Just stick to the sports in Sochi

02/06/2014 9:13 PM

02/06/2014 10:09 PM

There is no middle ground, no neutral corner, no virtual Switzerland, when it comes to people’s feelings toward the Olympics.

You either see the Olympic Games as a monumental waste of time and money — a three-weekend, jingoistic carnival of pseudo-athletes you don’t know playing sports you don’t care about.

Or you’re like me, and you marvel at the Olympics for their history, their golden moments, and their ability to inspire passion in degrees unseen in the rest of organized sport.

I’ve used the line often, but it remains true: They cry real tears at the Olympic Games. Tears of joy and tears of heartbreak.

It’s been written that we live in an ever-narrowing world of websites and Facebook updates. Yet in reality, we seldom venture intrepidly beyond our comfortably drawn boundaries.

Americans go to France and complain that they can’t find a good hamburger. They go to Russia and lose their patience when the taxi driver doesn’t understand English.

Some of you still make fun of soccer. And figure skating. And curling.

But it’s a big world out there. Still.

And the Olympics helps us to remember that.

When the opening ceremony of the 22nd Olympic Winter Games are held Friday in Sochi, Russia, athletes from a record 88 nations will march into the new stadium.

They will hail from Andorra to Zimbabwe, from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan.

They are athletes, not politicians. They share the pride of being the best of their home nations at what they do, whether it’s racing down a snow-covered mountain or lifting their partners on the arena ice. They may wave their flag, but it’s often just a prop.

An Olympian, win or lose, is considered an Olympian forever. It remains a powerful sisterhood and brotherhood, long after they’ve crossed the finish lines.

Terrorists? Exploding toothpaste? President Putin? Unfinished hotel rooms?

Those are sidebars to these Olympic Games — political grist for the politicians. No sporting event has dealt with security concerns longer or more expansively than the Olympics. Sochi, in that regard, is nothing new. At the Torino Winter Olympics, our company issued us gas masks.

The idea of a checklist for whose country’s political leader does or doesn’t attend Friday’s ceremony is insignificant. This is a sporting event, not the guest book at some foreign dignitary’s funeral.

At the first Olympic Games that I covered in Montreal in 1976, African nations boycotted over a New Zealand rugby team’s match against South Africa. It was politics — rugby wasn’t even an Olympic sport.

Four years later, the United States boycotted the Moscow Summer Games. The Soviets returned the pointless gesture four years later in Los Angeles.

People with weakly scripted political agendas have always tried to use the Olympics as a platform. But as the athletes themselves say, they are there for the competition, not the politics.

Whether their native tongue is English or Mandarin, they speak a universal language. They are the best athletes in the world competing at what they do.

People will always cheer for the athletes from their home nation. As the opening ceremony Friday should remind us, though, we’re still one world.

No event brings together the family of man like an Olympic Games. We can all learn something over these next 17 days from the world’s best athletes, these Olympians.

Even if it takes figure skating to do it.

About Gil LeBreton

Gil LeBreton

@gilebreton

Whether it's pondering Moose McNuggets at the McDonald's in Norway or chasing Lance Armstrong up some mountaintop in France, Gil LeBreton has been entertaining Star-Telegram readers for nearly 30 years. He's covered 21 Super Bowls, 14 Olympic Games (summer and winter), saw Muhammad Ali box, Paul Newman drive a race car and Prince Albert try to steer a bobsled.

Gil also once briefly held the WBC Junior Welterweight title belt -- he had to, because the guy he was interviewing, champ Bruce Curry, had to suddenly step into the men's room.

Email Gil at gilebreton@star-telegram.com

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