The 2016 Olympics are under way in Rio De Janeiro Brazil and so far the performances have been entertaining. I am reminded so much of what I remember about the Olympics from when I was a child and how much has changed, some for the better, some for the worse, over the years. The very first Olympian I remember was Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner in 1976 who became a phenomenon after winning the decathlon. Much was made of the fact that he lived as a pauper during the previous four years he spent training for the grueling competition. The money that many track athletes make now on endorsements and appearance fees provide a good living while, in the days of strict amateurism, atheltes worked full time jobs and spent whatever free time they had training instead of watching TV and playing Candy Crush. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Depends on who you ask. If you enjoy the fact that the performances continue to get better and better and that we truly get too see the world’s best athletes, regardless of income, go at it, it’s a good thing. If you feel that commercialism has killed the spirit of competition for the love of sport itself and that today’s Olympic athletes simply aren’t in it for the right reasons, it’s not so good. Personally I’ve wavered between both schools of thought but choose to believe that the Olympic Games are still the world’s greatest sporting event. My biggest memories are as follows:
The bad and the ugly- The U.S. boycott of the games. President Jimmy Carter, a man I have great respect for, had the U.S. boycott the Summer Games in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Many American allies boycotted as well. Great Britain notably decried that actions of the USSR but left the decision to boycott up to the athletes. While the USSR’s actions were deplorable, it was wrong to use athletes as political pawns. I simply do not believe in mixing sports with politics. Some may cite Tommie Smith and Jon Carlos’ black power salute in Mexico City, which I admire them for, as an example of mixing sports and politics but that was a conscious decision made by the athletes themselves and not by their government and they paid a heavy price for it. The boycott of the games resulted in the dreams of many athletes being crushed and while some did participate in future Olympic competitions, they simply weren’t the same.
1984 Los Angeles:
The Bad And The ugly- The USSR boycott of the games. The Soviet Union, along with most of their Eastern Bloc allies, announced shortly before the games that they would boycott due to security and safety concerns. Everybody knows, however, that it was simply in retaliation for the U.S. boycotting their Olympics four years prior. Just like before, the athletes were the ones hurt by their actions.
Mary Decker (later Slaney) and Zola Budd, both expected to contend for the gold medal, collided in the women’s 3000 meter run, and it was a disaster. The image of sobbing Decker’s face twisted in agony and anger still burns in my mind. Budd tried to continue amid a chorus of boos but the hostility plus the personal guilt were too much to bear and she faded to seventh place. The event was won by Romania’s Maricica Puica.
Rick Carey winning the men’s 200 meter backstroke and instead of being happy was upset that he didn’t break his own world record and his frustration showed on the victory stand. He did apologize and tried to look happy after winning the 100 meter backstroke which also fell short of the world record. Carey really didn’t own anybody anything but his honest feelings but, damn man, be happy that you got the gold medal, record or no record!
The good- Carl Lewis won four gold medals in track and field, the first American male to do so since Jesse Owens did so in the 1936 Berlin Games. Lewis duplicated Owens’ wins in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the long jump and 4 x 100 meter relay.
Valerie Brisco Hooks becoming the first American female to win three gold medals in track since Wilma Rudolph in Rome in the 19630 Olympics. Brisco-Hooks won the 200 meters, the 400 meters and was on the winning 4 x 400 meter relay team. After winning the 400 in American record time her teammate Chandra Cheeseborough, who finished second made a statement that would have made Yogi Berra proud, “Losing the American record is kind of bad but I’m glad I lost it to an American.” Like who else would you lose the American record to?
The Bad And The Ugly- Ben Johnson testing positive for steroids. One minute you’re the fastest man who ever lived, the next you’re a cheater, a disgrace to your sport and the nation you represent and the poster child for a problem that would prove over the next two decades to be terribly widespread. Johnson won the 100 meter dash in world record time, beating his hated rival Carl Lewis decisively. He already made an ass of himself by taunting Lewis and didn’t seem to the least bit happy about simply winning the event. Days later it was revealed that he tested positive for steroids, had his gold medal stripped and was sent home. Lewis was declared the winner with Britain’s Linford Christie moved up to second place and American Calvin Smith named third place finisher. Given the fact, as we would learn years later, that Smith and Brazil’s Robson DaSilva were the only two finalists who had never failed a drug test, perhaps they’re the only two who should have been awarded anything.
Roy Jones Jr. being cheated out of the gold medal in the 119 lb weight division in boxing. Although he put a beating on his opponent, Park Si-Hun, for three rounds, the judges awarded the gold medal to Park. Park himself apologized to Jones and the referee said he couldn’t believe it. The judges were all suspended after a subsequent investigation and Jones went on to have a distinguished professional career.
The good- No boycotts! This would be the boycott free Olympics since 1972 (a series of black African nation boycotted the 1976 Montreal Olympics in protest of New Zealand’s participation after a rugby team toured South Africa) therefore no one could question the level of competition and it would be politics free. This would be the last year the USSR competed as a team as the Soviet Union later broke up. For the next two Olympics, atheltes from the former Soviet Union competed as the Unified Team.
