James Lawton: True contest is a fight for the very spirit of Games

Expectation of amazing feats trains eyes of the world on Beijing despite the Olympics' frequent betrayal of their founding principles

Every four years we ask the same question, the big one, and then a whole series of others about drugs and morality and the viability of sport as an arm of politics and superpower aggrandisement. The big one: Why do we still bother with the Olympics?

Why do we give any credence to an idea that seemed to have collapsed under the weight of its own idealism 72 years ago when Adolf Hitler strutted and preened in that big gaunt stadium in Berlin and proclaimed his belief not in international brotherhood and the purity of all youth but the existence of his own master race?

Why do we give China, with its appalling human rights record in Tibet and at home still embodied in the symbols of a boy, a flower, and a tank, the chance to proclaim that its astonishing economic development has brought it to a point of superiority over the old demon America in a chase for gold medals that will be so much less about sport than the most naked pursuit of propaganda and power?

Why are we going to Beijing and its shining, perhaps even majestic front, its juiced-up athletes – from all over the world – amid the spirit-dragging sense that the exhortation of the Olympic founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin to go faster, higher, stronger, has never really carried us too far from a gutter of exploitation and cynicism?

But then most of us do know, deep down, why we bother with the Olympics, why in my case I will be packing the old bag for the ninth stage of a journey that started in Montreal 32 years ago. We bother with the Olympics for the same reason that we continue to bother with life. We bother in the hope that they will get better and truer and not quite so relentlessly at odds with what we still like to think is the true meaning of sport.

We go or tune in to the Olympics because – and curiously enough, on this occasion with the blessing of the spiritual leader of the oppressed Tibetans, the Dalai Lama – we know that we will see something that we will probably never forget and this is true even in the waiting and hoping that on some subsequent day or year it is not revealed to be a fraud.

The kind of ultimate fraud that was, for example, exposed in Seoul in 1988 when for 48 hours or so we believed – or maybe, we should say, tried to half believe – that we had seen the most astonishing example of athletic power since humanity first became upright and started to run. Then we learnt, when a milky dawn was beginning to break over the Olympic village, that Ben Johnson had on the run-in to his glory – and his breathtaking world record time of 9.79 seconds in the 100 metres – been drugged up to his yellowing eyeballs.

Yet if anyone had the total innocence required to feel betrayed they would no doubt have also agreed that what they had seen would always be scorched into their consciousness. Some of the things seen: Johnson flying from the blocks so explosively and then running so hard that a look of disbelief – in the honesty of Johnson's effort – slowly spread across the face of Carl Lewis, one of the greatest of Olympians who, nevertheless, also tested positive (for the stimulants ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, and phenylpropanaline) a few weeks earlier at the US trials, and finally Johnson looking back in triumph before pointing a single finger at the sky.

Also seen was Britain's Linford Christie finishing with bronze, which turned into silver when Johnson was disqualified, and then he was heard reviling the cheating ways of Johnson. He too, of course, had tested positive but explained that it must have been because he drank a cup of ginseng tea, an explanation that was not plausible a decade later when he ended his career under suspension for being found with traces of another illegal substance.

In Beijing, British sport is guaranteed one moral dilemma, now that the legal pleadings of Dwain Chambers, one of most the candid of all the drug cheats, have failed. Chambers' fight against the rule of the British Olympic Association that those convicted of drug-related offences are automatically banned from the Olympics took us again into a collision between the world of sport and the real one where the law tends to say that you cannot be punished twice for the same offence and that, maybe, there is a place for redemption in every area of life. But then, as Chambers waited to hear his fate, there seemed to be much less of a complicated response to one of the 400m favourites, Christine Ohuruogu, whose explanation that she missed three straight drug tests simply out of forgetfulness was accepted almost blithely by the English track authority and the BOA.

Ohuruogu inevitably provokes the same doubts that were raised by Florence Griffith-Joyner, the American flyer who had improved dramatically in the months before Seoul when she came home for 100m gold with the rest of the field dead and with not a hint of celebration in the compound of the International Olympic Committee, whose members were blank-faced as they waited for the speech of their then president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, which declared that the fight against drugs for the Olympic movement was one to the death.

"Flo-Jo" did not test positive once in her career. But this did not prevent her rival Evelyn Ashford having to be dragged from the stadium, screaming her protests. Griffith-Joyner died at the age of 38 from, according to the autopsy, a congenital brain abnormality, but she could never outrun the doubts which built around her again when she retired from the sport on the eve of the institution of mandatory random drug testing.

