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Olympics always prove memorable


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 7, 2000

Can't make it, Sydney.

For 104 years, from Athens until now, modern Olympics have been tinted by nationalism, gloriously and not.

But it is commercialism, a necessary golden evil, especially since Los Angeles 1984, that has become the deepest ache.

Frankly, there'll be far too much TV from Australia, with far too many ads, an overload of Outback hokum, with only so many golden moments.

With limits, I'll watch.

Ten times it was my professional privilege to write from Olympics, beginning with Munich in 1972, where Summer Games set historical records for intrigue, surpassing even the impassioned 1936 Owens/Hitler Olympics in Berlin.

That, but sadly more.

Twenty-eight years later, Munich continues to rank as my most challenging, captivating, unforgettable sports writing assignment. Where a wealth of Bavarian sporting drama became buried by blood, hatred, corpses, because of politics.

For so long, our Olympic interests were abundantly fueled by America's pulsating competitions with shadowy, seemingly threatening entities such as the now-gone Soviet Union and East Germany.

It was difficult, but it was dandy stuff, digging and prying to learn about Iron Curtain jocks. Asking questions, enduring laborious and frequently insufficient translations, always wondering if the answers weren't being filtered through Tass and the KGB.

Truth is, the more we came to really know about the USSR and East German young, as well as suppressed bothers and sisters from kin countries, the more they were like the kids from America. With goals, dreams and needs.

I kind of miss that.

Today, it can seem the Olympic power nations have become Nike, Reebok, Puma, adidas and NBC. Though some threadbare athletes, most from threadbare nations, lucky if they've got a sheckel or two, richly embrace the clean if spartan quarters and ample food of an Olympic village, there conversely will be U.S. basketball megamillionaires staying in five-star hotels and eating at gourmet restaurants, fidgeting because they had to leave Ferraris and Land Rovers at home.

Still, it's worth it.

Olympics, for me, were the ultimate 1972-96 candy store. Always bringing a fortnight of frantic, gorgeous, if semiobscure athletics. So joyous, testing and exciting to peck on typewriter, then computer, keyboards from Lake Placid, Seoul, Calgary, Barcelona, Albertville, Los Angeles, Montreal, Sarajevo, Atlanta and Munich.

I'm not quite humming Auld Lang Syne, but if I were to list the 25 biggest things I've written about, in a blessed journalistic lifetime loaded with Super Bowls, World Series, Wimbledons, Final Fours and Masters, more than half of them would involve Olympics.

Nothing like it.

But I've had enough.

For me, there won't be an 11th Olympics. My choice. My time to watch from half a world away. Months ago I asked the boss to exclude me from Sydney thoughts.

Oh, sure, I considered the flight, so long up there to get to Down Under, my healthy rump belted in a coach seat. But, frankly, even if Greg Norman, the grand Aussie golfer, had invited me to fly along to Sydney on his airborne luxury yacht, I would've passed.

It's just time.

I'll do some football.

From my Olympic youth, I lobbied hard for open Games, available to all athletes. But, in some ways, my mind changed. As much as I pushed for a Dream Team concept, I now think it's an idea with more thorns than roses.

It was huge fun at Barcelona, being in the gym to see what Jordan-Bird-Johnson and their NBA kind could do, but I wish Dream Teaming had begun and ended in Spain.

Millions may disagree.

Olympics are as perplexing as they are alluring. The Games will never be perfect, never be non-controversial. Still, no matter the baggage, if the commercialism can be even semi-harnessed, Olympics are worth the bother. My 10 longest, toughest assignments. But it's okay when you wind up in a little Lake Placid ice arena believing in miracles.

National pride is a good thing, like beefsteaks and milk shakes, if not overdone. Be proud of our athletes, our country and our medals. But can we tone down the "USA! USA!" chants if it's nothing mightier than our hoops Dream Team winning a 137-28 thriller against Upper Slobovia.

This is sport, right?

Olympics are a global get-together like no other. In some ways, no different from Chariots of Fire times. An amazing celebration of lands, people, cultures, beliefs, politics and histories. Far more than Democrats and Republicans will ever need another convention, the universe needs Olympics.

One of my utmost TV-watching motivations will be to learn more about Australians and their splendid island continent. Even if NBC yappers become overbearing with attempts at Aussie talk, flogging us with "G'day" and "Mate" and "Tinnie." That last one means can of beer.

It's no Munich, but that's not all bad.

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