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SYDNEY 2000 / 3 DAYS TO THE OLYMPICS | RANDY HARVEY

Sometimes, Fairy Tales Can Have Sad Endings

Olympics can reveal men and women at their best, and, all too often lately, at their worst.

September 12, 2000|RANDY HARVEY

SYDNEY, Australia — On Sunday, my first full day in Sydney, I was drawn to the Ariel bookstore in the Rocks section of the city by an item on the weekend entertainment page of the Sydney Morning Herald.

" . . . Free story-telling sessions should keep the tykes amused for about an hour or so," it read. "Tori Campbell tells the tales, bringing Olympic-themed stories to life with some audience participation. Get there early as seats are limited."

Arriving too early, I browsed until I discovered "The Great Olympic Swindle" a book detailing the International Olympic Committee's corruption scandal stemming from Salt Lake City's bid for the 2002 Winter Games.

It was written by British journalist Andrew Jennings, whose previous book, "The Lords of the Rings," was legitimized by the 1999 scandal, although he had previously lost a libel suit brought by the IOC in a home-court decision in Switzerland. Yet, displaying the resiliency that the IOC admires so much in athletes, he has come back with another book that amuses the lords even less.

When I presented it to the cashier, he glanced at the title and said, "Lies, lies, lies."

"The book?" I said.

"No," he said. "The Olympics."

I then went upstairs and sat on the floor on brightly-colored pillows with Emma, Nadia, Rebecca, Justin, several other tykes whose names I didn't catch and assorted parents and grandparents.

We listened spellbound as Ms. Campbell, who reminded me of Glenda, the good witch in "The Wizard of Oz," told stories about the king who created a swimming event in honor of a butterfly that landed on his sullen daughter's nose and made her laugh, the friendly dragon who inspired the torch relay with his fiery breath and the tortoise who won the first gold medal in a race with the hare.

Lies, lies, lies.

*

I had a much more relaxed time Sunday than some of my colleagues. While I listened to children's stories and toured the area around the Sydney harbor on a glorious spring-like afternoon, many reporters were at the main press center, a converted livestock exposition hall on the city's outskirts, reporting about drugs and rumors of drugs.

The Chinese announced last week that they had withdrawn 27 athletes and 13 coaches from their Olympic team, an unspecified number because of offenses related to banned performance-enhancing substances. Two Canadian athletes and one Czech have been expelled from their teams after testing positive.

Also, Australian customs officials are investigating an Uzbekistan track and field coach whose luggage contained several vials of human growth hormone when he arrived at the Sydney airport.

The White House recently released a report estimating that as many as 80% of athletes in some Olympic sports are drug cheats and criticized the IOC for its lack of vigilance.

But the IOC's recently approved tests for EPO, a drug that improves endurance, are, despite questions about their effectiveness, clearly making some athletes nervous. Each day brings news of a prominent athlete or athletes withdrawing from the Games because of health or injury problems. Some no doubt are legitimate; some probably are not.

In the 32 years since the IOC began testing for drugs, this is one of the few times that it has had athletes on the run. I have not seen anything like this since 1983 at the Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela, where a number of athletes, mostly from the U.S. track and field team, beat a quick retreat to the airport when it was revealed that organizers had imported state-of-the-art drug detection equipment from Germany.

If this news from the drug front were not reason enough for cynicism, another story receiving front-page attention here concerns the IOC's battle with the Australian government over a couple of questionable sports officials who have been barred from entering the country.

IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, who has gone to great lengths to improve his scandal-scarred image, was, until he surrendered Monday, defending a Hong Kong basketball official, who allegedly has links with Chinese criminal organizations, and a Uzbekistan boxing official, who has been linked by the FBI to alleged involvement in counterfeiting and cocaine smuggling.

The Wall Street Journal also reports that the Olympic Intelligence Center here is monitoring the activities of about 40 other "undesirables," who were allowed into the country in connection with the Games.

Then there is the scandal that will not go away. Organizers of Stockholm's failed bid for the 2004 Summer Olympics--Athens won--released dossiers last week that revealed the peccadilloes of IOC members. There are several references to "scoundrels."

*

The good witch Glenda told us the story of the tortoise and hare and asked if we knew the moral.

"That you shouldn't make fun of people because they're slow," said 6-year-old Nadia.

"OK, that's one," the storyteller said. "Another is that slow and steady wins the race. Just keep going and just keep trying and you might win a gold medal. A lot of athletes do that."

Much later Sunday, I told of my bookstore experience to a colleague. We talked about the Olympics as seen through the jaded eyes of journalists and the Olympics as seen through the innocent eyes of children.

"Which is the real Olympics?" he said.

"Both, I guess," I said.

The Olympics reveal men and women at their best as they aspire to the highest levels in human athletic achievement. They also reveal the frailties of men and women as they are overcome by greed and ambition.

But, as the modern Games embark upon another century, we should be encouraged by our persistence. Most of us, I am convinced, keep trying to get it right. Hope remains that some day, like the tortoise, we will prevail.

*

Randy Harvey can be reached at his e-mail address: randy.harvey@latimes.com.

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