Doubt, of course, is always at the other side of almost every Olympic glory, but then what glory.

In Beijing the battle between China and the United States no doubt will take on an epic quality, something that might be set to the music of Star Wars. But then when you look back you see that there was always the war of the medals table, between America, the Soviet Union and a huge impact from the mini-state with the most efficient drug factories in sport, the German Democratic Republic. But then also you see amid all the controversy and the politics, the image of at least one man or woman who found on the Olympic stage the opportunity to become immortal in the minds and the hearts of all those who saw them.

Munich '72 will always be remembered for the massacre of the Israeli athletes and coaches, and what was considered by many at the time to be the crass decision of the IOC president, a severe American plutocrat, Avery Brundage, to press on with the Games but for a one-day break, time enough for the victims to be collected and buried. But then they were also the Olympics of the elf of Munich, or was it the angel, Olga Korbut, a gymnast who captivated the world and was the first sports star to be made by television.

Four years later she was encountered on a terrace of the Olympic village in Montreal, pale, heart-breakingly fragile and with mascara-smudged tears and eclipsed by another dazzling teenaged girl, Nadia Comaneci of Romania. But by then we knew how they made the gymnastic angels. They gave them drugs that retarded their growth as young women, stopped their periods and did God knows what else.

Lives were not lost, at least not physically, at Montreal but there is the still forlorn memory of young African athletes milling around the white elephant airport waiting to fly home after being ordered to boycott the games, for what? The ultimate futility: African politics. Archie Moore, the great, wise boxing champion who had brought the Nigerians, said, "You see these kids yearning to compete in the Olympics, you watch them working over the years and then see them when all their hopes are destroyed. I've seen some cruelty in my life but this is right up there."

Mike Boit, from Kenya, the red-hot favourite for the 800m, was also in tears. Yet the man who won his event, and also put in a breathtaking 400m, was Alberto Juantorena of Cuba. His technique was awful, even primitive, but the power was awesome. The Finnish middle -distance runner Lasse Viren, a policeman, was a brilliant double gold medallist at 5,000 and 10,000m but he was accused of being a pioneer of blood doping, back in the days before it was made illegal. If it was Juantorena who was the face of Montreal, it was Seb Coe in Moscow four years later in the anguish of defeat in the 800m and the joy of 1500m victory. It was Coe again in Los Angeles in 1984, winning a 1500m that persuaded Jim Murray, the columnist of the Los Angeles Times, to describe him as the "Lord Byron of the track".

Every Olympics has something utterly remarkable to remember it by. Steven Redgrave started in Los Angeles and finished in Sydney, 16 years and five gold medals later, and Matthew Pinsent settled for four on the dockside in Athens. When he did so he had tears in his eyes and he talked of the margins of victory and defeat and how much work had to go into that burst of glory and pain on the water. That was what the Olympics should mean, you thought, after covering the story of the two Greek sprinting stars who were literally chased out of town by the drug inspectors.

Who will rise above the trenches when China's athletes come to life like an awakened terracotta army and take on what they are told is the dwindling might of America? At 7ft 6in Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets will start with a certain advantage as he leads China against the Americans in one battle of the titans on the basketball court.

Most likely to bring a shadow to the Chinese sunrise are Michael Phelps, the phenomenal American swimmer who will be trying for eight medals and Usain Bolt, the Jamaican 100m world record holder who has, naturally, been christened "Lightning" and who so far has not attracted, possibly because of his nation's relatively good record on drug abuse in sport, the basic suspicion that, since that hot day in Seoul, has always attached itself to the fastest man on earth.

Whatever else they do not do, the Olympics offer a superb stage for extraordinary individual ability and commitment which, we always want to believe, however romantically, can be achieved cleanly.

Britain is ready to be uplifted by a cyclist like Victoria Pendleton or the yachtsman Ben Ainslie or the brilliant, 14-year-old diver Tom Daley. Maybe Steve Williams, the one survivor of Pinsent's boat, will ransack his memory and his body and produce another winning performance. Perhaps Paula Radcliffe will run and redeem the agony of Athens four years ago that came to her on the way to the first modern Olympic stadium that stood in the dying light like the sleeping sentinel of different times and different values.

Radcliffe pulled a blanket around her shoulders and shivered and wept. She cried for herself but it might have been for the plight of the Olympics. Yet she fought to return, to resume the pain and, who knows, maybe find something that made sense and even some great joy.

Most people do it, of course, in one form or another. Every four years.

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