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Pros, cons of Games will be on display

BEIJING -- It started at Barcelona in 1992. The grumble was almost perceptible. Part of the world that cared about the Olympics embraced the concept of the Dream Team. Another part smelled a sellout.

The Olympic Games -- a place to overcome and achieve and be celebrated, even if you fenced or synchronized swam -- had turned pro.

Of course, it had done that years before, just not so publicly.

While longtime International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage waved the flag of amateurism during the ‘50s, ‘60s and into the ‘70s, East German swimmers upgraded their apartments with medal-winning performances and Soviet athletes long-jumped to nicer cars. Track and field stars from all nations, especially the United States, got money to appear and more to win, as they tuned up in Europe for the Olympics.

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Still, before the Dream Team, the Olympics hadn’t directly tapped into leagues with slam-dunking millionaires. That had allowed the myth of amateurism to continue.

Along came the Dream Team, and a whole segment of Olympic followers who cherished the concept of athletes competing for country more than cash didn’t quite know what to think.

Then Charles Barkley elbowed the player from Angola and everybody knew.

This was now the NBA, or a mirror image. What was once a perceived stage for Bulgarian weightlifters and Cuban boxers had become yet another stanchion for athletic capitalism.

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That, of course, wasn’t the end of the Olympics, which prospers on many fronts and will still get a large portion of the world’s attention beginning Friday, with the opening of the Beijing Games and its 17 days of sports extravaganza.

Opinions vary widely on what the Olympics have become, where they are headed, or whether they matter as much as they once did.

“The people who said the Dream Team ruined the Games were mostly Americans,” said David Wallechinsky, of Santa Monica, who has been to 13 Olympics and is the author of “The Complete Book of the Olympics.” “The rest of the world was thrilled to see them, to get a chance to see them.

“We get a little saturated with the NBA. I understand that. But the concept of amateurism was phony, anyway.”

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Wallechinsky sees different flaws in the Olympics, mainly the politics of the IOC.

“The IOC made a terrible mistake by giving the Games to China,” he said, citing the country’s record on human rights and its likely use of the Olympics as a nationalistic branding campaign. “The Chinese wanted this so they could create a visual image to show on TV. Something like 80% of the Chinese people never use the Internet, never get exposure to things like Tibet.”

Wallechinsky said the final vote to award China the Games was 56-49, meaning “lots of IOC members are now “grinning and bearing it.”

Anita DeFrantz of Los Angeles, one of three members from the United States, may be grinning and bearing it but is doing so along party lines.

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“I respectfully disagree with Mr. Wallechinsky,” she said here Wednesday. “I think the bigger mistake would have been to not bring the Games here.

“These Games represent the beginning of change, and this country has changed so much already. Much has already happened for the better. If you don’t allow 20% of the world [China’s estimated population] to experience this, you have not done the right thing.”

Her stance on the Dream Team concept was the same as Wallechinsky’s.

“Athletes want to compete against the best,” she said.

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The guy from Angola could not be reached for comment.

So Friday, at 8:08 p.m., on the 8th day of the eighth month, in a country that sees good in anything having to do with that number, the Beijing Olympics will open in great ceremony. They will dance and twirl and sing and march and people will watch and be enthralled.

It will be what the IOC exists for and what NBC, the main financial underwriter of all this, has anticipated for years.

They will want happy stories, warm moments and tears on victory stands.

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Also available, at least outside China, will be the other stories, the ones the IOC and NBC would not be as eager to have viewers see.

Joey Cheek, the U.S. speedskater who won a gold medal in Turin in 2006 and who has been a leader in a campaign to draw attention to China’s perceived human rights failings in Darfur, was told Wednesday his visa to come here had been revoked. Seventy-two athletes competing here have signed a pledge supporting reform efforts in Darfur.

A group called Candle for Tibet is asking people around the world to light candles tonight, signifying protest against this Chinese “administrative region,” which seeks independence.

And then, as always, there is the residue of controversy from previous Games.

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Marion Jones, the track hero from the 2000 Sydney Games, is still in jail, in part because she took performance-enhancing drugs and then lied about it to federal investigators. Twelve years before that, in Seoul, Ben Johnson of Canada won the 100 meters in world-record time before testing positive for steroids and making the Olympics somewhat synonymous with drugs.

Jacques Rogge, president of the IOC, predicted recently that as many as 40 athletes would be found here with positive tests. His statement was meant to promote the quality of Olympic drug testing, but its result was to further validate the existence of the problem.

“The credibility of victory in the Olympics is no longer real,” Wallechinsky said. “People think they all cheat now.”

Even the ceremonies aren’t always what they seem.

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In Barcelona, they shot a burning arrow at a caldron to leave the impression that it had been on target and lit the Olympic flame, when, indeed, a wide wall of gas made sure that even a bad miss would be a hit. In Turin in 2006, Luciano Pavarotti thrilled an opening ceremony crowd with a song that, it turned out, he had lip-synched.

Beijing ’08 won’t be any different than the NBA Finals or the World Series. People know what they are getting and take it as they wish.

Is it viable? Is it important? If they think so, then it is.

One thing is certain. Our romanticized Olympics are long gone. They are now like the era we live in, where the chase is much more about the dollar than about the journey and the arrival. What was once Main Street is now Madison Avenue.

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Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. For previous columns, go to latimes.com/dwyre.


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