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Olympic Spirit Lives in Track and Field

Sports: It's the beauty and purity of the human body performing without the pros' hype, hoopla and histrionics.

July 19, 1996|BURLING LOWREY | Burling Lowrey is a writer in Washington

Track and field, the only contemporary sport that follows in a direct line from ancient Greece, has a peculiar standing in the United States. Although its 20-plus events traditionally are the highlight of the Olympic Games, running, jumping and weight-throwing by individuals have never enjoyed much of a popular following in the U.S. During the three years, 11 months when the Olympics are not in operation, sports fans stay away in droves from track meets featuring world-class athletes; sports editors devote more space to horse-racing than to track and field.

Paradoxically, when the Olympics take place in the United States, the stadium is usually filled to overflowing, causing one to wonder if there is something at work that prompts some spectators to watch this "minor" sport for the wrong reasons.

At the bottom of this contradiction lies the fact that track and field has none of the circus-like hoopla that permeates the big-time professional sports. There are no Disney-like mascots running around the field, no theatrical spotlights placed on the athletes as they are introduced, no scoreboards that light up like pinball machines whenever the home team scores. In track and field competition, no performing athlete ever chews out an official, no one has been known to "deck" an opponent for an imaginary unsportsmanlike action and no one interrupts his or her performance with flashy histrionics directed at the TV camera. When the events are over, the losers, rather than whining, usually shake hands and offer congratulations all around, displaying a form of civility that is almost anachronistic in big-time team sports, where "getting physical" rules the day.

Among the mass of entertainment-craving sports fans, track and field is perceived as being dull. That is too bad, because on the Olympic level, this event offers the spectator the opportunity to witness the ultimate in beauty of motion.

There are several aspects to the beauty of track and field. One is its refreshing authenticity, its absence of fakery. There is no phony "second season" to bamboozle fans into thinking that they are witnessing a legitimate playoff. In fact, one of the powerful appeals of track and field is that there is no second chance. No one is allowed to arrange a "rematch" if he or she stumbles on the way to the finish line. The "this is it" motivation gives track and field a tension that no other sport can match.

Second, every running and weight-throwing event has the dimensions of an art form. Rhythmic body movement is the dominating facet, an element that derives from the ancient Olympic Games in which "form"--the physical grace displayed by the athlete--was on a par with speed and strength. There is nothing more aesthetically pleasing than viewing the rhythmic piston-like strides of sprinters and the more measured strides of long-distance runners, unless it is the mid-air aesthetic of the long jump and high jump. Others derive enormous pleasure from the rapid accelerating circular motion required in the shotput, the discus and the hammer-throw.

At a time when "community," "tribalism" and other modes of working and living together are extolled as the highest form of human endeavor, it is interesting that track and field, one of the the most individualistic sports in existence, has been free of the negative human traits of meanness, narcissism and greed that permeate professional team sports and that ironically have been employed to discredit responsible individualism.

Of course, not all track and field athletes are saints. The sport has its share of prima donnas. However, collectively, these athletes are self-effacing, gutsy, hard-working people who have nothing on their mind except giving their all.

Those interested in sports as a personality parade would be well-advised to bypass the track and field events at the Atlanta Olympics. But those to whom the phrase "the Olympic spirit" is more than just another co-opted slogan for corporate advertising will be witness to the beauty and civility of sport as it was intended to be.

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