Leading Article: The playing fields of Barcelona

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The Independent Online
IF BIGGER means better, then the Barcelona Olympics, which open today, will be the best in the history of the modern Games. There will be more competitors from more nations taking part in more events - and more openly making more money from doing so. There will almost certainly be more spectators and television viewers than ever before.

Things have moved on since Pierre de Fredi, Baron de Coubertin outlined in an 1892 pamphlet his plans for 'the re-establishment of the Olympic Games . . . under conditions conformable to the needs of modern life'. The revived Games were to be modest, amateur events, designed to bring together 'representatives of all nations'. For him the most important thing was not the state but the individual - 'not winning but taking part . . . not conquering but fighting well'. He concluded: 'It is permissible to suppose that these peaceful and courteous contests would supply the best of internationalism.'

The Baron's noble vision had been influenced by the manner in which sport was taught on the playing fields of great English public schools such as Eton and Rugby, and by the cult of gentlemanly amateurism that developed in late-Victorian England. But the Games that De Coubertin hoped to 'recreate' had never existed. Many contestants in the classical Olympics were to all intents and purposes professionals. They represented their cities and they were subsidised to train full time. It was not unknown for a well- regarded player to accept a transfer fee and appear on behalf of a rival city. The successful were richly rewarded by tax exemption schemes, free accommodation, and remunerative exhibition bouts and tours. Bribery and cheating were commonplace. As for the glory of taking part, the truth was that prizes went only to outright winners.

The first modern Games, which took place in 1896 at the reconstructed Panathenean Stadium in Athens, owed much to De Coubertin's vision and less to classical reality or to 'the needs of modern life'. It was genuinely an amateur affair. Many competitors entered privately, including holiday-makers and embassy staff. The United States was represented by a college team. But the Games soon came to embody national prestige and international politics.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics were exploited by Hitler and Speer to demonstrate the might of the new Nazi state. Germany and Japan were excluded from the 1948 Olympics in London. African nations, Soviet-bloc states and black Americans threatened to boycott the Mexico Olympics of 1968 in order to ensure the exclusion of South Africa. In 1976 most African states withdrew from Montreal because the New Zealand rugby team had toured South Africa. The US and 34 other nations boycotted the 1980 Games in Moscow because of the invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union retaliated by refusing to go to Los Angeles four years later.

Chauvinism and sham amateurism has done grave harm to the reputation of the Games in recent decades. Communist countries such as the former German Democratic Republic pumped their athletes full of dangerous steroids and other drugs - in defiance of the rules and of the health of their victims - in order to win medals for the state. On Western teams drug-taking was a matter of individual initiative, not state policy. The West excelled in twisting the rules that forbade taking money for competing.

With the collapse of Communism and political change in South Africa, it has at last been possible to hold an Olympics in which, in effect, all nations are represented, in spite of the unseemly squabble over representation from the former Yugoslavia. Of course competition between states at Barcelona is a matter of national prestige, but the prestige of governments or political and economic systems is no longer at stake. Alterations to the rules under which amateurs can be rewarded have led to the emergence of a new group of millionaire competitors, but they have done away with much of the hypocrisy that used to embrace the subject.

Financial sponsorship of the Games and the sale of prime time television rights generate hundreds of millions of dollars. Hosting the Olympics can now revive a city, not leave it crippled with debt, as happened to Montreal. This year's Games will not be the amateur event De Coubertin envisaged in 1892 but, unlike many earlier meetings, they seem likely to offer the peaceful and courteous contests he sought. In spite of its unresolved problems, the Olympic movement is in good health.