Ratto: Fear and loathing in Athens

Updated: May 6, 2004, 10:50 AM ET
By Ray Ratto | Special to ESPN.com

One hundred days ... that's three house payments, or four cable bills, which these days is about the same amount of money.

It's also the amount of time we have left before The Mega-Stress Olympics, a three-week festival of looking over one's shoulder, of fear taking human form, of soldiers in every frame -- the first Summer Games of the Era of Terror.

Arab commando
When terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Olympics, sports became yet another platform for politics.
Boy, sounds like a party to me.

From the opening ceremonies, in which the athletes will presumably sprint into the stadium, stand for pictures and sprint back out, to the final track events, in which the winners will break the metaphorical tape and keep running to the airport, this Olympics has already been painted as a huge, exposed nerve ending with construction delays.

And of course, the Greeks and their government have taken the brunt of the abuse, some of it fair (the buildings that didn't get finished even after eight years' lead time), some of it not (the security issues were thrust upon them by others).

But however you choose to shave it, you still end up with an Olympics that advertises itself against its will as The Games That Make Berlin '36 seem like a Friday bowling league. Even the terrorist threat reported in several British newspapers directed at Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United, fits into the general jumpiness of the day.

And even if most of the athletes are brave-facing it, claiming as they must that the competition is the be-all and end-all, the fact is that you, the viewer, are going to be watching a lot of Olympics this time for all the wrong reasons, even events that under normal circumstances would be listed under "Pointless, Yet Stupid."

You may decide for yourselves what events those are, although anything that includes the words "synchronized" or "rhythmic" strikes a responsive chord here in this squalid little corner of The High Lord Internet.

But we live in a world in which cause is still hidden but effect is disseminated immediately. Whatever vile mischiefs may be inspired by the flame and the five rings will be seen immediately by anyone with a TV set.

Some athletes have shared their apprehension. Others are more worried about the BALCO Fairy, which is its own cause for fear.

But the audience, whether in and around the Olympic Village or in the geographic but not necessarily psychic safety of their living rooms, is waiting for the worst, every day, every venue, every possible event. Even the ones with "synchronized" and "rhythmic" in the title.

If it could be called a guilty pleasure, it would be, but there's no pleasure here. If, The Deity Forbid, something horrible were to happen, we would be at our sets, 24/7, the same way we were at the Munich Olympics, and 9/11, and the Kennedy assassination. We've seen murder, live, and we fear we will see it again.

Which is why these Olympics have already left bad tastes in so many mouths, even 100 days out. Oh, everyone had their snicks and giggles about the crackerjack Greek construction industry, but the nasty backstory has nothing to do with Greece's geographic proximity to geo-political hell.

The backstory is anywhere and everywhere, and even the most sublime moments of the Athens Olympics will be celebrated with trepidation, until the Games are over.

Oh, maybe nothing happens at all. Maybe the security precautions are sufficient to deter the darkness. Maybe this will be Berlin '36, with all the threat but no follow-through, rather than Munich '72.

But we won't know until it's over if this was an Olympics we should have celebrated instead of feared. It means we won't enjoy it while it's there to enjoy.

Even the synchronized rhythmicals.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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