On the eve of the opening of the Beijing Olympics, it is tempting sometimes to be negative about what is supposedly the world's most prestigious and honourable sporting festival. One does not have to look too far to discover supporting evidence for the pessimistic view of the Games.
Who could not survey the catalogue of top Olympians over the past two decades, from Ben Johnson to Marion Jones, who have been caught taking performance-enhancing drugs, and not feel depressed? There is also plenty to object to in the tone of national chauvinism that swirls around the Games. This year, the battle between China and America to top the medal tables has been talked up endlessly. Britain, we are told, wants fourth place in the London 2012 Games. In this moral universe, all that seems to matter is the number of medallions handed out. Sportsmanship goes by the board. The maxim of the founder of the modern games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, appears to have been turned on its head. What matters is not the taking part, but the winning.
Some take exception to the bloated nature of the Games. What else, other than a desire to maximise television and sponsorship revenues, could explain the decision by the International Olympic Committee to include the fabulously wealthy pursuits of football and tennis in the roster of Olympic sports? The likes of Rafael Nadal and Lionel Messi, who are in Beijing, would not regard an Olympic gold medal as anything other than a minor bauble in the grand scheme of their careers. So why should the rest of us care? There are parochial explanations for a lack of enthusiasm too. From a British perspective, the days of the great dramatic rivalries between the likes of Seb Coe and Steve Ovett are receding into the distance. What is there left to get excited about?
There is an element of truth in all of these criticisms. But it is important not to lose sight of what the Games, at their best, can still be about. If there are grounds for despair, there are ample reasons for hope too. To grasp that, it is necessary to remember what marks the Olympics out from other international sporting events. What makes the Games unique is the forum they provide for smaller sports, the pursuits that lack mass appeal. We have endless opportunities to enjoy the likes of football, cricket, tennis and golf. But who regularly watches diving, or gymnastics? How many of us even attend athletics meetings? Yet for two weeks, every four years, these and other sports such as rowing, sailing and handball take centre stage and enjoy a global audience.
The significance for the athletes taking part cannot be overstated. This is their moment. At the Games they discover, before the gaze of the world, whether their four years of hard training have been sufficient to win the ultimate prize in their chosen discipline. It is this atmosphere of climax that makes the Games such compelling viewing. This is the reason the Games, for all their problems, still matter.
It would be wrong to downplay the blight of doping, but the fact is that the vast majority of athletes over the following two weeks will distinguish themselves, not by their misdemeanours, but by the honesty of their sporting effort. They will be competing, not for money, but the sheer glory of being faster, higher or stronger.
And so the noble ideals of Baron de Coubertin could be said to live on, like a ghost in the great, corporate, Olympic machine. It will be to catch a glimpse of that spirit that the world will be tuning in.