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BEIJING 2008

When politics and Games mix

August 13, 2008|BILL DWYRE

BEIJING -- Tanks roll and headlines blare. A newspaper photo shows a Russian soldier running past a dead Georgian counterpart.

The Olympics rock and headlines celebrate. A newspaper photo shows a Georgian beach volleyball player spiking over a Russian.

It is fascinating how seldom these twain shall meet. And when they do, how effectively they are minimized.

It ought to be the Olympic motto. Citius, Altius, No Politicius.

Politics and sports have been mixing since the Greeks started all this in 1896. The Olympic movement has been denying that for just as long.

It is almost a given that, somewhere, war will be waged while the Olympics are being contested. Also a given is how the Olympic movement, and athletes it fosters, strives diligently to separate the concept of there and here.

It almost always works. But sometimes, as was the case here this morning, things get strange.

It occurred on a makeshift beach in the middle of Beijing, in an arena filled with 9,500 spectators. In one corner, wearing skimpy white and blue bikinis, the Russian team of Natalia Uryadova and Alexandra Shiryaeva. In the other, wearing skimpy reds, the Georgian team of Christine (Saka) Santanna and Andrezza (Rtvelo) Chagas.

This was beach volleyball, and so much more.

At home in Georgia, Russian bombs were flying. Each accuses the other side of starting it and being the bad guy. More clear is that people are dying and the horrors of war are taking place.

But here, at least at first, it was only volleyball.

The Russians won the first set and had a match point in the second. But the Georgians saved that, fought back and won the match. Before the match, players shook hands, greeted each other warmly, even hugged. Afterward, it wasn't quite as cordial.

The Russian team dismissed talk of the Georgians winning as a symbol against the war.

"They aren't Georgian, they're Brazilian," sniped Uryadova.

Indeed they are, just one of many great Brazilian teams, men and women, who can't qualify in their own country and so they find citizenship in others.

Both Saka and Rtvelo answered questions with a clear nationalistic stance and defended that by saying that Georgia had adopted them and given them an Olympic spot and they were grateful. Saka added that, when the conflict began and Georgian teammates were discussing leaving the Games, she would have agreed to that, but they were asked to remain by the Georgia government.

"But for me, it wasn't the same," she said, "because I go home to Brazil."

The issue was now dual: Semi-bogus nationalistic pride and increasingly meaningless Olympic eligibility standards.

When it comes to issues of war and world politics, the Olympic movement turns its head as the tanks roll by. Its most notable texture is Teflon.

It has moved through murdered Israelis in Munich, a bomb in Atlanta and a devastating earthquake a three-hour plane trip from here in China. These are treated with press briefings, official statements, carefully crafted words of concern and sensitivity. And the Games must go on.

It is both masterful and amazing.

Journalists keep poking at the remains of issues, and usually are led to conclude that none exist.

Tuesday, Croatia beat Serbia in a water polo match. Afterward, hulking men who had done everything but tear each other's limbs off in the pool swam to each other to shake hands, even kiss cheeks.

A series of wars in the Balkans in the 1990s carved up Yugoslavia, and at one point during "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 100,000 people were killed and 3 million displaced.

In the context of the Olympics, that apparently is over.

"We like each other. We train together. We are sports friends," said Serbian Coach Dejean Udovicic. "It is time to stop talking politics."

It wasn't clear whether he was speaking from the heart or the Olympic handbook.

Khatuna Lorig is an archery Olympian from West Hollywood, by way of Georgia. She competed for the Soviet unified team in the 1992 Games at Barcelona, then for independent Georgia in Atlanta in '96 and Sydney in 2000. Now, she is an American citizen and competes for the United States, where she remains in the running for a medal.

Contacted through a U.S. Olympic official Tuesday, with a request for an interview about her thoughts on the current conflict between Georgia and Russia, she chose to, according to the spokesman, "focus on her preparations for her event."

Might she have been more forthcoming had she been Brazilian?

War and politics provided the backdrop for the '36 Games in Berlin, when Hitler's pure white race was left in the starting blocks by Jesse Owens. Only something the magnitude of World War II could halt the Olympics.

When the U.S. boycotted over Soviet tanks in Afghanistan in 1980, and the Soviets played payback in '84 in Los Angeles, the aftermath was wrinkles smoothed and TV revenue flowing in nicely. The Olympics kept moving forward.

In its current day, all is well. The girls at volleyball got a little riled up, but that will go away.

The Olympics are both a study in Teflon and success. So why argue?

It is the 10th wonder of the world, Michael Phelps about to become the ninth.

--

Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. For previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

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