The story has passed into legend. A 24-year-old American Indian sails with the U.S. Olympic team in 1912 to Stockholm, where he sweeps the pentathlon and decathlon events. Hanging the gold medals around his neck, the King of Sweden tells James Francis Thorpe, "You are the greatest athlete in the world." Jim, a modest young man, replies simply, "Thanks, King."
Only a year later, Thorpe's triumph is snatched from him, when the Olympics Committee finds that he played a couple of seasons of semi-pro baseball, which stripped him of his amateur status. The gold medals are taken back and his name is erased from the record book.
Exactly 100 years later, the London Olympics include men's basketball, in which the multi-millionaires of the NBA are once again competing as they have since 1996 for the gold. What, I wonder, would Jim Thorpe have thought about this turn-about? When the committee scrutinized him a century ago, he stated he had played semi-pro baseball for the love of the game, not for the pittance he was paid. Seeing how money has triumphed over idealism in 21st century Olympic Games, he would be unforgiving, I think.
Likewise, Thorpe might marvel at the sophisticated training, outfits and equipment the modern Olympian enjoys. If you want to compare today's fabulous facilities and international media hype to the Olympics of Thorpe's era, check out a 1981 film called "Chariots of Fire." Climaxed with the 1924 Paris Olympics, the movie offers an accurate picture of the games. We see actors Ben Cross and Ian Charles, portraying Britain's top runners, step onto a cinder track, where they use their own trowels to dig their "starting blocks." Charles plays the pure amateur, Cross the rich kid who can afford to hire a professional coach to prep him for his run for the gold. Although the '24 event looked and felt a lot like the 1912 edition, the seeds of the 2012 Olympics were planted in this subtle shift away from the strict standards that tripped up Thorpe.
A century after Jim Thorpe triumphed and fell, the Olympic controversies have taken on a different cast. This from the July 31st Chicago Sun Times: "LONDON On Monday, China's Ye Shiwen won gold in the women's 400-meter individual medley, breaking the world record by a second. She swam her final 50-meter freestyle in 28.93 seconds, which was faster than Ryan Lochte's final 50 meters (29.1 seconds). In case there's any confusion here, Lochte is a man and the Olympic gold medalist in the 400 IM. For those who believe a person is innocent until proven guilty, good for you. But for we (sic) skeptics, the people who have seen athletes try to beat the system over and over again, it's impossible to look at Ye's performance Monday and not suspect that something is very, very wrong."
While the Olympics now provide professional participants with cutting-edge equipment and ultra-modern facilities, the line has been drawn at "doping," i.e., the use of performance-enhancing drugs. But, as with all human activities from politics to home ownership to college athletics when money is put in the driver's seat, you can kiss goodbye to control. Just brace yourself for the long ride down the slippery slope.
It stands to reason that there is a limit to human ability. There has to be, doesn't there? That's what scientists at France's National Institute of Sport, Expertise, and Performance say, anyway, after examining the top performances of the modern Olympic era: most records have reached a plateau, and record-setting may soon cease to be possible. It seems the human body can only do so much, despite the fact that Olympic athletes continue to prove themselves exceptions to the rule.
There's Michael Phelps, for example, who as of Tuesday holds the title of most decorated medal-winner of all time after breaking a tie with former Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina. Latynina's record held steady for 48 years, so clearly there are still some truly exceptional individuals capable of pushing the limits by very small, perhaps even negligible, increments, sometimes coming down to 100ths of a second. When the races are that close, one must wonder how much farther the human body can go on its own and does it even matter?
The answer is yes, of course. Whether for fame or money or pride, athletes continue to strive to not only be better, but to be the best even if that means resorting to illegal means. Last Wednesday nine competitors tested positive for "sophisticated doping" and were banned from the 2012 Games. It's not just the athletes evolving: apparently even the drugs have gotten more sophisticated as well. But in a world where competition is fiercer than ever and winning more lucrative than ever, it's not at all surprising that some athletes would try anything to get the edge.
Still, I think there has to be more to it than money-grubbing. Winning a gold medal is simply too impossible a task to hope to achieve. There are easier ways to become a millionaire.
I recently read an article that detailed how difficult almost impossible it is to become a professional actor today. There is such an enormous amount of competition, with more than a few choice roles going straight to the grandson of James Dean or some other middling talent with good connections. The situation is largely the same in the publishing world. The world is full of talented people, and there just isn't any way to recognize them all. Luck plays into it more and more. So why do we continue writing books and going to auditions?
I think the Olympics are a tangible reason why. Because although most of us realize, deep down, that we will never be world-famous actors or authors or athletes, there's always that chance that we'll find glory. Even though everything has been said and done before, every record been broken already, there's the slim, seductive chance that we'll pull out 1/100th of a second faster than the person next to us, and that will mean everything.
It's crazy. But it's good, too.