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Olympics have lost something, but they can still inspire

The Games have suffered an erosion of innocence amid doping concerns, the participation of pro superstars and more. Yet London will bring fresh faces and amazing color.

July 12, 2012|Bill Dwyre
  • The Olympic Games may not be as innocent as they once were, but that doesn't mean the spectacle in London will be any less entertaining.
The Olympic Games may not be as innocent as they once were, but that doesn't… (Gareth Fuller / Associated…)

It is just about time to put on our Games face.

It is time to get new batteries for the TV remote, make sure the pillows on the couch are fluffy enough.

In two weeks, they will be here. Paul Revere will be riding through the streets, shouting, "The Olympics are coming! The Olympics are coming!" (He does that with all things British.)

Expect lots of the familiar from the London Olympics. Also, some differences.

Dick Ebersol is no longer running things and NBC's storytelling may suffer. Bud Greenspan has left us, possibly leaving the historical aftermath of these Games less rich and emotional. Certainly, a good time will be had by all, especially NBC, which will strut around as if it owns these Games, which it does.

Also expect the continuation of an erosion of innocence.

The fairy tale says that this is a time for backstrokers and walkers and shooters and rowers and jumpers and balance-beamers. We embrace this every-four-years adoration of achievement of athletes whose sports we pay little attention to the other 47 months. The rural wrestler who leaves with his shoes on the mat and gold around his neck; the inner-city kid who skims hurdles faster than any other human. They give us goose bumps.

But once Ben Johnson's test tube came back with the flag on it in Seoul in 1988, we have clearly understood that much of the Olympics had joined the world of winning-is-the-only-thing. Now we joke that the Olympics might as well add the Tour de France to their program so they could expand the supply of top-level chemists in the Olympic villages.

We also get advance table-pounding from no less than the man in charge of the impossible task of making the world's athletic playing fields level. In a news release earlier in the week, World Anti-Doping Agency President John Fahey got red in the face in print.

"I say this in the clearest way possible," Fahey's statement read. "If you are a doping athlete and you are planning to compete in London, then you must withdraw from your Olympic team. Doping is cheating, plain and simple.… A doping athlete cannot achieve success. It is a complete contradiction."

The tirade went on for 16 paragraphs. These are not the Olympics of your father, unless your father sold steroids.

Another departure from our long-ago image of guys running races in bare feet and loincloths was the arrival of the Dream Team at Barcelona in 1992, the collection of U.S. superstar pro basketball players all on one team. They stepped on Angola, and every other country, and sent TV ratings through the roof. But that sand-kicking in the face of 98-pound weaklings got old, and now we yearn for the days when our best college kids matched up against the world's best basketball amateurs.

But even with NBA Commissioner David Stern making noises about drawing back his resources — his agenda is business, of course, rather than altruism — the International Olympic Committee will understandably battle that concept. Basketball is a cash cow. The dollars NBC can charge for its advertising by simply inheriting the NBA brand for two weeks — while the IOC in turn can charge a higher rights fee — are almost a deal-breaker. Besides, the United States sports fan is used to winning at a game the country considers inherently American and knows full well that the European pros, by bulking up in response to the Dream Team, will make mincemeat of our college players.

Major pro sports don't belong in the Olympics. Baseball's Bud Selig is correct in not shutting down a portion of his season every four years. Hockey's Gary Bettman is mostly wrong in doing the opposite, although his NHL needs the Olympic brand boost more than Selig's MLB.

Tennis in the Olympics is a joke. The players talk bravely about the challenge of playing a fifth major in a season stuffed with big events but hate it until the moment they are holding a gold medal. Can you imagine the joy in Andy Murray's heart, knowing he has to go right back out to Wimbledon, put on the harness again and carry the hopes of a kingdom united in its wishes that he not fail it twice?

And then there is golf in the future of the Games. Are we ready for that TV shot of multimillionaire Tiger Woods on the top step of the victory stand, a tear running down his face, as they play the national anthem? Please….

Change is good. Rampant commercialism in something built on the opposite is not.

Having said all this, expect an amazing two weeks of color and entertainment. There will be a version of the Cathy Freeman story, the Aboriginal 400-meter runner, who dazzled an entire continent in Sydney; versions of marathoner Gabriela Andersen-Schiess, courageously stumbling toward a finish line that meant no medal and still ultimate success. There will be a Nadia Comaneci finding perfection in her sport; a John Steven Akhwari, leg bandaged, limping through the marathon in the dark toward an Olympic integrity that would bring no appearance on a podium.

Hollywood screenwriters spend lifetimes trying to match the drama that Olympic athletes create every four years.

So it will soon be time. Get set for the flag-waving, the ever-present Olympic music and the nightly medal ceremonies. It's all a bit overdone, and you may eventually need to clear your mind by clicking to a baseball game.

But it's once every four years, it's fresh faces and fresh sports. There will be great moments and moments that TV tries to make great for its own self-promotion. The Games will open with music and dancing and marching and close the same way.

Get the chip dip ready.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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