THE OLYMPIC GAMES are less than seven weeks away now from Atlanta and naturally, along with the building overall interest, there's a lot of concern about, well, you name it - the weather, the traffic, the budget deficit, the lodging, the mascot, and, as Jeff Foxworthy points out in his new hit single "The Redneck Games," whether anyone will actually finish the rowing course that's being held on the same river where they filmed "Deliverance."
"Doesn't that add a whole new degree of difficulty?" Foxworthy asks.People worry about Olympic cities (and rivers) like they worry about children of film stars, about inflation, about salt intake. Nobody needs to tell anybody in Salt Lake that. But the truth is, it's primarily a waste of energy - worrying about a city and its logistics, because history shows this: Much as they'd like to think otherwise, and much as they'd like their salaries to reflect that, Olympics aren't defined by the organizers themselves, or by the venues they choose, or by accountants, traffic designers, hotel clerks, or public relations. Olympics are defined by what happens during the Games.
Name a Games, any Games. Their legacy is what took place after they lit the flame and released the doves - and most of the time, nobody had a clue what was coming.
How did Stockholm know it would luck out and get Jim Thorpe, for instance, in 1912? How was Antwerp to know it would get the great Paavo Nurmi in 1920? How could Paris realize it would get Eric Liddell and Harald Abrahams in 1924 and thus set the stage for an Academy Award winning movie more than half-a-century later? How could Amsterdam in 1928 have planned on hosting Tarzan himself, Johnny Weissmuller?
The 1976 Games in Montreal got 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci, whose first-ever Olympic "10" covered a multitude of debts and boycotts.
The 1960 Games in Rome got Cassius Clay and the introduction of videotape - as fortuitous a confluence as the Games, ancient and modern, have ever known. As an added bonus, they got the barefoot marathon man, Abebe Bikila.
Moscow in 1980 got Sebastian Coe beating Steve Ovett in the 800 meter "race of the century," an event that took less than two minutes to run but succeeded in overshadowing the fact Soviet Bloc countries won 161 of the 210 gold medals in those reddened Games.
Los Angeles in 1984 got Carl Lewis. Seoul in 1988 got Flo-Jo - and "Ban" Johnson. Barcelona in 1992 got Michael, Larry, Magic and the Dream Team.
London in 1948 got Fanny Blankers-Koen and Los Angeles in 1932 got Babe Didriksen - still the greatest women athletes the Games have ever known. The 1896 Games in Athens, the first of the modern era, got Spiridon Louis, a Greek marathoner whose victory - the only Greek triumph on the track in those inaugural Games - may have singlehandedly kept the movement from being stillborn.
Mexico City in 1968 and Munich in 1972 were first lucky and then unlucky. Mexico City first got Bob Beamon and his longest jump - then it got Black Power. Munich first got Mark Spitz and his all-time record haul of seven gold medals - then, after nine Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian terrorists, it got Black September.
No Olympics provides better evidence that their place in history will be determined by what happens - as opposed to what's planned - than the Berlin Games of 1936. They were supposed to be the Games of Adolf Hitler. They turned out to be the Games of Jesse Owens.
No deutschmark was left untouched as Hitler prepared Berlin. No promotion angle was left unexplored. It was Hitler who originated the torch relay for those Games. He arranged to have a torch lit in Olympia, Greece, and relayed by human caravan all the way to the stadium in Germany, where none other than Spiridon Louis, the marathon hero of the 1896 Athens Game, brought it into the Olympic "Reichssportfeld" and lit the Olympic cauldron. (As the torch passes through your town on the way to Atlanta, be sure to say thanks to Adolf).
There was a method, of course, to Hitler's madness. He fully expected his Berlin Olympics to "enlighten" the world as to the superiority of the Aryan race. For several months prior to the start of the Games he sent regular bulletins to 3,690 newspapers and magazines around the world. In one dispatch he criticized the Americans "for letting their medals be won by Negroes. I myself would never shake hands with one of them," the Fuhrer wrote.
Into that atmosphere strode Owens, an American man "black as tar" who not only won every event he entered - four in all - but in his final triumph in the long jump he was aided by Germany's Luz Long, the silver medalist who assisted Owens in placing his mark on the runway, and, as he shook the winner's hand, apologized for Hitler's racist ways.
Olympics aren't remembered for traffic or the air temperature, that's what history shows. They're remembered for who did what, when and where. Cities and their organizers provide the stage, it's the Olympians who write the script.