Final thoughts on a memorable two weeks in Greece

This is my last blog from the Athens Olympics, which I'm assuming will be one of the more memorable I've covered for a number of reasons.

Foremost among them, I'm sure, will be the swimming of Michael Phelps. He did everything I thought he would and more. When asked before arriving here how many gold medals I thought he would win, I said four or five. He won six.

Most impressive, though, was his third-place finish in the 200-meter freestyle. No one thought he would beat Australia's Ian Thorpe or the Netherlands' Pieter van den Hoogenband. But Phelps insisted on challenging himself. There was no shame in winning a bronze medal.

Unfortunately, many people will remember the second week of the Olympics for the judging and drug controversies. (I don't know if you've heard, but the 4.5 earthquake here this week was judged a 3.9 by the Colombian judge.)

It's not the first time those elements have overwhelmed all of the positive things that happen during an Olympics. The Seoul Olympics in 1988 is remembered more for Ben Johnson's positive drug test than anything else. The Salt Lake City Winter Games in 2002 are still known for the corruption in the figure skating judging.

But it didn't start with those Games. As you've no doubt read during these Games, cheating and corruption were staples of the Ancient Games in Greece. Athletes invented all sorts of methods to overcome their opponents, including curses and spells. They also took performance-enhancing potions, some derived from bull or sheep testes.

They also bribed opponents and judges. When caught, they had to pay significant fines. The money was used to build the massive statue of Zeus at Olympia.

As long as men and women compete, some will search for corners to cut.

One tradition, unfortunately, that hasn't carried over from the Ancient Games is the Olympic truce. Wars among the city-states came to a halt for a period before, during and after the Games, primarily to guarantee safe passage to and from Olympia.

Protest groups in Athens have suspended demonstrations during these Games. But wars and terrorist attacks rage in other parts of the globe. The cases of the two Russian airplanes crashing within minutes of each other look very suspicious. Could it be we're less civilized now than in ancient times?

August 25, 2004 8:25 AM ET
No conspiracy theories seen in Athens misjudgments

I have a friend who decided he wanted to be part of the Atlanta Olympics. Not as a spectator. Not as a volunteer for the organizing committee. Especially not as a journalist.

He actually wanted to be in the Games, on the field of play.

He searched for the easiest way to be admitted and found it was by becoming a judge in badminton. He had never played the game, except at perhaps an occasional backyard barbecue, but that didn't stop him. Or the international badminton federation. He took a short course in judging, passed a test and, the next thing you know, he was watching shuttlecocks go back and forth across the net in Olympic competition.

I have to believe the standards for becoming judges in most sports are higher. They certainly are in sports such as figure skating and gymnastics. Still, judges, as we have seen in Athens, are far from infallible.

It used to be easy to conclude why judges made mistakes. We saw everything through the prism of the Cold War. If an American or British athlete was wronged, it must have been because the judging panel was weighted with communist judges. I'm sure they on the other side of the wall were equally suspicious of American and Western European judges.

Even in Salt Lake City, more than a decade after the end of the Cold War, people were counting the number of figure skating judges from former communist countries to see if there was still some sort of conspiracy against Canadians. Please.