You can't tell the players without an atlas. Or a body count.
Since the 1988 Olympic Games, Germany has reunified and the Soviet Union has broken into fifteen pieces. Two Yemens have become one, while Czechoslovakia has split itself into Czechs and Slovaks. The city of Sarajevo, once famous for the assassination that triggered World War I and for hosting the 1984 Games, has been reduced to a bloody pile of rocks. Gorbachev is out. Clinton is in. NATO wants to use force. Soon-to-be-extinct nations, as-yet-to-be-founded nations and soon-to-be-annexed nations battle to raise their tenuous flags at the back of the world's parade. And hey: Parts of Los Angeles close to the sites of the 1988 Games have since been scorched by riot fires and knocked down by earthquakes. The two Koreas remain at each other's throats, and the French have never forgiven the Americans for trying to prepare onion soup in Chicago.
Moreover, Norway always will hate Sweden, and vice versa.
And at the airport in Lillehammer last week, the cops were frisking figure skaters for concealed weapons.
In view of the New World Disorder it's harder than ever to crow about the "Olympic ideal"--that sweeping vision of fresh-faced, hard-bodied young people competing against one another for the sheer love of sport and exchanging enamel lapel pins amid the bliss of international harmony. When the Serbs and the Bosnians sit down at the peace table, that will be the time to join hands across the sea. When the British loosen their ancient grip on the Irish, sing out then. When the Libyans...oh, you fill in the blank.
Fact remains, there's a stubborn element of fantasy--if not delusion--these days in the grandiose utterances of Olympic boosters. Nationalist fervor and tribal hatreds aren't going away anytime soon--and the "Olympic movement," no matter how well-intentioned, has never been much help. A sportsman named Hitler hosted the Olympics back in 1936, and look what that did for world peace.
So while visitors from several former-and-future nations are discovering that their currency is no good in the souvenir shops, and Olympic ticketholders wrangle with 11,000 TV cameramen for the last smoked herring at any price in all Norway, the rest of us may as well content ourselves for the next two weeks with lounging by the blazing hearth with our snifters of warm brandy and our significant others.
We'd all do well to turn on the boob tube with great caution.
Sports nuts with no other life--and inmates of the state hospital--probably will insist on watching the whole damn thing between now and February 27--every bobsled run and mogul leap. Fine. The Games of the Umpteenth Olympiad still hold some attraction--Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan trying to poison each other's food in the cafeteria line, for instance--but even as expressions of shameless nationalist fervor, they've lost their edge. Residents of Maryland and Oregon still can get choked up when the Stars and Stripes is raised aloft and the band plays the anthem (an event that may not occur often in these games), but an increasing number of the world's viewers won't even recognize their nations' new flags as they go up the pole.
Besides, since the demise of backward speed skating--an actual Olympic sport in the 1880s--the events have lost their, well, their social and geopolitical relevance. Skidding a big soup tureen over a patch of ice may still remind some folks of the Huns stoning the Romans, but most of us couldn't care less.
What we probably need are some new Olympic events. Ones with real-life implications. Imagine, for instance, the TV schedule blurbs for...
ICE KENDO--While casual viewers probably will watch only the much-heralded Harding-Kerrigan matchup in the bantamweight class, authentic fans will tune in super bruiserweights Ludmilla Stench of Latvia and Margaret Force-Pennington of Great Britain. Competing on a rink specially reinforced with titanium undergirders, the skaters simultaneously will perform the compulsory figures and whale on each other with lengths of drainage pipe. Stench's coach reports that both fractured shoulders have cleared up just fine, her nose has been reattached and she's in high spirits as the favorite to take the gold.
DIE-ATHLON--In this new Olympic event, versatile athletes from 37 countries will don cross-country skis for a 30-kilometer dash over snowy hill-and-dale. At five-kilometer intervals, however, competitors will pause to open fire on spectators with the high-powered sniper rifles strapped to their backs. Eight shots will be fired at each station. Ten points will be awarded for every man, woman or child wounded or killed; ducks and geese are worth five points each, members of the International Olympic Committees three points. The early favorites for medals include the Serbians, whose uncompromising training methods have honed them to a fine edge, and...well, the Germans.
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SHALOM AND GIANT SHALOM--The most intellectually challenging of the new international events, the competition will begin February 16 with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Israeli government pledging to implement a revolutionary peace accord in the Middle East. However, through clever verbal jousting, outbreaks of violence in the Olympic Village and ever-denser tangles of charge and counter-charge, the event will zip downhill faster and faster toward a dizzying conclusion on February 27--when the competitors will declare that no conclusions have been reached at all and that they once again will part company as mortal enemies. PLO coach Yasser Arafat has his charges razor-sharp for this one, but the well-balanced, physically superior Israeli club of skipper Shimon Peres could pull the upset.
KHMER LUGE--In this lively test of speed, nerve and will, homeless peasants from all 172 Olympic nations will be herded into the ice venue and persecuted for their religious, economic and social beliefs. In the second stage of the event, held in the middle of the night, the peasants will be forced to slide unclothed along a two-mile course of black ice before being deposited into the fjord. Favorites to mount the winner's podium include Cambodia, Serbia and...well, the Germans.
CLAIM JUMPING--Incorporating for the first time the popular surgical bombing event, this competition has its historical roots in the age-old notion that the only good Poland is a Poland constantly invaded, dissected and reconstituted by assorted Russians and Germans. In the Lillehammer heats and finals, a ten-acre mixed-use parcel in the center of the city, speckled with public buildings, condominium units, four restaurants, three gas stations and a major arms plant, will be put up for grabs by teams of the competing nations. Assassinations of local officials are worth ten points, takeovers of police headquarters thirty. Public abdication by the mayor of Lillehammer will score 100 points, and if a team is able to rename the city and arbitrarily redraw its municipal borders in such a way that half the world believes that's the way things always were, it wins the gold medal outright. Once again, the event is a new one, but already there are so many competent teams heading in that it's impossible to predict the medal finish. But here's a hint: Keep your eye on the Iraqis.