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Now It's Up to the Gods

August 13, 2004

The Olympic Games increasingly are defined by something other than the competition. Think politics (Mexico City 1968), boycotts (Moscow 1980), crass commercialism (Atlanta 1996) and bribery scandal (Salt Lake City 2002). The haunting question as 10,500 athletes from a record 202 countries assemble for today's opening ceremony is what memory will define the Athens Games.

Greece will spend $1.5 billion on security -- five times more than Australia spent for the last Summer Olympics, which occurred before Sept. 11, 2001. Soldiers will outnumber athletes 7 to 1 in the Olympic Village.

Jittery U.S. basketball players who on Tuesday played their final tuneup game in Turkey got a chilling reminder of the new reality when bombs exploded near their Istanbul hotel and the pregame warmup included a State Department security briefing.

U.S. corporate Olympic sponsors are keeping the locations of hospitality centers secret and, because many security-conscious Americans are opting to stay away, more Europeans (who apparently aren't as worried) are getting the freebie VIP tickets. Oddly enough, it was the desire for a muted corporate presence (after Atlanta's organizers buried the 1996 Summer Games in corporate logos) that initially prompted the International Olympic Committee to select historic Greece as the site of these Games.

Terrorism is the darkest cloud on the Olympic horizon, but other cloudbursts threaten. The IOC gets and spends billions of dollars from television and corporate sponsorships, yet many athletes still lack adequate training facilities. The IOC tossed out its first suspected doping offender (a Kenyan boxer) two days before the opening ceremony. Times reporter David Wharton wrote Wednesday about the growing number of athletes who switch nationalities to win a place on an Olympic squad. And observers in other countries suspect that U.S. athletes will invite catcalls if they drape themselves in red, white and blue after a gold medal run, dunk or swim.

Then there is the not-so-serious. Athens is advertised as a back-to-the-basics competition, yet beach volleyball is on the agenda and a petition is circulating online to deal in poker. Olympic addicts would need more than a month to view all of the programming that NBC's networks will broadcast. Sports commentator Bob Costas has described the cartoonish Olympic mascots Athena (after the host city's namesake) and Phevos (from the Greek god of light and music) as "a genetic experiment gone horribly, ghastly wrong." And a handful of U.S. women suiting up for the Games have agreed to strip down for a men's magazine "to celebrate women and women at the Olympics." Altius, Citius, Fortius.

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