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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | COMMENTARY

So Why is This the We-Win-or-They-Cheated Olympics?

July 28, 1996|TONY KORNHEISER | THE WASHINGTON POST

ATLANTA — My sense of the Olympics so far is:

We win! We win!

Hooray USA!

They win?

Oh, they must be on drugs.

I know the Olympics are in America. But do they have to be all about America? By reading the newspapers and watching TV and listening to the crowds in the stands here and the people on the streets, everybody seems interested in bludgeoning other countries with the U.S. medal count.

It's the "kick butt and take names" American psyche playing out here. We're in a full metal jacket mode. I don't want to accuse anyone of jingoism, but if NBC wrapped themselves in the flag any tighter, half the broadcast crew would suffocate. I mean, who sewed the insignias on their polo shirts, Betsy Ross?

Look, we ought to win the most medals. We have the most athletes, the most money for training them. And we've got the home court.

But perhaps we might actually show foreign athletes on TV.

(And when we do, try not villainizing them.)

The other night--coincidentally after Janet Evans gagged in qualifying and didn't make the final in the 400-meter freestyle--NBC gave us a glopudrama on the Civil War narrated by Bob "Alistair" Costas, featuring the gaseous Ken Burns. That's the first time I ever tuned in to a live sports show and got History 118. I wonder if Dick Enberg will give us a pop quiz tonight.

Speaking of Ms. Evans, she apparently had a lot to say, or rather insinuate about the woman who did win the 400, Ireland's Michelle Smith. There are whispers in the hot Atlanta air that Smith's sudden success--Smith has knocked a remarkable 19 seconds off her best time since last year--has been achieved with the help of performance-enhancing drugs. When Evans was asked to comment on that possibility, she said, "I think any time a person in a country has dramatic improvement, there is that question. I've heard that question posed in the last few weeks about this particular swimmer."

Michelle Smith came out of the water after her win and NBC grilled her like she was Ethel Rosenberg.

Maybe Smith is on steroids. (Maybe she slugs down Guiness like a fish.) But thus far she hasn't tested positive. And she has been tested frequently. Smith has won three gold medals now and the results of the drug tests apparently turned up nothing.

In the meantime, part of the whisper campaign about Smith obviously derives from Smith's husband, Dutch field athlete Erik de Bruin, who has been suspended since 1993 for testing positive for steroids. All the stories note that Smith's spectacular improvement has come since she began training with de Bruin.

Before we burn her as a witch, two questions ought to be asked:

1. Whatever happened to being presumed innocent until proven guilty?

2. Shouldn't we be auditing Gary Hall Jr.'s bank account, since his grandfather is Charles Keating?

Janet Evans finished ninth in the 400. The list of women who beat her is a bit lengthy for this page, but perhaps Janet will identify everybody else who beat her whom she thinks is on drugs, so they can be tracked down too.

Four years ago in Barcelona, Gwen Torrence had a similar snit when she finished fourth in the 100-meter dash, and promptly announced that everybody who beat her was on drugs. None of them tested positive.

Can't we just lose? There's a slightly embarrassing chauvinism here in Atlanta. Headlines trumpet America's victories, but nobody else's. I might have seen the best sports event of the year the other night--the duel between Pocket Hercules and Valerios Leonidis at the 64-kilogram weightlifting. Though the sport is primitive, the strategies are as complex as anything a National League manager does, and the effort is heroic. Three world records were set as these men went back and forth on winner-take-all lifts. It got one paragraph in USA Today, which had eight photos on the front page of its Olympic section--all Americans.

It was like this in 1984 in Los Angeles, an orgy of flag-waving. But that was the first time the Summer Games had been in America in over 50 years. And we had boycotted the 1980 Games under Jimmy Carter, so there was an understandable release of jingoistic fervor under Ronald Reagan. Plus, most of the Soviet empire boycotted the Games, so we were knocking everybody around like rag dolls. But there are no such mitigating circumstances here. All the wars are over. And we've won. We really are No. 1. (Hi, Mom.)

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