There was plenty to grouse about in last month's Sydney Olympic Games: the scripted US television coverage, relayed long after the actual events transpired and lacking any real spontaneity; the ratings-driven overemphasis placed on women's sports by designated telecaster NBC, featuring endless hours of pre-pubescent female gymnastics at the expense of traditional male events; the wretched new styles in track and swim wear, which made runners look like swimmers and swimmers look like they had donned longjohns by mistake; the continued proliferation of pseudo sports, such as synchronized diving and trampolining, that tended to dilute the purity and essence of the occasion; the insistence of numerous athletes and their coaches on using performance-enhancing drugs, thereby turning some events into contests between pharmaceutical firms.
There were stunningly moving moments as well, many of them provided by the Australian hosts. The first was the opening day's arrival of the Olympic torch, featuring Aussie heroes and heroines of past games, many of them slowed by age and illness but possessed of unquenchable spirits; the appearance of 1956 golden girl Betty Cuthbert in a wheelchair brought tears to the eyes. Then, highlighting the games, there was the women's 400-meter final, won in spectacular fashion by Australian aborigine Cathy Freeman, the epitome of grace under pressure, who seemed to float on air despite carrying the weight of an entire nation on her shoulders. And who could forget the Australian fans, fervid but fair-minded, and enthusiastically attentive to the most mundane events and the lowliest athlete; they proved that the spirit of the Melbourne Games of 1956, often considered the century's best, is not dead.
But what of the Americans? To be sure, we had our moments -- many of them if you measure national impact by medals won, a category where the US continued its latter-day dominance. In terms of personifying the Olympic spirit, however, the team that brought home 97 medals, 39 of them gold, left a little to be desired.
There were exceptions, of course: The performances of swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg and Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner were especially memorable, both in terms of athletic excellence and personal deportment; they won the gold with displays of rare excellence -- a thrilling upset in the case of Gardner -- and accepted victory with refreshing modesty and respect for their vanquished rivals. Too many other members of Team USA, though, left a lingering bad taste in the mouth, despite success in the arena.
From the opening ceremony, when they marched in mugging for the TV cameras like an audience from the Jerry Springer show, this nation's best managed to revive memories of the Ugly American of Cold War days. Over the course of the competition, Team USA's rogues' gallery came to include the following: a hurdler who taunted the slower finishers behind him; a male swimmer who bragged he would "smash" his opponents (and then, thankfully, lost); a female swimmer who spat in her chief competitor's lane; a wrestler who wouldn't shake hands with his victorious opponent; a male gymnast with tattoos, earrings, and a bad attitude; successful relay runners who assumed self-congratulatory and tasteless poses after their win; and last but certainly not least, a trash-talking basketball team of overrated NBA all-stars who couldn't bring themselves to acknowledge the good play of their opposition, even when they nearly lost to tiny Lithuania.
Except for the classy and knowledgeable Bob Costas (the best around at what he does), NBC's interviewers and commentators tended to excuse this boorish behavior as the enthusiasm of youth: They didn't really mean it, after all; just exuberant and competitive young people, don't you know. Actually, that magic word "competitive" may hold the key to the behavioral lapses in Sydney.
Sport doesn't exist in a vacuum; it's a reflection of society at large. Americans have gone through two decades (the 1980s and 1990s) that celebrated ruthless competition in all aspects of life, especially the economic. A maturing generation has been taught that it lives in a dog-eat-dog, devil-take-the-hindmost world, where you strive to win at all costs and by any means, and where you regard your competitor with thinly veiled contempt. This is true whether the competition is on Wall Street or in a sports venue. Sadly, our young athletes have learned the lesson well.
The international Olympic movement hasn't helped matters any by its eager acceptance of commercialization. The quadrennial games, which used to be sponsored by governments and nonprofit athletic associations, are now brought to us by corporations, a change that began with the Los Angeles show-biz extravaganza of 1984. In Sydney, advertising logos were everywhere, not least on the uniforms of the athletes themselves. Along with corporate logos come corporate values, including the corrupting idea that winning is absolutely paramount and that just taking part and competing well, the romantic ideal of Olympics long past, is so irrelevant as to be laughable.
It's been nearly three decades since American Avery Brundage, avid opponent of commercialism and celebrator of the amateur spirit in sport, ran the International Olympic Committee (IOC) with an iron fist. Brundage was a tyrant; his paternalistic treatment of athletes was especially reprehensible. Yet, something was lost with his passing that needs to be recaptured. The deterioration of the Olympic spirit that many American participants exemplified with their behavior in Sydney should be addressed.
At the international level, the IOC's announced crackdown on drugs in athletic contests is a good beginning. Weaning that governing organization from its own excessive reliance on corporate money would be even better. At home, an attitude adjustment by American athletes, enforced by their coaches, is in order, and it could be implemented immediately, given the will.
A true, long-term change of perspective by US Olympians, however, probably won't come about until we undergo a substantial change in our overall value system. That will take a little longer in the current atmosphere of national superpower hubris, but it's not an impossible goal.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.