M y parents bought their first colour television in 1968 to watch the Olympics in Mexico City. Since then, the Olympics have come and gone many times. I usually don't enjoy watching sports on television, but every four years, I seem to lapse, and indulge in vicarious thrills and agonies.
Patriotism flares up too, a rare enough sentiment in my heart. I check each day to see how many medals Canada has won. A small thrill goes through me at each new bronze or even silver. Never mind that they've been won through incomprehensible pursuits like synchronised swimming, or rhythmic gymnastics.
Of course even my mild nationalism took a jolt in 1988 in the Seoul Olympic games when the hapless Ben Johnson got caught taking anabolic steroids, after he'd filled us with joy for his stunning victory in the 100-metre final. I was in France at the time, and the newspaper headline in a local tabloid, before the drugs test, read "Big Ben" in 72 point type.
Then the next day, the same paper announced "Le Scandal" in equally large print, and Ben was exposed as a cheat. I defended him stoutly at the time to snooty colleagues, and equally fended off racist comments by my fellow countrymen "after all, he's not really Canadian, he was born in Jamaica". But my vicarious thrill-seeking took years to recover. Now I regard the whole business with ambiva- lence, despite those daily glances at the medals table. The way the Americans, Chinese and Europeans gorge themselves on gold is slightly distasteful. I'm happier to watch the mighty Kenyans put the sorry state of their country at the back of their minds and out-race the world in long-distance running. Or to see plucky Australia with its population not much more than Nepal's, churn up the pool and leave American and German swimmers bobbing along behind. For surely it's the thrill of the chase that makes the Olympics special, and that's increasingly lost from every aspect of the modern games. Participating, personal best, trying your damndest, these are as important as winning. Or they're supposed to be. I had the pleasure of meeting some of Nepal's young Olympians before they set out for Sydney a couple of weeks ago. It was obvious that none of them were going to win. But the runners and the lone shooter that I met, the remarkable Bhagwati K.C., were steely eyed and enthusiastic. It was about being there for your country, your colleagues and your family. That march around the track at the opening ceremony, the tearful goodbyes to new friends from distant lands at the end, and trying your best on the day-that's why they going to Sydney. They would have fun, they would do their best, and they would tell their grandchildren about the time they participated in the Olympic Games!
I've been in India for much of the Sydney Olympics, and it's sad to see how some journalists and sports fans are reacting to the ups and downs of Indian medal hopes. When India's first-ever competitors in Olympic rowing finished last, scornful press-wallahs wrote of "national shame" or "pitiful performances". I found myself wondering what any journalist, myself included, ever did that could compare with a first-time Olympics appearance for your country. Then India's best female weightlifter Karnam Maleswari, surprised everyone by winning a bronze. As she spoke to the press after getting her medal, she mentioned a newspaper story that had accused of her drinking too much beer and putting on weight, thus dashing her medal hopes. There's a journalist somewhere in Delhi who might be hearing from Ms Maleswari when she gets back. I hope he's got some beer in the fridge. As the Olympics become more about rich nations pouring resources into winning, and medallists make millions by endorsing products, the small victories keep me hopeful. Maybe Nepal, or India for that matter, doesn't harvest medals as the Americans and Chinese do. But their athletes ooze dignity and the spirit of the Olympics, and that's more important than winning.