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The wonder of the winter Olympics
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Forsyth County News
Watching the winter Olympics is a wonderful way to temporarily put aside all the problems that exist on this globe and to revel in the skills and derring-do of young people from all over the world. With some notable exceptions over the years, it brings people together of all persuasions in a spirit of camaraderie and with a common (although competitive) objective -- to win the gold.

I wish watching made me feel younger, but as advancing stages of “decrepitude” set in, seeing those reflexes, the strength and resiliency, though admirable, all make me realize that time does take its toll.  And when you start out light years behind where they are, the gap is enormous.  If you are like me, you can only wonder how the human body can be honed to such incredible performance standards.

Although it is believed that they started earlier, the first recorded Olympic competition dates back to 776 B.C. At that time, it consisted of a single event -- a sprint, run by naked runners. The games grew and continued to be held every four years until 393 when Christian Rome abolished them because of their pagan origins.

During this period, events were added, all with the exception of chariot racing, bearing elements of physical prowess: foot races of varying distances, boxing, wrestling, javelin and discus throwing, the long jump and various equestrian events (in which women participated). Athletes competed in the nude, although one of the running events involved the carrying of heavy body armor.

The modern Olympics were reinstated in 1896, in Athens, Greece. The winter Olympics came into being in 1924. Until that time, figure skating and ice hockey had been included in the summer games. But in 1924 a separate winter Olympics was held in Chemonix, France. The summer and winter Olympics continued to be held in the same year until 1992 when it was decided to put them on alternating schedules.  The first winter games on the new calendar were held in 1994, in Lillehammer, Norway.

The original intent when the Olympics were revived was to establish a world competition that was a pure, simple, austere and amateur sports meet -- a far cry from what we see today. The games are no longer amateur, with any pretense of them having been so removed officially in 1986. They are far from austere, with billions of dollars being spent on host facilities and infrastructure and corporations commercializing every aspect that is "commercializable" and some that shouldn't be. They are no longer simple, with lavish opening and closing ceremonies being transmitted by television around the entire world and ticket prices that require mortgaging one's home and children. They are not "pure," with the financial impact to communities that hold them and to the business that sponsor them being so great that bribery and corruption have entered the selection process. And they seem to be constantly surrounded by controversy, of all types. But let’s focus on things related directly to the events.

Two characteristics of most of the original Olympic events differentiate them from many of the events today. First, determining the winner was clear and objective. The winner was the first person to cross a finish line or throw his opponent, or the individual who jumped the or longest or threw an object the farthest. A clock or a tape measure settled the questions. Today we see many competitions which are subjective in nature, and although beautiful to watch and requiring enormous levels of skill, they might be questioned as appropriate for Olympic competition. These include sports like figure skating, half pipe snowboarding and extra points given for style in downhill skiing and jumping. The issue here is subjectivity. And that subjectivity has led to numerous problems that the Greeks didn’t face.

In the past, there has been little question that points awarded by judges were influenced by personal and political considerations.  In numerous cases, athletes were accorded or denied points based upon matters that had little to do with their performance. The furor over the bias in judging reached such levels that the Olympic committee was forced to overhaul the process and institute new grading systems and processes which seem to be working well.

In the current Olympics, the controversy over the men’s figure skating medal highlights this issue in subtle form. The Russian silver medalist performed a “quad” -- probably the most difficult element in skating. The American gold medalist did not, but was deemed to have performed the other elements with greater style than the Russian. The issue: Should figure skating be more a function of level of difficulty or of grace? The former would lean back towards the original Greek concept, whereas the latter is more in tune with modern thinking.

The other concept which existed in Greece related to the fact that the participants in the competition were generally naked. I’m sure it had little to do with avoiding another modern-day issue, but it did make a difference. Everyone competed at the same level with “similar equipment.” (Remember that this was before the days of performance enhancing drugs.)

No one wore aerodynamically engineered suits to reduce friction as their bodies moved through the air. They didn’t use much equipment, so specially engineered sleds or skis or skates (had they conducted a winter Olympics) would not have been a factor.  In essence, theirs was more a competition of man against man, without the assistance that current athletes get from science and technology.

I don’t mean to imply that then was better than now. It’s just that it is different. Like everything else, the Olympics have gone through stages of evolution. Probably the most important thing is to enjoy seeing so many young people giving it their all, building friendships through sport, and competing in the best sense of competition -- where each competitor’s actions stimulates others to reach for their best. If only we could get their parent nations to behave the same way, the world would be a much different place.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at