A few months before the opening of the Los Angeles Olympic Games, a sportswriter friend wrote a column complaining, "There was too much politics in the Olympics." Prominent, of course, were the mentions of the famed Black Power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at Mexico City's 1968 Olympics and the 1972 Munich massacre.
Various old chestnuts were revived, such as the excessive use of pomp and ceremony, flags, anthems. His plea was a fervent one to restructure the Games, give the two-week competition back to the athletes and let the politicians worry whether this planet will still be here when the Seoul Olympics of 1988 come around.
Just recently, the same columnist friend came to my office to view our film, "16 Days of Glory," the official film of the 1984 Games.
When he watched the team from China appear on the screen to a rousing ovation from the 90,000 spectators at the Coliseum during Opening Ceremonies, I could hear him say, "God, that was great."
Later, when the Romanian and Yugoslavian teams were given similar ovations by the cheering crowds and members of both those Communist nations enthusiastically waved back, he said, "That was one of the most thrilling moments I've ever seen in sport."
Finally, when the United States team marched onto the field, tears of emotion streamed down his face. This, remember, was the same man who wrote the column of "too much politics in the Olympics."
I didn't broach the issue with him. But I began to realize that, for almost a century since the Games were revived in 1896, the whole Olympic philosophy of removing "politics" from the Games is a contradiction of the real world.
In Olympic terms, the word "politics" must be redefined. Unfortunately there is no distinction between the political aims of the small groups that run governments and the "politics" of the hundreds of millions throughout the world who view the Olympic Games. To remove "people politics" from the Games would, to me, end them. Even more, when redefined, the Olympic Games are perhaps the greatest positive "political" idea ever.
When in the history of the world will you ever duplicate the gathering of more than 7,000 young men and women from 140 countries, all selected to be there for the very same reasons--they were the best to come forth from their native land? Surely you won't find this elite array of excellence at the United Nations gatherings in New York or in the chambers and halls of government buildings throughout the world.
Surely there have been international incidents at the Olympic Games because of nationalism and political conflicts. Some have been serious, wrong, sickening--such as the Munich crisis. Some have been almost comical.
In the early part of the century, a British Tug O' War team walked off the field in a huff because they were told their shoes were illegal. Later, a French gate keeper refused to let some athletes enter the stadium at the 1924 Paris Games because they had forgotten their competitors passes.
And some have been unfortunate, although almost understandable. Politically, who could blame the Hungarian water polo team for aggressively taking on their Soviet opponents in 1956, just a few months after Soviet armies moved into Budapest to put down a revolt of the Hungarian people.
And who really could not find sympathy for gymnast Vera Caslaavska of Czechoslovakia, who bowed her head on the victory podium when they played the Soviet anthem. Again, just a few months earlier, Soviet troops had invaded Czechoslovakia to quell an internal uprising against the outside oppressor.
Real "politics" first reared its ugly head at the 1936 Berlin Games, when the United States was just a few votes away from boycotting Adolf Hitler's Olympic extravaganza. Only United States Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage's emotional plea on behalf of the Nazis prevented Franklin D. Roosevelt from beating Jimmy Carter to the history books as America's first President to bar U.S. athletes from competing in the Games.
In retrospect, Brundage's winning arguments made it possible for Jesse Owens to upset the Nazi racial theory of a master race.
Owens was so magnetic that he became the darling of the German audiences attending the Berlin Games. Lutz Long, the German long jump champion, walked arm in arm with Owens after Owens defeated him in the long jump final. German frauleins by the dozens risked severe punishment by daily sending him romantic proposals. Owens' popularity was so great with the German people that he had to leave the stadium by underground exits to avoid the thousands of spectators waiting outside for a touch or glimpse of him.
For the most part, the "people politics" defeated the "real politics" of the Nazi regime.
Just as the Los Angeles crowds on opening day set the mood for the successful "16 Days of Glory," so, too, did the 80,000 fans who attended the rainy Opening Day Ceremonies at the 1952 Helsinki Games.
The Soviet Union entered the Olympic competition formally as a nation for the first time at Helsinki. The host Finns had plenty to be upset about with their powerful neighbor. Thirteen years earlier, the Soviets invaded Finland. Though they fought the Soviet Union to a stand-still, the Finns finally had to capitulate because of the overwhelming numbers of the invader.
The cold war between East and West was at its height in 1952 and the Soviets evidently mistook tiny Finland for the United States. When the Finns asked the Soviet Union for permission to have the Olympic flame pass through the Soviet Union on its way to Helsinki, the Soviets refused. It became necessary for the flame to take a 2,000-mile detour from its starting point in Olympia.
Once the Soviet team arrived in Helsinki, they set up their own Olympic Village apart from the other athletes of the world.
Then, on opening day, the Soviet Union became part of the Parade of Nations. Incredibly, the 80,000 spectators greeted the Soviet team with a tremendous ovation. The surprised Soviet men and women smiled happily and waved their greetings to the crowd. The next day, the Soviet team joined the other nations in the Olympic Village.
What the Los Angeles Olympic Games should have taught us is that athletes are people first and that their amazing talents on the playing fields make them political actors and actresses on an international stage, there to be applauded by the hundreds of millions of spectators throughout the world. But their abilities in sport are just part of the human process.
From birth, athletes laugh, cry, adore recognition and, yes, love. The pomp, ceremony, anthems, laurel wreaths, flags, banners, national colors, trumpets and cymbals are all part of what differentiates the Olympic Games from an ordinary athletic event. Through the decades, the Opening Day Ceremony has been the "hottest ticket" in town, yet no athletic event is contested that day.
So the Olympic Games survive and flourish not because of athletes, but rather because of the people who watch them. Whereas the ancient Greeks called the Games "the truce of God" and gave a peaceful hiatus to warring nations, in today's world the Olympic Games become a magnificent interlude in which each of us can transport ourselves back in time to the dreams of our youth.
For most of us, the dreams of our youth have never been realized. What the Olympic Games prove to us, however, is that these magnificent hopes and beliefs have been achieved by some; those marvelous men and women who with pride, dedication and talent have "entered the arena, made the attempt and competed with honor."
Olympic athletes are giving us these moments of glory vicariously. When the trumpets sound and the cymbals crash, we thank them for proving that the highest forms of the human spirit can still prevail, regardless of the country of their birth. We honor them, but we also thank them for showing us that the continued pursuit of excellence is valid.
This is "people politics."
So hang your heads Greece when you protest Peter Ueberroth's torch run. Come back into the real world members of the International Olympic Committee, when you yearly suggest the removal of anthems, flags, pomp, and ceremony from the Games.
Stop your protestations that "politics" should be removed from the Olympic Games. Politics is not governments. Politics is people, and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games proved that, every four years, a tribute to excellence cannot survive without them.