Does anybody really care about the Games?
The question was never whether they could put together a Games in time for the Opening Ceremony, but whether they could get you to watch one. The question was never whether the world could advance the latest cadre of beautiful people capable of running fast or jumping high, but whether that's any longer enough to gain your love.
No, the question for Athens, here in the year 2004, is really this: What if they threw an Olympics and nobody cared?
That's a global conundrum, not merely a stateside one. But there is no disguising the fact that for the United States athletic governing bodies, this might well go down as the Olympics they'll be more or less glad to get over with. How that plays out on the international stage is one of the many wonders to be carried into Greece.
Overtaken by worldwide events, diminished by its own seeming lethargy in getting itself ready to host, Athens arrives as the city with the sacred ancient history and the real-time image problems. Construction delays and International Olympic Committee admonishments were the least of it; the threat of terrorism has been the dominant theme of the 2004 Games for nearly three years now, and even under the best of competitive circumstances, it remains the dark undercurrent of these Olympics.
Of course, real-world politics have almost routinely taken their place alongside the Olympic competitions, among them the terrorist tragedy of Munich in 1972 and the Cold War boycotts that marred Moscow ('80) and Los Angeles ('84). What have generally sustained the Games, given the realities of the day, are the transcendent performances of the athletes themselves.
Now, will such be enough to save Athens in 2004? In this year, particularly, that is both a fair and an open question.
For the U.S., this already is an Olympics of athletic intrigue. Michael Phelps' attempt to track down Mark Spitz and his seven gold medals (accomplished, it should be noted, in the same Munich Games that included the tragic hostage scene) has deservedly attracted a strong national interest, and the stage might yet be set for another swimmer, the inspiring Natalie Coughlin, to emerge golden and decorated.
But there's no denying the chilling effect that the BALCO steroid scandal has had not only on track and field, usually the most glamorous highlight of the Olympics for the Americans but also on the Olympic movement in general. The net effect of BALCO and its list of implicated or outright accused athletes has been to almost constantly keep the drug talk front and center in the entire Olympic discussion. It's lousy, perhaps, but it is real.
Four years ago, Marion Jones was a towering figure on the U.S. Olympic landscape. Ultra fit, attractive, articulate, winning: Jones audaciously went for five gold medals in Sydney, wound up with three gold and two bronze, and generally dominated the proceedings. In so many ways, the American movement went where Jones went, and Nike's heavy investment in the woman quickly elevated her career to a worldwide conversation.
And look where that career stands today: tattered and emblematic of the problems facing Athens in staging these Games. Jones' was the most famous Olympic name associated with the BALCO investigation. Distracted by her implication in the scandal, not yet a full year removed from giving birth to a son, Jones showed up at the track trials in Sacramento last month and failed to qualify in two of her signature events, the 100- and 200-meter sprints.
Her downfall might not precisely mirror that of track and field, which advanced out of its trials both a host of promising young stars (such as sprinter Justin Gatlin) and some familiar studs (pole vaulter Stacy Dragila and sprinters Maurice Greene and Gail Devers). Indeed, even amid this season of controversy the sport continues to generate performances great enough to cause a fan to think about nothing else for a while.
But Jones' very public struggle seems this year to be part of a larger cloud hanging over the Games. It's a cloud of suspicion. It is a cloud of fear, inspired by the threats of terror and the ramping up of security in Athens. It didn't help that Greek officials fell so far behind in their building schedule of Olympic venues that the IOC had to start barking to get the project back on track.
Eventually it got there -- and Athens, physically, has come as close to ready for the Olympic onslaught as it will ever get. Security is indeed heightened. The broadcast centers are coming online.
And the athletes will soon arrive, great athletes, people from around the world. They will compete for themselves and their countries, and in this special time and place, Athens in 2004, they will as always represent the best hope for the Olympics. They represent the hope, finally, that the Games can once again overcome the world in which they're placed.
Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com