For each individual, sport is a possible source for inner improvement. — Pierre de Coubertin
May joy and good fellowship reign, and in this manner, may the Olympic Torch pursue its way through ages, increasing friendly understanding among nations, for the good of a humanity always more enthusiastic, more courageous and more pure.
— Pierre de Coubertin
The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well. — Pierre de Coubertin
After all the media fallout and threats of boycott because of civil rights violations and pollution in China, Beijing ’08 is the most watched Olympic Games since Atlanta ’96. Why do we watch? Why has this particular Olympic Games captured our attention?
Of course, it is standout stars like Michael Phelps, but it is more. We are a country, a continent, a world that is caught in a quagmire of disappointing news. There are wars raging in Georgia, Iraq, Afghanistan and countless other countries where strife is the rule, not the exception. The threat of domestic terrorism has most Americans still in its vice grip, as we watch violence in other parts of the world. Issues such as energy conservation, and finding new ways to generate energy are on our minds, even as the environment and sustainable living grow to be a more serious, undeniable concern.
The economy appears distressed in most countries or at least everywhere except Dubai and portions of the middle east, where abundant wealth springs forth like a miraculous fountain of lavish life. There is political uncertainty here in the U.S., along with a deep recession that may have already bottomed out. The state of affairs in many countries appears to be contingent on the welfare of the U.S., designed fortuitously or not to follow our markets.
In 1896, when Pierre de Coubertin founded the modern Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, he applied a vision of a world that was based on commonwealth, a common goal and good for all people, one that was above politics, war, and socio-economics. This is a higher ideal or purpose than any of the concerns we have; this is a spiritual roadmap for a possible future.
While I never broke a world record or excelled beyond an average level at any sport, I know a little about the Olympics. I can tell you why the 1956 Games of the XVI Olympiad were to be held in Melbourne, but in part moved to Stockholm at the last minute because of a quarantine. I can recite most of the cities that hosted over the last 112 years. I can tell you that I attended the Centennial Games in Atlanta in 1996, stopped and took pictures of a friend in front of that tower, just before Centennial Park exploded in a night of tragedy and death. Earlier that night, I had seen Michael Johnson run in a 400 meter trial and actually place second, much to everyone’s dismay.
I had worked on the Official IOC Souvenir Guide to the Olympic Games, a project that the good people at Sports Illustrated extended as an opportunity nearly 2 years prior to the event itself. We poured our hearts into a publication that was syndicated and ultimately reprinted in about 16 languages and sold worldwide. I fell in love with the Olympics as I worked on that Program Guide, which was a Centennial celebration of the Games. Later, I led the design for the Official Olympic Program for Sydney in 2000, and again for Salt Lake City in 2002. The Olympics have since captivated me, especially the summer games.
Why do we watch? Because in my opinion, in a world of grey, a world where manipulation, deception, uncertainty and loss of hope is flourishing, there is that part in each of us that feels fundamentally true and honest, full of will, decency and strength. We are hopeful to be inspired by the triumph of the human spirit — that naked, raw expression that declares: I have nothing here to help me and I am alone in my quest, but I want to be excellent, I want to feel honored, I want to do perform as well as I possibly can. And in that, I may lift other people to do the same.
The competition may not always bear good news, but at least the competition is just that: It is real, and cannot be faked. The standards for determining who wins and loses in the Olympics are incredibly high. The IOC has had it scandals in the past, but no other single sport can boast such an earnest commitment to transparency and integrity among its operations and athletes. In Beijing as with other Olympics, they seem not to compete for the love of money, but rather for the love, desire and passion they have for winning and for their sport. The brands of the NBA, and increasingly MLB and NFL have substantial work to do in this regard.
There is also a part of everyone that dreams of excellence in their own lives, and of commitment at the ultimate level, a space or a place that requires total sacrifice and conviction, and, a belief in our collective future.
In the Olympic Games, we witness the pursuit of excellence in unadorned, unforgiving real-time. It’s a highly compelling view of our own lives. Besides the fact that we watch professional athletes perform feats that we could not imagine, we also see the best of the human heart, manifested. We see all that we can be, a positive message projecting what tomorrow may hold for each one of us and our children. At a time that predicts a disappointing immediate future, this grand spectacle is not a spectacle at all, but a validation of our best efforts. It is a showcase of human free will. It smacks our predisposed destiny in the face and instead, reminds us that tomorrow’s news is not yet written; it can be whatever we make of it. It is a respite and a fresh breath of air.
It is an idea, a promise — indeed it is a brand that has sustained since the Greeks introduced it in 776 BC, a brand that is now modernized and yet embraces the same principles that Pierre de Coubertin set forth in 1896. As long as these tenets of honest competition, sportsmanship, discipline and self-challenge are considered the standard to uphold, it will be a brand that will endure forever.