The Games still have some value

Posted: Thursday, May 13, 2004

Staging the Olympics is going to cost billions, and there's scant evidence it will bring the nations of the world closer together. The opposite is more likely to happen, given the headlines of the day.

So even though athletes around the globe are making great personal sacrifices, there's no point in making grand claims about competing in Athens this summer. Let's start with some small claims from some former Olympians instead.

Check out Edwin Moses' travel schedule these days.

If anything, he has picked up the pace since stepping off the Olympic track. He has remained a tireless advocate for athletes and track and field, serving on both the international and U.S. Olympic committees. And since becoming chairman of Laureus' world sports academy in 2000, he has used the organization's charitable foundation to set up and run youth sports programs in some far-flung corners of the Third World.

In some of those places, Moses is recognized as a two-time gold medalist and the greatest hurdler ever. In others, where electricity is scarce and the Olympics are more fable than fact, he's regarded as a curious but kind visitor who makes it possible for kids to slip the crushing grip of poverty for a few hours.

In India, the ''Magic Bus'' program provides transportation to a few safe playing fields for kids too frightened by random kidnappings to hold games in the streets. In Morocco, the goal was to win the support of village leaders, first to let girls compete in soccer matches, and then to attend classes in brand-new schools.

On some of the trips, Moses' sidekick might be Michael Johnson, another of track and field's greatest names. On others, it might be Nadia Comaneci, Boris Becker, Pele or any of three dozen other retired world-class athletes who volunteer for Laureus duty.

They aren't ambassadors for a particular country or cause, beyond trying to do some good through running clinics and games, and they have no illusions about what they're accomplishing.

''There are three universal languages,'' Moses said in a telephone interview from Portugal this week. ''Love, music and sports. People are passionate about those, no matter where we go.

''Some of it is the simple joy that goes with physical activity. Beyond that, it's people wanting to test themselves, and then measure that against others. It's the same all over the world.''

Though he competed at the highest levels, even Moses wonders how useful the Olympics remain -- beyond serving as an ideal.

''Opportunists show up at every Olympics, casting them in a way that works to their advantage. I got caught in the boycott of the Moscow Games. That was 24 years ago, and it didn't help the movement in the long term.''

''Besides, it's just one competition that happens every four years. The problems that people we see have continue regardless of whether the games come off or not. Tackling those seem a lot more important to me now.''

Johnson, too, has become a proponent of the small-scale approach to sports in recent years. He took part in Laureus programs in India and Morocco and other clinics and fund-raisers have carried him to France, China and South Africa. He feels firsthand the respect and goodwill that athletic achievements can command, but worries what happens when there is so little follow-through.

''It's important that things like competition, sportsmanship and goodwill get put on a world stage,'' Johnson said. ''But none of them are going to stop conflicts unless we bring them down to the level of some of the people involved.''

It's easy to be cynical about well-off athletes pushing grass-roots involvement in disadvantaged pockets of the globe as a way to do good and restore some of the luster that's been scraped off sports in modern times. But it's also worth remembering that's how Moses and Johnson and countless others got their start, and why the lesson is worth reinforcing in ways big and small.

''Some of the kids were not even born when we competed, but still they look up to us, and why? It's because they know you can be born a princess or into a family with money, but the only way you can be an Olympic champion is through hard work,'' Comaneci said.

''The wonderful thing about sports is that everybody can have a dream. For only a few will it ever come true at the Olympics, but that's not the most important thing. I did gymnastics at first because I loved it. And I did more than I ever expected, because I learned to love working at it.

''Maybe the world would be better,'' she concluded, ''if everybody at least had a chance to do the same.''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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