There have been few moments in my life as memorable as competing in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. The chance to represent my country was a distinct honor, as was being part of the community of the Olympics – an event with the rare power to unite the world in the common spirit of competition and athletic excellence.
The attention, hopes and energies of the global community uniquely fall into sync during the 17 days every two years when the best athletes in the world gather to compete. It’s what makes the Olympic Games so special to so many.
As the 2016 Summer Games unfold in Rio de Janeiro, I fear the focus has been skewed too heavily on challenges facing the Games, rather than on what they can accomplish. Scandals, real and hyped, dominate what we’re hearing about the Olympics, sensationalized stories fueled by the 24-hour news cycle, social media, and even geopolitics: the Zika virus, construction delays, athlete doping and bans. The shine of the Games is being lost.
It’s important and natural to discuss and debate how the Games are run, to investigate the successes and stumbles leading up to the opening ceremony, and the controversies that might follow. But a singular fixation on potential shortfalls and problems ignores what the modern Olympics is able to accomplish. The Games can suspend the troubles of the world, so people everywhere can come together, however briefly, to root for the underdog, the veteran athlete and their home team.
The athletes and their efforts on the track, at the pool and in the arena should come first. They should be what we are discussing and debating. Our expectations and our cheers for their efforts create a powerful and important force, in the stadiums and at home around the television. The roar of the crowd at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the 1984 Olympic venue for track and field, is a sound, a feeling, I will never forget.
As spectators and fans, we shouldn’t be tearing down host countries but raising them up. The awesome task of hosting the Games is a true national investment in treasure, creativity and ambition.
Brazil’s critics overlook that the Rio Games will be historic by several measures – the first Olympic Games in South America, the first time golfers will compete for Olympic medals in more than 100 years, and the first to see professional boxers in an Olympic ring. The naysayers aren’t spotlighting Brazil’s much-anticipated chance to redeem itself in soccer, or China’s record-setting opportunity in diving, or whether Jamaican Usain Bolt will be unbeatable – again – on the track.
The attacks are not new and aren’t limited to Rio. Japan is already facing domestic criticism and media scrutiny as Tokyo prepares to host the 2020 Summer Games.
But athletes and fans have reason to be hopeful about the future of the Games, especially when you consider the Olympic histories of Tokyo and of Los Angeles, which is bidding for the 2024 Games.
Tokyo in 1964 became the first city in Asia to host the Games. The event represented Japan’s return to the world stage as a peaceful and prospering country following World War II. And, in spite of ambitious Olympic infrastructure development in the form of highways and the introduction of Japan’s now-famous bullet trains, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics are also considered to have been the most economical.
LA has a unique Olympic heritage. It hosted a successful Summer Games in 1932 despite the Great Depression, and again in 1984. In ‘84, the city relied on private funding, the revenue from TV and other licenses and sponsorships, and the ingenious use of existing venues. The Games were wildly popular and financially sound.
As in Tokyo, LA’s bet paid off in the long run. Even today, both Angelenos and American Olympic hopefuls continue to benefit from the surplus funds generated by the 1984 Los Angeles Games. That positive experience from 32 years ago represents a big part of what has made Los Angeles a finalist for 2024, and why its bid – again based on private funding and existing venues – enjoys 88 percent public support from Angelenos.
The potential for success in Rio, and for every Olympics, is being overtaken by Games-bashing. In hosting the Olympics, as in running track, there is always room for improvement. If the 2016 Games end as I hope they will – with the declaration, “The best Games ever,” it will be because they made things better by bringing the world together.
That is the enduring power of the Olympics.
Carl Lewis won 10 Olympic track and field medals from 1984 to 1996, including 9 gold medals. In 1999, Lewis was voted “Sportsman of the Century” by the International Olympic Committee and named “Olympian of the Century” by Sports Illustrated. He is a member of the Los Angeles 2024 Olympic Bid Committee and wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.