In a few months, our nation's leaders will look for victory, no matter how slim the margin, in an intense competition that comes around only once every four years.
No, not the presidential election. The summer Olympics.
I have always loved the Olympics, both summer and winter. I used to imagine what it would be like to compete in the Olympics, but recently I have had to switch to a more attainable goal< covering them from the sidelines.
I decided I wanted to be a sports journalist in 2001, and after that I watched enviously as Melissa Stark, a sports journalist who graduated from my high school 15 years before I did, covered the 2004 summer and 2006 winter Olympics in Athens, Greece and Turin, Italy.
I looked forward to the day when I too could cover the Olympics. Unfortunately it's not exactly in The Collegian's budget to send me to Beijing, China for two weeks this summer.
But I refused to let that stop me, and decided I would dedicate my last column of the semester to the 2008 Olympics to get you all thinking about them before we go on summer break.
I initially thought I would write about how much I admire the athletes or the glory their medals bring to their countries, but when I read Amy Shipley's article in the Washington Post last weekend, I realized that these aren't completely accurate statements anymore.
The headline of the front-page story was "Mettle, Not Medals, Is Goal of U.S. Team." Shipley wrote about the changes U.S. Olympic Committee officials had made since the 2004 summer Olympics. For that year's Olympics, they set a goal of 100 U.S. medals, which they reached, but since then, the discovery of athletes' steroid use has tarnished the reputation those medals should have earned.
For this summer's games, the goal is to restore a respectable image to U.S. athletes by requiring them to attend two-day sessions dictating standards for their behavior. Some athletes will also submit to various tests before the games to prove that they are not using any performance-enhancing drugs. They will also wear new uniforms at the games to complete the new pristine image the USOC hopes to effect.
The article lists the three priorities that Steve Roush, the U.S. Olympic Committee's chief of sports performance, has for this year's games: a drug-free team, good behavior and athletic performance.
He puts performance last "because if you fail in any of the first two, I don't think anyone cares what you did in number three."
There are still financial incentives for the athletes to win, but there has been a definite shift in the USOC's attitude about what defines Olympic success.
I find it incredibly depressing that the Olympic committee has to focus more on making athletes improve their behavior instead of encouraging them to win medals. After the steroid scandals of the last decade, it's too much to ask athletes to use the Olympics to better their country's reputation; instead, committee officials just ask them not to further ruin it.
The impressive accomplishments of athletes across a variety of sports have been tainted by suspicion or proof of steroid use. Barry Bonds' alleged steroid use might keep him from being voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the December release of the Mitchell Report damaged the reputation of dozens of other major league baseball players.
Floyd Landis, who won the 2006 Tour de France, failed a drug test near the end of the race. He was forced to give up his title and was banned from racing for two years.
Marion Jones, a runner who won many Olympic medals for the United States, forfeited the five she won during the 2000 Olympic games because of her steroid use. Jones is currently in federal prison for committing perjury during a hearing about her steroid use.
These are just a few of the hundreds of athletes whose reputations have been damaged by rumors of drug use in recent years. Even Olympic athletes have been caught using drugs, which to me is a sign of how widespread drug use has become.
In my mind, the Olympics are a chance for the world's athletes to show off their greatest accomplishments as they compete against one another, but those accomplishments lose meaning if the athletes need drugs to attain them. The steroid problem is significant, but there are larger issues about athletes' behaviors that the USOC is addressing as well.
Maybe it's naive of me, but when I think of Olympic athletes, I don't think of individually minded professional athletes using performance-enhancing drugs to further their own careers. Instead, I think of amateur athletes who compete because they love their sport. I can think of no better example than the 1980 U.S. Olympic ice hockey team.
Though I was not alive to actually watch them compete in the 1980 winter Olympic Games, I do own "Miracle" and have watched not only the movie, but every behind-the-scenes interview with the athletes themselves. It's not perfect, but hey, I can't change when I was born.
When I read the Post article, I thought of that movie because of what Kurt Russell, as Herb Brooks, says about dream teams at the end of the film: "I always found that term ironic because now that we have dream teams, we seldom ever get to dream."
It's a point made throughout the movie, and it's one that I've observed in my life as well. Teams that focus on individual talent are more susceptible to attitude problems, and that opens up possibilities for greater problems, such as steroid abuse.
One of the biggest cliches in sports is, "there's no 'I' in team," but it seems that many athletes today are losing sight of that goal.
In "Miracle," Brooks repeatedly asks his team who they play for, and one of the greatest moments in the movie is when Mike Eruzione realizes that the correct answer is, "The United States of America."
Many U.S. athletes have strayed from this ideal, focusing more on themselves than their country during the past few Olympic games. The 2004 U.S. Olympic men's basketball team was incredibly talented, but failed to repeat as gold medalists because the players could not work together as a team.
I'm glad that the USOC is enforcing stricter rules to remind athletes that they are representing their country and must live up to certain standards for behavior. There have been far too many Olympic athletes whose medals have been taken away because of steroid use, or whose attitudes have given the rest of the world a bad impression of the United States.
I'd love for the United States to win another 100 medals, but for now, I have to agree with the USOC in hoping that U.S. athletes will pass their drug tests and keep the medals they win this year.