Is the Olympics' positive message being lost?
This week, all eyes will be on Sochi. It’s a place that most Americans were unfamiliar with until recently. Soon the 2014 Winter Olympics will take place in this Russian city and give us a reason to think more about the message of the Oly mpics .
Started by the Greeks in 776 B.C. and lasting to 393 A.D., the Olympic competitions were revived in 1896 with an international base of 13 participating nations. The founding idea was to provide a venue for competition among the most able athletes of the times. Over the years, the Olympics have brought the world wonderful displays of physical prowess, international cooperation and stories of hard work leading to golden opportunities.
Yet, the Olympic competitions have also had significant downsides of terrorism, violence and cheating.
2014’s major concern is terrorism, which has been an unwelcome visitor to previous Olympics. Sochi’s threat is considered extremely high. Areas not far from this Black Sea resort have a large number of radicals and Islamists boasting a desire to send their political messages via death and dest r uct ion .
Just a few months ago, a similar group blew up the railroad terminal in Volgograd, a large city in this region. While the Russians claim they have developed a “ring of steel” to protect the participants and supporters at the Olympic sites, safety remains a real i ssue .
The need for extreme security means that athletes may have to be more guarded, which can interfere with their emotions and physical skills. Additionally, some Olympic competitors have advised family and friends to stay home, resulting in less personal support for these athletes.
It is not just the current terror threats that remind us that the positive goals of these sporting events are being undermined. Ugly politics have been in play before. Hitler used the 1936 Olympics in Germany to tout his nation’s Aryan supremacy. The 1972 massacre of an Israeli Olympic team in Munich was the dreadful antithesis of what these competitions should bring. Boycotts occurred in 1980 and 1984. First the USA and other nations were furious at the USSR for invading Afghanistan — irony in retrospect — then the USSR and others refused to participate in the Los Angeles games.
Despite all sorts of security at the 1988 Atlanta Olympics, a disgruntled American detonated a bomb that killed two people and injured over a hundred. The Games were canceled in 1916, 1940 and 1944 as wars took precedence over peaceful individual and team compet it ion s .
Those of us who have watched the Olympics over the years can all recall exciting and poignant moments. Those who viewed Mary Lou Retton’s stunning gymnastic win will never forget it. Swimmers Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz remind us of multiple golds. Ice skaters, skiers and other winter sports’ stars have thrilled us with their daredevil perfor m a nces .
For many athletes, this competition is their life’s ambition. They want to validate their personal goals and peaceably bring pride and medals to their own countries. This year we have to hope that the authorities in Russia, who have a reputation for knowing how to “deal with dissenters,” can do what they say they can do to protect the participants and spec tators .
The world will be watching the Olympics and hoping for excitement and action confined to the sanctioned competitions. Yet, with the increased terror threats and the history of violence at the Olympics, it is reasonable to wonder whether the Olympics’ positive message is being lost.
Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@ comcast.net.
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