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It’s that time of leap year again and in most papers the Olympic build-up stories have begun. These mainly comprise series, in about 34 parts, headed “Britain’s Medal Hopes”.

The ideal candidate is an attractive girl with a vague chance of a bronze in an obscure event, obliged to train in picturesque but hopeless surroundings owing to lack of funding. Other sports reporters traditionally clip these pieces, unread, and file them. (In the unlikely event of the subject actually winning a medal, and the piece being required as background, the file will invariably be stuck in a hotel bedroom miles away.) Ordinary readers, I suspect, don’t read them much either.

In the past few weeks, other stories have begun appearing as the Athens Olympics approaches. The tone has been far more upbeat than it was in early summer. The Greeks are getting their act together, and the last lick of paint must just be dry in time for the opening ceremony. In keeping with showbiz and Olympic tradition, it might be all right on the night after all.

But two other news items in the last couple of weeks have seemed altogether more telling. Firstly, tourism to Greece this year has nosedived: instead of increasing for the Games, the total could be down 8 per cent. Bad publicity about the shambolic state of Athens, and fears of strikes, profiteering and terrorism are cited among the reasons.

The second item came from Sydney, which in 2000 staged what are universally accepted as the most successful Olympics since Zeus stepped down as chairman of the organising committee. Many of the venues – jam-packed and much-praised for a fortnight four years ago – are now lying unused, and haemorrhaging money, costing New South Wales taxpayers £18m a year. The losses are expected to continue for the next decade. The shooting centre, for instance, gets an average of 15 visitors a day and costs taxpayers 10 times what it earns in revenue. If even Sydney cannot find a useful afterlife for its facilities, it makes you wonder who ever could. Athens ought to mark some kind of turning point in Olympic history, and a new realism about the purpose of the Games. It seems unlikely.

Spiritually if not arithmetically, this marks the end of the first century of the modern Olympics. It was expected, not least in Greece, that Athens would be awarded them in 1996 to mark the exact centenary. Instead, the International Olympic Committee were seduced by American self-confidence and cash and awarded the Games to Atlanta, who made a hash of them. A year after that, in a fit of guilty conscience, the IOC handed Athens the right to stage 2004.

If there were anyone left alive who remembered the glorified school sports day (245 competitors, all male) that constituted the 1896 Games, they would of course find the 2004 version unrecognisable. The numbers of entrants, countries and events have all doubled even since the Munich Games of 1972.

That marked the end of Olympic innocence, with the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. It also marked the end of the faux-innocence epitomised by Avery Brundage, the American president of the IOC who was the last man to pretend all the competitors were amateur. The next three Games were all afflicted by boycotts – by Africans in Montreal 1976, by the US and their allies in Moscow 1980 and, tit-for-tat, by the Soviet bloc at Los Angeles in 1984.

Americans had only rarely been told by their television commentators that foreigners even took part in the Olympics, so they ignored the absentees, gratefully accepted the extra medals and huge amounts of corporate sponsorship. The Games turned a nice profit and contributed to the sense of sunny well-being that ensured Ronald Reagan’s re-election. Since then, boycotts have been out of fashion, and coining it has been in. Three of the last four Games – Seoul, Barcelona and Sydney – have been regarded as great successes. The exception was Atlanta, where the commercial exploitation was over-crass and the organisation pathetic.

Yet throughout this mostly glorious phase of the Games’ history, it is quite hard to remember the, um, sport. The most compelling Olympic images of the last 20 years have been part of the theatre instead: the Disneyfication at Los Angeles; the diving board that had Barcelona as a backdrop; Muhammad Ali lighting the Atlanta flame; the opening of the envelope to reveal Sydney as the 2000 hosts…and you would hardly call Ben Johnson waving his finger as he won the Seoul 100m (before the drugs test that unhorsed him) part of the sport either.

It is no accident that, consistently, the highest television ratings are for the ceremonies. Most of the actual competition is tedious: few people follow even athletics or swimming, the two flagship Olympic sports, from one Games to the next. It is only possible to get excited if there is an attractive clash of personalities (which is rare since most of the competitors are known in advance only to experts) or a patriotic interest that can be whipped up by the media. Almost all the major sports are tainted by the stench of the pharmacy. Much of the minor stuff, from archery to the impenetrable wrestling, is close to unwatchable.

Increasingly, nowadays, the excitement is generated by the thing itself. Getting the Olympics has become a major concern of national governments, dreaming of two weeks as the centre at the universe, and undaunted by Sydney’s rotting hulks. The Chinese government saw staging the Games as its right as a major global power, and Beijing has duly been awarded 2008.

The other four permanent members of the UN Security Council are all contending for 2012, with Paris the favourite over London, New York and Moscow (and also Madrid), partly because it takes these matters of La Gloire even more seriously than its rivals. Yet in the end, it is not about great-power politics, it is a quadrennial wallow in rhythmic gymnastics and synchronised swimming. To many European television watchers, this may seem like an anti-climax after the football. South Asia and South America (regions that win few medals) also find it hard to get excited. The US will be only briefly diverted from its customary sporting concerns.

But something that does make the Olympics special: except for the tennis players, and some of the footballers, baseball and basketball players, this really is the summit of most athletes’ ambitions. Most of the big-name footballers at Euro 2004 had palpably interrupted their holidays from the day job as club players, and it showed. Many Olympians still are obscure sportsmen who have been training in picturesque but hopeless surroundings for the right to be in Athens.

They come now from everywhere, including (as we will regularly be reminded to the delight of the Bush re-election campaign) Iraq and Afghanistan, whose competitors will be able to try their hardest without having to endure torture by Uday Hussain or the whims of the Taliban. They come from the vast expanse of Russia and from Pacific microdots. They come from Ethiopia, like the great distance runner Haile Gebrselassie, and from Equatorial Guinea, like the charmingly incompetent Sydney swimmer Eric the Eel.

The Games are special to nearly all those who participate. To most of them, it really is not the winning that matters, because for the vast majority that is unattainable, but the taking part. While that endures, it is not possible to be wholly cynical about the Olympic Games.

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