Lee and I are hardly sports fans, but there are a few exceptions.
We both love baseball, the true American game. It is played by guys who prefer to keep their cool rather than do the equivalent of a showboat slam dunk on the court, or one of those grotesque little victory dances in the end zone. I hate those guys. Baseball players usually don’t really demonstrate or show off much, even if they hit a grand slam, until they have won a big game in the World Series. That’s not the only reason we love it, but it’s a big one.
We’re not superfans. We usually don’t even know who’s in the pennant races until the playoffs come around. When we lived in L.A. we rooted for the Dodgers. Now, in the Portland area, we don’t have a “home team.” We usually “support,” as the British would say, the Cubs and the Red Sox or any underdog, and anyone against the damn Yankees. Last year I was happy to see the Astros win the series for the first time. (Lee wasn’t.) I grew up in that area.
We can’t quote you statistics, batting averages, ERAs, number of pitches thrown by blue-eyed left-handers in a game played in 1947. These days computers have enabled announcers to come up with the most ridiculous stats imaginable. I wish they would lay off that. That’s the worst thing about baseball, in my opinion, the obsession with stats. Hank Aaron hitting more homers than the Babe is a good stat. The batting average of this batter against that pitcher in a relief situation on the home field when behind two runs in the seventh inning is a who-gives-a-shit stat.
But we are both Olympics junkies. Every two years now, since the IOC wisely decided to stagger the Winter and Summer Games, we are glued to the TV.
Just yesterday Lee asked when I first noticed the Games, and when I first started watching them religiously. I had to think back. With each Olympiad I was drawn in a little deeper. I hadn’t intended to write this much about my memories, but I was having so much fun recalling these things that it kept growing and growing …
So we will break this up into several parts. I had fun writing all this. I hope you have fun reading it.
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XVI Summer Olympiad, Melbourne, Australia, 1956. I was nine. In those days TVs were more primitive than today’s generations probably could imagine. There was no live coverage. How could there be? No satellites, no underwater cables capable of carrying a video signal. There might be a news story on the Six O’clock News … which usually lasted fifteen minutes or a whole half an hour! No 24/7 news overload, very few live broadcasts of anything at all. All I recall about this Olympiad is the famous water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union, who had just crushed a Hungarian uprising against Russian oppression … and I only “remember” it because every water polo announcer in every game since then has found a way to mention how much blood was in the water. (Hungary 4, Invading Communists 0!) This was the first Games in the Southern Hemisphere, which meant they were held when it was winter in the north. This was the first time all the athletes marched mixed together into the closing ceremonies, not under the flags of their countries, a tradition that has held ever since.
Historical note: The city of Detroit put in a bid for these games, along with Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. This was their third bid, as they had lost out to London in 1948 and Helsinki in 1952.
VII Winter Olympiad, Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, 1956. At this time I wasn’t even aware there was a Winter Olympics, and I’ll bet most Americans felt the same.
XVII Summer Olympiad, Rome, Italy, 1960. This was the first time the Games were televised in the USA. I know I wasn’t watching them, but the highlights that everyone remembers are two breakthroughs by black men. The first was the great Abebe Bikila. The new shoes he had were giving him blisters, so he ran the marathon barefoot, and won. He would win again four years later in Tokyo. He started the domination of distance runners from the east of Africa that carries on to this day. The second was a light-heavyweight boxer named Cassius Clay, who won gold. Now, what the hell ever happened to him …?
Detroit bid again, and lost, for the fourth time.
VII Winter Olympiad, Squaw Valley, USA, 1960. I have a vague memory of watching the opening ceremony. Looking it up, I see that all the venues were purpose-built at this little ski resort at the staggering cost of $80,000,000. This was the beginning of big-time television, too. CBS paid $50,000 to broadcast them. That would not cover the yearly salary of one camera operator at Pyeongchang today.
CBS broadcast sixteen hours of people slipping and sliding around and crashing down on ice and snow. The ratings were good, though I wasn’t watching. BTW, this is the only winter Olympics where there was not a bobsled competition. (The Olympics called them “bobsleighs,” but no one else does.) When the organizers found out that there would be only eight countries competing, they decided not to build a run. That was sort of mean, but I can see their point. The biggest white elephants left over after Olympic competitions are the bobsleigh runs and the velodromes. After the games, what the hell do you do with them?
