Hbo's Olympic Special Deserves A Gold Medal

We have sports to blame, in part, for the box-score approach to everything in our culture, from presidential politics to "trials of the century" to weekly box-office stats. But there was a time when even sports was free of the smothering hoopla.

HBO's "Spirit of the Games," an incredibly moving documentary, returns viewers to a golden age in the modern Olympics, the days of truly amateur athletes, an era long before America's Dream Team. The hour program, making its debut at 10:15 p.m. today, reaches a greatness that many longer, bigger programs strive for without success.

By mixing old color home movies and the reminiscences of veteran Olympians, "Spirit of the Games" offers a glorious, invigorating view of the past.

Most essentially, the program celebrates an outlook that's sadly out of fashion but succinctly explained in the Olympic Creed: "The most important thing . . . is not to win but to take part."

Sadly, the message keeps getting lost. Adolf Hitler left his stamp on the Games by introducing spectacle in the 1936 Berlin Games. The Olympic extravaganza continues to grow. The Soviets intensified the East-West conflict by trying to make ideological points through the Games starting in 1952.

"They started counting and tallying up the scores, how many medals the Russians won, how many medals the Americans won to see who won the Olympics," complains Mae Faggs, an Olympian in '48, '52 and '56. "There is no such thing as who won the Olympics!"

"Spirit of the Games" is clear-headed, specific nostalgia, not the woozy view that everything in the past was better.

Olympic judging was unreliable, inexact. The Olympic equipment was antiquated (pole vaulters especially risked injury). Athletes had to support themselves, work several jobs, borrow money and train in their spare time.

"I dreamed about running in the Olympic Games, but I didn't think I could do it," says sprinter Bobby Joe Morrow. "I used to drive a tractor a lot on the farm and a jack rabbit would jump up, and I used to jump off and catch the jack rabbit. That's how I trained for the Olympics."

They might have lacked in money and equipment, but the earlier athletes had a camaraderie and a humanity no longer evident in the hyped Olympics of recent years.

"I didn't even think about making any money in sports," says pole vaulter Bob Richards. "You did it purely for the love of sports."

Decathlete Bob Mathias notes that he barely knew what the Olympics were when he went off to compete in 1948. Diver Sammy Lee recalls the memory of his triumph after waiting 16 years for his chance. Sprinter Harrison Dillard recalls the thrill at age 13 of seeing Olympic legend Jesse Owens.

This poignant documentary comes from the producers of "When It Was a Game," two beloved baseball documentaries from HBO. Some of the loveliest moments in the Olympic program belong to actors Richard Kiley, Christopher Plummer and Betty Buckley, who speak poetry and athletes' words.

"Spirit of the Games" sets a high standard for all the Olympic programming to follow.

-- "Greatest Moments of the Olympiad" - a syndicated special to air June 29 - tells the stories of swimmer Mark Spitz, discuss thrower Al Oerter and many others. But it seems mainly a paean to Olympic filmmaker Bud Greenspan and the chance to sell an eight-volume video set.

-- "America's Greatest" - there's that word again - "Olympians" will come from TBS on June 30. It tells the stories of Mary Lou Retton and Dr. Benjamin Spock (a member of the 1924 eight-oar crew) as well as several athletes in the HBO documentary (pole vaulter Richards and swimmer Lee).

-- Then there's NBC, which will offer 170 hours of the Atlanta Games from July 19 to Aug. 4. It will be fascinating to see how far the coverage comes close to the ideals of Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern-day Olympics:

"I have not worked to give you back the Games to have you make a spectacle of them, nor for them to be exploited by businessmen or politicians. After all, the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part. Just as the most important thing in life is not the triumphs, but the struggle."