It's The Olympic Spirit That Still Moves Them

THE FIRST RECORDED Olympic chant of the modern era, fittingly, was ""Nike! Nike!,'' which is the Greek word for ""victory.'' The first man to hear it was James Connolly, an American hop-step-and-jumper, who dropped out of Harvard to compete in the 1896 Games. Arriving in Athens the night before the start of the Games (having, according to Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, miscalculated the gap between the American and Greek calendars), Connolly entered the triple jump on the first day and won, easily, with a jump of just under 45 feet. The first-place medal that year was silver, not gold, but it came accompanied by a certificate and an olive branch. Connolly, who went on to become a well-known war correspondent and novelist, apparently never regretted choosing Olympic immortality over a degree from Harvard.

There were only around 300 athletes altogether at that first modern Olympiad -- drawn from a world population of a little more than a billion and a half, or less than half the number expected to watch the opening ceremonies in Atlanta. The competitors represented a total of 13 countries, although most of them were, as it happened, Greek. In photographs, their faces beam with Olympian idealism and spirit, their handlebar mustaches bristle with pride, while their bodies . . . well, it's hard to tell. Most of them posed in woolen suits with neckties and vests, but it's fair to say that in the days before athletes expected to go on to careers as actors or advertising icons, they didn't have to worry much about muscle definition.

They trained as hard as they needed to win, but not many of them could afford to spend their whole lives in the gym; after all, they were all amateurs. The biographies of marathon winners in the first few Olympiads make up a virtual encyclopedia of Industrial Age occupations: deliveryman, foundry worker, railroad brakeman, department-store clerk. The very first marathon winner, in 1896, was a Greek shepherd named Spiridon Louis, who promptly retired from sports and went back to his village. A grateful nation showered him with gifts -- shaves for the rest of his life from an Athenian barber, clothing, a year's worth of restaurant meals. So much for amateurism.

Louis actually made one more Olympic appearance, 40 years later in Berlin, where the Germans trotted the elderly peasant out to present a sprig of olive to Adolf Hitler. The 1936 Games, which lent considerable, if inadvertent, respectability to Fascism, may have been the low point of the modern Olympics. But, in compensation, they also went a long way toward disproving Nazi theories of racial superiority, when the black American sprinter Jesse Owens won four gold medals. (As it happened, it would be another 11 years before blacks were allowed to play major-league baseball in America.)

The Olympics is still the only venue in which Finland -- or, more accurately, Finns -- competes on an equal footing with Russia. No wonder the Games inspire such passion! With sufficient detachment, one can see that South Korea's 1992 gold medal in women's team handball doesn't logically imply any special virtue on the part of the average citizen of that nation of 44 million. But the Olympics are a bright flag flaunted in the face of logic, a trumpet flourish drowning out the chilling inner voice that says, Yeah, just what Scottie Pippen needed, another championship. Any American who pretends not to care whether his country has the best synchronized swimmers, hurdlers and dressage riders in the world probably is the sort who thought ""Independence Day'' gave short shrift to the case for the aliens.

And even someone like that can appreciate, apart from any notion of national pride, how the Olympics has bequeathed the world thrilling examples of courage (sprinter Gail Devers battling an almost fatal thyroid condition; wrestler Jeff Blatnick overcoming Hodgkin's disease), of determination and astonishing physical grace. And should the Games last another 100 years, in Lagos, Surabaya or Tashkent, there will always be heroes to cheer, defeats to shake off, and a little girl who will tumble the length of a balance beam (biting her lip, ponytail flying, parents in the stands blinking back tears) and in one perfect instant achieve the kind of transcendent greatness that will live forever in the sports pages of Valhalla.

Nike! Nike! Let the Games begin!