The Olympic ideal will overcome scandals and petty nationalism

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The Athens Olympics, like all great romantic ideas, have been threatened by grubby reality since the day they were conceived. First came Greece's failure to secure the Olympics either on the centenary in 1996, or to mark the millennium. Then there were suspicions that building work was so behind schedule that Athens would never be ready to host the games. On top of this came the 11 September terror attacks and bickering about security. Now the shadow of drugs has fallen across these games.

The Athens Olympics, like all great romantic ideas, have been threatened by grubby reality since the day they were conceived. First came Greece's failure to secure the Olympics either on the centenary in 1996, or to mark the millennium. Then there were suspicions that building work was so behind schedule that Athens would never be ready to host the games. On top of this came the 11 September terror attacks and bickering about security. Now the shadow of drugs has fallen across these games.

The Greek authorities may have completed their stadium in time, but the foundations of the Olympic ideal seem to have crumbled beneath them. The threatened exclusion of two of Greece's brightest track stars for failing to take a drug test reflects the wretched state of international athletics at the moment. While this episode is a crushing blow to Greece's national pride, it ought to be understood in light of a doping scandal that is stretching its tentacles around the world. The investigation into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative in America has implicated scores of athletes in a conspiracy involving a new untraceable steroid and strengthens the impression that dopers will always be one step ahead of testers. Many will now wonder whether they can believe what they are seeing when they watch races in Athens.

But while track and field sports are understandably seen as the centrepiece of Olympic competitions, it would be wrong to write off the entire games due to a scandal engulfing one area. Champions will emerge from a huge number of disciplines, from shooting to softball, over the next few weeks. The feats of those athletes do not deserve to be diminished by events elsewhere. Indeed the smaller sports, which often lack corporate sponsorship and vast sums from TV rights, come closest to the ideals of the games as devised by Baron de Coubertin more than 100 years ago. Despite the commercialisation of the modern games, and sport in general, the flame of honest competition still burns at the Olympics. Remember too that no international competition attracts more competitors, or represents the ultimate prize in such a wide range of sports.

There is, of course, another aspect to the games. Great struggles between empires and nations are peacefully enacted on the stage they provide. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union saw the accumulation of gold medals as a vindication of their respective social systems. Now the utter dominance of the US in the medals table seems to confirm its status as the pre-eminent power in the world.

But it is possible to look at these tables in another way. America won a total of 97 medals in the Sydney Olympics of 2000, but that other wealthy continental conglomeration - the states of the present European Union - won 281. The US won 39 golds, the EU 98. What better way for the EU to celebrate its recent enlargement than to consider each medal won by individual nations in Athens as, in part, a victory for Europe? That could be the reaffirmation of the Olympic spirit that Athens in 2004 so desperately needs.

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