The gold rush at the Beijing Olympics has begun. “The most important thing in the Olympics is not to win but to take part,” its founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin said. However, for the next 17 days, the media will be tabulating the number of gold medals won by each country. And MNCs throughout the world will be identifying individual champions who can endorse their products. “You don’t win silver, you lose gold,” a Nike billboard said at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Now some 12 years later, China sees this as a golden opportunity to cash in on the advantage of competing at home to overtake the US as the country to win the maximum number of gold medals at the Beijing Olympics.
Forgotten in the race for medals is the fact that the Olympics is also about sportsmanship, as envisioned by Coubertin. When Berlin hosted the 1936 Olympics, Hitler wanted to use the event to promote the myth of Aryan superiority over other races. However, the Afro-American Jesse Owens punctured that myth by winning four gold medals in the 100- and 200-metre sprints, the 4x100-m relay and the long jump, a feat equalled only 48 years later by Carl Lewis. Owens was on the verge of being disqualified in the long jump when he fouled his first two attempts.
It was then that his German rival Luz Long suggested that Owens make a mark several inches before the take-off board and jump from there. When Owens won the gold, the first to congratulate him was the blue-eyed, blond Long, who looked like a model Nazi but wasn’t. As Owens would himself acknowledge, “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler. You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy, watching us embrace. The sad part of the story is I never saw Long again. He was killed in World War Two.” Long lost gold but won the respect of one of the greatest Olympic champions