The Fellowship of the (Olympic) Rings

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We can be relieved that the Olympics are over for another four years, which means that life can return to something akin to normal, if that is possible in an election year. Nonetheless, like Ryan McMaken recently pointed out, the nationalism that permeates the Olympic Games is obscene, and I made it a point not to read the daily medal counts that the media trumpeted each day.

Eight years ago, I voiced my own criticism of the statism that dominated the games, and my only mistake was to leave out the government-sponsored boycotts of the Olympics in 1976, 1980, and 1984 in which self-aggrandizing political leaders snuffed out the dreams and athletic aspirations of thousands of athletes. Yet, for my retrospective piece, I wish to concentrate on one moment in one event: the end of the decathlon.

Bryan Clay of the United States won this event in a virtual walk, jogging home in the 1,500 meters because he had an insurmountable lead before the event began. The picture of him approaching the line tells it all, the exhaustion that these men experience when they are done. That tells us about what athletes who engage in this unusual event which consists of 10 individual track and field events (athletics to you Brits) for which points are awarded according to the times and distances for each performer.

If there is any event that in my view symbolizes the original Olympic ideal, it is the decathlon. First, it requires a special set of all-around skills that few athletes possess. One might be fast, but not strong; one might have endurance, but cannot jump far. The decathlete, however, must be able to jump, run, and throw at high levels, and do all of them within a two-day period.

Second, Olympic decathlons have been legendary. There was the epic battle 1960 battle at Rome between the great Rafer Johnson and his close friend and training partner, C.K. Yang. The two went head-to-head over those two days, and in the 1,500 meters, there is the famous picture of Yang desperately needing to open a large gap on Johnson to win — but Johnson doggedly remained close enough to win the competition. At the end, the two men embraced, one an Olympic champion and the other a part of one of the greatest athletic competitions ever.

I remember watching Bill Toomey win in Mexico City 40 years ago, swallowing aspirin to deal with the severe headache that stayed with him in the rarified high-altitude air of that location. There was the win by Bruce Jenner in 1976 that made him a millionaire in endorsements and still is the source of his motivational speeches he makes around the world. Then there was the 1996 win in Atlanta by Dan O’Brien, who had failed to make the team four years earlier because he failed to clear a height in the pole vault at the U.S. Olympic Trials. (I was there on the first day of that competition, and O’Brien truly made it look easy, although no Olympic win in anything is done easily, and Dan would be the first one to say that.)

For me, it became personal in 2000. Tom Pappas from the United States took fifth, and was unhappy with his performance. I was in awe of it myself, because Tom had been the boyfriend of my oldest daughter when she went to the University of Tennessee and I had come to know him quite well and thought very highly of him.

Three years later, Tom won the world championships in the decathlon, and I followed every event via the Internet. It was hard to believe that this young man whom I had come to know and respect was the world champion! All of us had high hopes for Tom at the Olympics in Athens, Greece, the next year, but he had to withdraw from the competition because of a foot injury.

Tom would make this year’s Olympics as well, but after the second event, he knew his foot was seriously injured and once again he had to drop out, deprived of an Olympic medal. As he becomes older, however, and his career fades in his rear-view mirror, I believe he will come to see that 2003 world championship win for what it really was: a glorious moment in the life of an athlete that few are able to achieve.

But this article really is not about Tom Pappas or Dan O’Brien or even Bryan Clay. Instead, it is about the reality of that event, which one calls a competition, but also is a true fellowship. The picture here of 2004 Olympic champion Roman Sebrle of the Czech Republic (and the world record holder) holding up the arm of Clay after he has finished tells us about the people who competed over those two exhausting days.

Sebrle did not medal this time, but instead of sulking, he honored the new champion in a way that a true athlete would appreciate. The other competitors are coming to Clay to congratulate them, and one can tell by the picture that the emotion is genuine. They were not Cubans, Chinese, or Americans, but rather decathletes.

I’m not sure that I have a better memory of the Beijing Olympics than the picture of Sebrle demonstrating to all of the true fellowship of the games. My own track career — far inferior to those of these Olympians — is long gone, but I most remember and treasure the relationships with teammates and competitors that were forged over bitter competitions but also those moments that only athletes can understand.

The political classes and their media allies can try to turn the Olympics into yet another obscene display of statism, but they cannot erase the Fellowship of the Rings, the Olympic Rings. Late on a hot, humid night in Beijing, a group of young men demonstrated to the world that the Olympic ideal is not dead, and they made sure that it would not die that night, and maybe never.

August 28, 2008

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He also is a consultant with American Economic Services.

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