Florence Griffith Joyner’s scoring a phenomenal triple. “Flo Jo” won the women’s 100 and 200 meters in world record times and ran a leg on the 4 x 100 meter relay team to win three gold medals and making her one of the world’s top female athletes. She won silver in the 200 during the 1984 Los Angeles games but no one saw her performances in 1988 coming, except maybe her coach Bob Kersee and husband Al Joyner.
Jackie Joyner Kersee’s heptathlon victory. Joyner-Kersee was the favorite to win the tough seven event competition in 1984 but a hamstring injury caused her to fall short in her best event, the long jump, and she lost by five points to Australian Glynis Nunn. there would be no close calls in 1988 as she set a world record point total.
The Bad And The Ugly- Morocco’s Khallid Skah over Kenya’s Richard Chelimo in the 10,000 meter run. Skah and Chelimo were battling for the lead in the final laps of the 10,000 when Skah’s fellow Moroccan Hummar Boutayeb, who was a lap down, deliberately impeded Chelimo instead of moving over as he should have. Chelimo was unable to make up ground after that and Skah crossed the line amid a chorus of boos. Skah was initially stripped of the gold medal but protested and won. Skah was booed on the victory stand while Chelimo was cheered and when Skah tried to pull Chelimo and Ethiopian bronze medalist Addis Abebe up to the top of the podium with him, perhaps as a friendly gesture, both refused.
The good- Derek Redmond finishing the 400 meter semifinal on an injured leg. Redmond tore his hamstring early in the race and instead of leaving the track continued to limp on determined to finish it. His father came to his aid with about 150 meters left and he was given a standing ovation as he crossed the finish line. To this day that moment is seen as one of the best of the Olympics, a display of heart and courage and a refusal to give up.
The Bad And The Ugly- The bombing at Centennial Park. One night as a crowd gathered at Centennial Olympic Park, a homemade bomb exploded killing one person while another suffered a heart attack and died funning from the scene. That cowardly and despicable act, committed by a right wing anti-abortion (far from pro-life) extremist known as Eric Rudolph, was reminiscent of the kidnapping and murder of 11 Isreali athletes by Palestinian terrorists during the 1972 Olympics in Munich Germany.
The good- Muhammed Ali shakily lighting the Olympic flame was a proud moment for everyone who admired him as a legendary boxer and as a man. Though suffering from Parkinson’s disease his spirit was uncompromised.
Michael Johnson becoming the first male to double in the 200 and 400 meters in track. Johnson smashed the world record in the 200 in a time that, to those familiar with track, was as phemomenal as Bob Beamon’s near superhuman 29 foot long jump at the 1968 Mexico City games.
Gymnast Kerri Strug securing the win for her team in the women’s all around. Suffering from an ankle sprain, Strug knew that she had to the landing and in spite of great pain, she did just that. The image of her lifting her ailing leg up after the landing is iconic to this that and is a symbol of great heart and courage.
Carl Lewis winning the men’s long jump for an unprecedented fourth straight time. The last athlete to do so was Al Oerter who won the men’s discus throw in 1956, 1960, 1964 and 1968.
Dan O’Brien becoming the first American to win the decathlon since Bruce Jenner in Montreal in 1976. O’Brien was considered the favorite in 1992 but missed making the team due to a no-height in the pole vault. O’Brien more than made up for that in convincing fashion, bringing the title of the “World’s Greatest Athlete” back to the US.
Canada’s Donovan Bailey winning the men’s 100 meters. Canada spent several years after 1988 living down the embarrassment caused by Ben Johnson’s disqualification due to steroids and Bailey brought the pride back. Anchoring the winning 4 x 100 meter relay was icing on the cake.
The bad and the ugly- Paul Hamm of the US winning the gold medal in the man’s all around in gymnastics due to a scoring error. Although the judges involved were suspended, the standings were not changed since the mistake was acknowledged during the competition and not after. Hamm, who of course was not at fault, was asked to return his gold medal which he refused to do.
The good- The 2008 Olympics gave us two modern day legends, American swimmer Michael Phelps and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. Phelps broke the record of seven gold medals in swimming set by American Mark Spitz during the 1972 Munich Olympics. Phelps won the 100 and 200 meter freestyle events, the 100 and 200 meter butterfly events, the 200 meter individual medley and was on the 4 x 100 and 4 x 200 freestyle teams and the 4 x 100 meter medley relay team. Bolt won the men’s 100 and 200 meter sprints in world record shattering times and introduced the world to his famous “lightning bolt” pose. Bolt added another gold in the 4 x 100 meter relay.
The good- Bolt repeated his performances from 2012 by winning the 100, 200 and 4 x 100 meter relay and Phelps added even more hardward to his medal collection, winning five golds and a silver, making both undoubtedly the greatest of all time in their sports.
American Gabby Douglas became the first black person to win an individual gold medal in gymnastics by winning the all around and her gold medal in the team competition made her the first American, black or white, to win both. The “Flying Squirrel” joined Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton as gymnasts little girls wanted to grow up to be like.
19 year old Kirani James of Grenada winning his country’s first ever Olympic medal by winning the men’s 400 meter dash in track, making him an instant national hero.
As the 2016 Rio games go one surely we will see many good, bad and ugly moments as the competition goes on. I will certainly be enjoying the ride.