Questions of global importance linger at the 28th Olympiad in Athens, Greece.  Does the near-constant eyesore of empty seats hint at simple poor marketing or a blatant lack of appreciation for sport?  Will the spirit of teamwork and cooperation reign or will politics and the threat of a terrorist attack surface in the opening paragraphs of future history texts?  Will sport of all sorts be able to triumph over doping and steroid scandals that threaten to turn the competition into one of pharmacy instead of athletics?


Half a world away in the states of Pennsylvania and Oregon a competition of a different kind is taking place.  The World Series of Little League Baseball and Softball is played by 11-year-olds and a lions share of the games is televised live by ESPN.  Pressing questions emerge on the 60-foot diamond, too.  What are the favorite food, movie and book of the starting shortstop?  (ESPN flashes these vital stats on the screen.)  Are there paparazzi to catch the players in their bathing suits at the hotel swimming pool?  And if so, what water toys will they bring?


Somewhere else on the planet nobody knows where, since no TV cameras, no catchy theme music, and not even volunteer umpires can be found a young man or woman is stretching on the porch.  She wonders what route to take and if that annoying mutt in the alley will ever stop barking.


Interest in professional sports is waning.  In Greece, home to the Olympics and the European Championship football trophy, national pride had Greeks whipped into a frenzy.  Unfortunately, doping scandals implicating track and weightlifting heroes dampened their spirit and international standing.  The United States, despite perpetual success in the sporting arena, has suffered a setback of its own.  As of this writing, the national basketball team has lost twice in seven days, first to the U.S-owned territory of Puerto Rico and then to Lithuania, a nation with half the population of New York City.


Many Americans are glad to see the team lose, feeling it is filled with egotistical professionals who care more about their multimillion-dollar contracts than representing their country.  I, for one, am envious of the joy tiny nations must feel when toppling a world superpower, and embarrassed at my own nations performance.  My lament is shared by many: Why send professionals if such humiliation will be the result?  Is a return to amateurs in the works and would it be good for sports?


However, my wish for a return to amateur competition in the Olympics isnt just based on the fate of one team.  As a diehard sports fan, I know that sport itself is in grave danger, threatening to collapse under the weight of hefty paychecks, drug baggies, and too many sport-specific scandals to scrutinize.


Amateur sportsmen and women, together with those ordinary folks who normally would not put the modifier sports before their gender, represent the true future of the institution.  They light the flame in each of us, inspiring cooperative competition and the betterment of humankind.


At the risk of sounding sappy, amateur competition trumps the professional variety with ease.  Of course, there are exceptions the brute who whacks and hacks away in your Sunday league or the pro who gives his salary and time to charity.


Tell these human beings that they do not deserve gold medals, and they will look to the sky and report it is still blue.  Tell me they do not deserve gold medals, and you will have walked into an argument:


A high school womens hockey player who doesnt care that the only fans in the stands are relatives.  She plays to the best of her ability not because her sole goal is to win, but simply because she can.

  A Division III college basketball player on a team at the bottom of the conference.  He knows that talent is in part God-given, so he doesnt judge how well the team performs by the scoreline.  The fans are appreciative, and like on almost any college campus, rabid.

  A 40-and-over softball player who plays twice a week and has trouble bending over.  He plays not for the dinner at the end of the season everyone gets that but for the challenge of proving hes still got game.

A five-year old boy pleading, One more pitch! to his dad, and when he hits it foul, That doesnt count!  One more!  He doesnt know what a steroid is yet he doesnt know whose face is on a five-dollar bill yet.  Hes uncorrupted. Fairness, respect for the game and fans, high effort and determination are all qualities the above athletes possess.  Others possess them too such as the runner who refuses to take steroids, adhering to her quest to better herself, rather than a quest to beat an unnamed, cheating opponent or the tennis player who gives 100% on the blue Greek tennis court, his grunts echoing off the empty seats.  Another example is the badminton player who knows nothing of jokes against her sport because she is too busy concentrating. 


These are the athletes who should receive the medals.


Beginning in 1896, the modern Olympics featured amateurs, but over the decades, professionals began to creep into the Games.  The CCCP emblazoned on bright red hockey jerseys intimidated any opposition not simply because of the Soviets superior strength and speed, but because opponents knew they were soldiers of the Red Army being paid only to play hockey.


In one of the greatest Olympic moments of all time, a band of America college kids defeated the unbeatable Soviets in 1980 in Lake Placid.  Twelve years later, we sent the first Dream Team of NBA megastars with the intent of restoring American pride by dominating smaller nations that kept their sensibilities.  We became our enemy.


Today, American fans scream for the flashiest of dunks from LeBron James or Vince Carter, their Nike sneakers whizzing by.  Instead of the Greek God of Victory, the brand represents the culture of entertainment and excitement that has infiltrated sport at the cost of humility and respect. 


This is a dangerous trend.  One should love a sport as they love a boyfriend or girlfriend, not as they love a Hollywood action flick or porno mag.


Sport is performed not as an act, but as an expression of pride.  It is not in the name of adoring autographs seekers, but in the name of sport itself.  It is not for fame, but for the betterment of man and woman.


We all must stand tall and be proud.  We must reject corporations feeding us heroes, and embrace the everyday heroes we discover ourselves. 


The legendary college coach Anson Dorrance wrote, The vision of a champion is someone who is bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion when no one else is watching.  Even if you dont know the difference between a bat and a birdie, think of what you can do when no one is watching.  At least once in your life, exhaust yourself in the name of all those before you who have, and expend your karma on others who do the same.  Even if you dont receive a check, you will be repaid.


-Brian Hokanson can juggle a football pretty well but after 90 minutes is dying for a beer or three.  Yes, he's from the United States, but he's sorry Tim Howard had to go to Manchester U.  His non-alcoholic blog is at http://theyetimn.blogspot.com.