Surprisingly, humanity wins over scandal in Olympics ads

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Speaking for ourselves, the 2000 Olympic Games hold no real allure for us.

It's hard to fixate on the 400-meter relay or the javelin knowing the real suspense was in the Who Will Send the Tongo Republic Delegate's Nephew to College event, and the 10 Cities Flying First Class Site Selection Decathlon.

As if the Olympics hadn't been tainted enough by terrorism, Cold War politics, boycotts, de-amateurization, blood doping, vulgar Ueberrothian commercialization, Tonya Harding, Charles Barkley and the Chinese All-Testosterone Women's Diving Team, along come the latter-day sinners of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee to remind us what the Games are all about:

Going for the gold . . . deposited, presumably, in a numbered account somewhere in Zurich.

Exalted and revered for the beauty, the drama, the purity of sport, the Olympics have devolved into just another corrupt pro league, populated by money-grubbers, sponsored by corporate parasites and governed by a sleazy cabinet of influence-peddling apparatchiks. All of this is presided over by His Exalted Highness and Czar for Life Juan Antonio Samaranch, who leads the Olympic Movement approximately the way Jerry Lewis leads the fight against muscular dystrophy.

That is, he behaves as if, by virtue of his tenure, he owns it.

Which is why the IOC has to hire an advertising agency for image repair. So here comes TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., to do for the Olympics industry what it did for Drexel Burnham Lambert and Mike Milken-namely, make a malignant, avaricious force look like the Community Chest.

And dang if they don't.

The best of six spots shows footage of bantam Bulgarian power lifter Yoto Yotov hoisting a gigantic barbell in 1992. Upon holding the weight aloft for the required interval, he drops it and starts jumping ecstatically up and down, falling eventually to his knees in triumph. The voice-over (taking a sly shot at a past Nike Olympics-ambush spot) narrates:

"Someone once said, `You don't win the silver; you lose the gold.' Obviously, they never won the silver."


Clearly, Mr. Yotov was no Carl Lewis prima donna. He was a little guy who reached his maximum potential before the whole world and gloried in the experience.

It's a very charming, very poignant spot that can't help but move and inspire you, because-oh, yeah-for all their scandals and ugly compromises, the Olympics are moving and inspiring. Also exciting, beautiful, vivid, often dramatic and sometimes breathtaking.

It's no wonder that, quadrennially, the world suspends its disbelief and swoons under the spell of Olympic euphoria. We buy into the silly mythology that politics are set aside, that competition trumps commerce, that sportsmanship reigns-not because we believe it but because we wish to believe it. It is a spectacle so grand, and so rich with majestic moments, we are prepared to forgive it nearly everything.

Thus does TBWA succeed so well, because this wonderful footage corroborates the myth. It validates our optimism. It permits us, against a large body of evidence, to feel good.

In one spot, we see sprinter Derek Redmond pulling up lame with a hamstring injury. After crumpling to the track, he rights himself and limps to the finish.

"Strength is measured in pounds," the voice-over says. "Speed is measured in seconds. Courage? You can't measure courage."

Wow. Nicely put. And, to see this moment replayed, you can't not have a lump in your throat.

These commercials are very handsomely produced, considering they are all from videotape. The Olympics, somehow, does not have an archive with NFL Films-like production values. No matter. We see the Games on TV; maybe it's best that we remember them in the same idiom.

The only annoyance is the tagline, "CELEBRATE HUMANITY," which, under the protocol of the E-mail Era, seems like SHOUTING.

This is a quibble. Like everyone else, we are dying to forget the latest sordid circumstances and celebrate humanity along with everyone else. Just wondering, though.

What will it cost us?

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