Games
has been bombed and burned. There is fighting around the old athletes’ village, and the Holiday Inn, built especially for the Games, has also been hit; the motel’s undamaged portion now houses war correspondents, while Bosnian gunmen have used its top floor as a sniper’s nest. That is the scene in the city where Canadian Gaétan Boucher skated off with two gold medals, where the Olympic torch was lit to the ideals of peace and brotherhood just eight years ago—and where events have turned so cataclysmic that the very word Olympian shrinks to insignificance. Sarajevo is a lesson in perspective. As the Barcelona Games begin this week, it is worth remembering that the Olympics, pure or not, are at bottom a festival of sport, a moment to savor stunning athletic achievement and celebrate the admirable side of human nature.
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