Thursday, August 19, 2004

ATHENS — Sylvester Stallone’s cinematic oeuvre has seldom proved prophetic. Despite inspiring Dennis Rodman’s peroxide ‘do, “Demolition Man” did not presage a future in which all restaurants are Taco Bell; in “Rambo III,” Sly got mixed up in the Afghan-Soviet war, fighting on the side of Osama and friends.


Still, there is a moment near the end of “Rocky IV” that foreshadows the problem with today’s Olympics. The place? Moscow. The occasion? Rocky versus uberboxer Ivan Drago. After flooring Drago with an improbable late-round surge, Rocky addresses the rapt Russian crowd, which even more improbably has been chanting his name (remember, this is Hollywood).

“If I can change,” Stallone slurs, “… and you can change … then maybe we all can change!”

What does this have to do with the ongoing Athens Games? Only this: When it comes to the former Soviet Union, things really have changed. And not for the better.

Once the Drago of the Olympic world — a big, bad, imposing supervillain, similar to USA Basketball — Russia has become just another player at the Games, one more nation panning for gold in the unglamorous waters of modern pentathlon.

And that’s a shame.

Devotees of the Olympic Movement — speaking of which: did we miss the International Olympic Committee march on Washington? — will tell you that the Games serve a higher purpose. Peace. Sport. Generous expense accounts (take a look at the IOC’s Athens hotel). Never mind that the Olympic torch, the very symbol of the Games’ purity, was created by Nazi propagandists.

On the field of play, idealism is all well and good: Water polo players from Belarus and Ukraine should be allowed to swim in perfect harmony, at least when they’re not busy grabbing one another.

As for the rest of us? Frankly, all this brotherhood is a wee bit dull.

Nationalism makes the Olympics worth watching. Jingoism makes them worth caring about. Otherwise, the Games are a glorified track meet, likely bumped from the television schedule to make room for senior golf. Again, it’s fine for athletes to be apolitical. But for the audience at home, sports is politics by other means. And during the Cold War, the Soviets were the perfect Olympic foil, the closest thing to an international New York Yankees.

Team Russia embodied our deepest geopolitical anxieties. They won early and often, leading the medal count in every fully attended Summer Games from 1972 to 1988. Their athletes sprang from a lavishly financed sports machine, wholly formed, inscrutable and monolithic. They made the richest, most sports-obsessed nation on the planet fancy itself a scrappy underdog, a delusion that still persists. Think missile gaps and medal gaps. Sputnik and the ‘88 Olympic basketball tournament. Send over the pros. Everyone else, under your school desks.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that Ivan wasn’t above a little skullduggery: jobbing our men’s basketball team in 1972, boycotting the red, white and blue Los Angeles Games, sending their ‘roid-ripped East German proxies to party crash our swimming pool. For delightfully cartoonish menace, no other nation came close.

But that was then. In the here and now, the once-proud Soviet sports diesel is more like a wheezing pickup truck, hammer and sickle replaced by girlie mud flaps.

Russia can still compete, to be sure — it finished second to the U.S. in golds at Sydney — but not dominate as it used to. The Russian men’s basketball team failed to qualify for Athens, as did the women’s soccer squad. As of yesterday afternoon, Team Russia ranked 10 medals behind the U.S. and just one ahead of Australia. Back home, state sponsorship has dried up, forcing much of the best Russian coaching and talent to move abroad. Not that anybody is complaining about Maria Sharapova.

The afternoon before competition began, the Russian Olympic delegation held a press conference in an 800-seat auditorium, the same room Michael Phelps and the U.S. swim team packed two days earlier. The place was nearly empty, save two dozen reporters and photographers. Delegation head Leonid Tyagachev spent more time talking about the team’s outfits for the opening ceremony than his nation’s medal chances, adding that Team Russia’s main goals were (1) fair play; (2) no scandals; (3) honest, hard work.


We liked it better when the object was to crush the Yankee imperialist dogs underfoot, then sweep their remains into the dustbin of history. Next to the Baby on Board stickers.

Even Russia’s unintentionally humorous Olympic presence isn’t what it used to be, laid low by capitalist creep and gradual Westernization. During Tuesday night’s women’s gymnastics team competition, Svetlana Khorkina appeared almost sleek, a far cry from the Soviet geisha look — pink lipstick, exaggerated eye shadow, enough blush for a hash mark — once favored by Russia’s pixie princesses. Too bad.

The Salt Lake Games gave a glimmer of comic hope, as Team Russia bellyached about SkateGate, drug testing and hockey refereeing. The Russian parliament even voted to have their team withdraw. But alas, no dice. Out-whined by Wayne Gretzky, the Russians decided to march in the closing ceremony. Perhaps to catch Kiss.

“Without Russia, the Olympic Games would be lost!” roared Russian Olympic committee vice president Vitaly Smirnov, not to be confused with Yakov.

Da, comrade, da. Would the Miracle on Ice still inspire Disney films had it come against a powerhouse group of Belgians? Beating Ivan meant something, something more than a fistful of endorsement dollars from Phil Knight. And it brought out the best in us. John Thompson’s defense-first, can’t-shoot-straight squad — sound familiar? — fell to Russia in the ‘88 semis. We responded with the Dream Team. Forget that this was overkill, like using a tactical nuclear device to unclog the toilet.

As arguably the greatest cultural ambassadors in U.S. history, the Dreamers charmed the entire planet; name another display of raw American power that was greeted with grins, followed by clamoring for pictures and autographs.

To put things another way: When Yuri Gagarin orbited Earth, we put a man on the moon; when panicky cosmonauts had to hold together Mir with chewing gum and shoelaces, NASA became a glorified trucking company.

Sans the Red Menace, the Olympics just aren’t as much fun. There’s no misguided patriotic satisfaction in punking Equatorial Guinea. China’s too capitalist to fit the archenemy bill. And al Qaeda doesn’t even have a team.

Rulon Gardner’s unlikely wrestling victory over Russian legend Alexander Karelin at the Sydney Games was thrilling; put it in a Cold War context and it would have been epochal. Imagine Karelin looking on in disgust as James Brown sings “Living in America,” then killing Apollo Creed. Gardner would be a national icon, played by Stallone in a movie.

Speaking of the Italian Stallion: In an Olympic world where Russia and the country that brought us Yahoo Serious are neck-and-neck in the medal standings, there’s only one true heavyweight left in the ring: the United States. We’re the big bully, Lance Armstrong, the guy everyone else loves to hate, a country the rest of the world can’t wait to humble. And as our beleaguered men’s basketball team can tell you, that’s about as enjoyable as “Rocky V.”

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