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Countering Competition's Dark Side

Three forms of competition are the stellar events of the year so far. But only one of them is a source of unadulterated pleasure.

Competition is an unceasing and usually unrelenting fact of life - not only human life but that of all the flora and fauna. Indeed, the most primitive form of competition is found in ecology; species sharing the same territory compete for its food and other necessities. The strong prosper, the weak are shouldered aside, and Darwin's theory marches on.

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In human affairs, competition takes many forms. The three most dramatic - war, politics, and sport - are on prominent display this year.

In Bosnia, despite a rickety cease-fire, the conflict sputters on in that apocalyptic tension that Leon Trotsky called "neither war nor peace." The Chechen war has resumed in Russia, as have the gruesome tactics practiced by both sides.

This year will be remembered as a year of important elections. In Russia the national swing away from the communist past was confirmed; in Israel a national conservatism had its tentative beginnings. In the United States, the November election - especially in congressional races - will tell whether the 1994 surge to the Republican right was a manifestation of disgust with the status quo or the symbol of a new American conservatism that will dictate our public affairs for the rest of the century.

Less portentously, this is also the year of the summer Olympics. In the US alone, 200 million people are expected to watch the games, most of them on television, some in the steaming heat of Atlanta. You can't get that kind of an audience for a war or an election. Sport in general and the Olympics in particular are the most pristine of our major forms of competition. The competitors want nothing more than victory; there are no cash prizes, no territorial reward for winning, no great office from which to command or debate about the affairs of the nation.

This is why the Olympics are so gratifying - even to those of us who are not habitual sports fans. We have an uncluttered view of Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson, and other great athletes. They are indisputable heroes in an age made desperate for them by the degradations of war and the tiresome drone of the inconsequential that makes up so much of political campaigns.

Although the history of the Olympics is a combination of myth and fact, two things are certain. The original games began in Greece, probably around 776 BC. They were held every four years and were finally stopped at the end of the fourth century BC - because professionalism had crept in. Even at their origin, the intention of the Olympics was pristine. They resumed in Athens in 1896.

Politics is necessary competition - instructive when practiced at its best, a rat's nest of chicanery at its worst. War is competition in violence and darkness. The games are competition at its most pleasurable. That's why even those indifferent to sport in general thrill at the Olympic games.

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*Rod MacLeish is Monitor Radio's Washington editor.

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