Torch Song

Ode to an ancient summer rite, excesses and all

It is the best of us and the worst of us: pomp and circumstance, thrill and agony, transience and transcendence. The Olympic Games, with roots that reach back more than 2,800 years to Homer’s Iliad, are a microcosm of world culture and history, a global showcase of preening nationalism, rampant commercialism and human evolution measured in hundredths of a second. Every two years, the planet seems to spin a little slower while we put aside our regularly scheduled programming and tune in to the world’s greatest reality show, a modern echo of ancient times when soldiers laid down their spears for seven days before and after the Games and soldier-athletes were granted safe passage through hostile territories to that first stadium in western Peloponnese.

As Frank Deford writes in “Britannia Rules the Games,” England, having staged the event in 1908 and 1948, hopes the third time is a charm. The gritty shipyards and neglected slums of East London have been transformed for the 2012 Games, which Londoners are looking forward to with the host’s traditional expectation and dread. Is it fitting or bitterly ironic that England, the country that appropriated the Elgin Marbles, is hosting the Olympiad at a time when Greece is in crisis? It seems like both.

I was lucky enough to attend the Sydney Olympics in 2000. I vividly remember the triathlon around the iconic Opera House, the David-and-Goliath victory of Rulon Gardner knocking down the invincible Aleksandr Karelin in Greco-Roman wrestling, Australia’s Cathy Freeman becoming the first person to light the Olympic flame and go on to win a gold medal, in the 400-meter sprint. I remember the long flights made pleasurable by reading Robert Hughes’ spellbinding history of Australia, The Fatal Shore, the bite of a cold Victoria Bitter beer and, yes, shrimp on the barbie. And I can still hear the ubiquitious chants of “Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi Oi Oi!” ringing in my ears.

The star of those games was Marion Jones, the dazzling track-and-field champion who blazed her way to five medals, a first for a female athlete. It wasn’t until seven years later that she admitted she had used anabolic steroids and her medals were stripped. Doping has become a sideshow to each Olympics since then, a high-tech cops and robbers game played between unscrupulous athletes and the official drug testers. As Christie Aschwanden writes in “The Science of Doping,” that competition is becoming an increasingly more sophisticated test of wits.

Which brings us to the Phenomenon section this month, where we’ve chosen the Mind as our theme to contrast with all those Olympic bodies. The opening essay is written by a woman with one of the most intriguing minds around, Temple Grandin, who struggled for years with autism before she persuaded the world to come around to her way of thinking.

We hope you enjoy the issue.

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