Walt Disney produced the opening ceremony. These shows were slowly getting bigger and bigger until they arrived at the monster extravaganzas we saw in Beijing and Sochi. I’m not complaining, I love the silliness and the pageantry. And I don’t think the opening in Beijing will ever be equaled. The Chinese spent 323 billion yuan ($44 billion dollars) on the Games. Putin spent even more, two and a half trillion ($51 billion) of the Russian people’s hard-earned roubles, for a spectacle to glorify himself. But their opening couldn’t match the Chinese.
Squaw Valley was also the place where instant reply was invented. The judges weren’t sure if a slalom skier had missed a gate, and asked CBS if they could look at the videotape. Somewhere, a CBS Sports exec heard about that and thought, hmmm…. We are so spoiled today, with instant super slo-mo replays from nine different angles, overlaid with helpful computer graphics, that it’s hard to imagine a time before that. When an instant of time had passed, it was over. You couldn’t re-run the tape and show what a stupid ass the umpire had been on that call, or whether or not the football had passed over the plane of the goal line. There was film of sporting events, but you had to wait until at least the next day to look at it, and it might not have caught what you were looking for. Now we can instantly see how badly someone has fucked something up. This is called progress.
BTW: Sochi, whose climate is actually sub-tropical, totally unsuited for the Winter Games, is now a ghost town. You could go to the Tulip hotel and be the only guest! They are keeping everything intact, spending another fortune on upkeep of the super-expensive venues, so it won’t look quite so abandoned and reflect badly on Putin.
As if that matters. Today the ex-KGB killer won another six years in what they laughingly call an election. A victory margin of 75%. I wonder just who had the balls to run against him? And how long will they survive? I’m tempted to say it was rigged, but who knows? It seems the average Ivan Q. Publicski on the street actually loves the piece of govnyuk. (Govnyuk is Russian for shithead. A word you might want to use some day.)
XVIII Summer Olympiad, Tokyo, Japan, 1964. And …
IX Winter Olympiad, Innsbruck, Austria, 1964. I don’t remember a damn thing about either of these. I was probably too busy trying to get laid, and wondering where I would be going to college. While I don’t recall the Games at all, I do remember the movie Walk, Don’t Run, a re-make of The More the Merrier from 1943. WDR starred Cary Grant, Samantha Eggar, and Jim Hutton as a 50 kilometer race walker in Tokyo. Both films were good, but the earlier one was the best, with Charles Coburn, Jean Arthur, and Joel McCrea. What a cast!
Detroit bid to hold the games again, and lost. That’s five in a row.
XIX Summer Olympiad, Mexico City, Mexico, 1968. I was living in the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, working hard at being a hippie. We had a little Sony TV and watched a fair amount of the games. The biggest story, you may remember, was the huge hoo-hah when in the award ceremony for the 200 meter race, Tommy Smith (gold) and John Carlos (bronze) bowed their heads and raised gloved fists in solidarity with the civil rights movement back north of the border. They were banned from the Olympics for life! At the time I was 100% behind them, and I still support them, though I hate to see politics in the Games. Yes, I know it’s inevitable, but wouldn’t it be nice?
Then there was Dick Fosbury, that long, lanky guy that everyone had been laughing at because he approached the high jump bar backwards, arched over it, and flopped down on the mat on his back. Weird! … but, sonuvabitch, the bastard is clearing the bar! Maybe that’ll work for me … And it did. Today almost all high jumpers use the Fosbury Flop.
Something I didn’t know: At the same time there was a Canadian high jumper, Debbie Brill, who was developing what was essentially the same technique, called the Brill Bend. When she was sixteen she became the first woman in North America to clear six feet.
George Foreman won the heavyweight gold, Al Oerter won his fourth consecutive gold in the discus. I have often wondered at the determination needed to devote one’s life to tossing a Frisbee that doesn’t even sail. East and West Germany stopped competing as a combined team, and of course there was a lot of talk about how the thinner air at high altitude favored sprinters, jumpers, and throwers and wasn’t good for endurance events. And that probably was a factor (but not a huge one) in what has to be one of the greatest athletic feats of all time, and the one any Olympics fan still looks back on with awe … and that was the incredible, unimaginable, unbelievable long jump made by Bob Beamon.
The record long jump record at the Berlin Games in 1936 was 8.13 meters (26’ 8”) by the great Jesse Owens. By 1968 it had crept up, centimeter by centimeter, to 8.35 meters (27’ 4.75”). Eight inches in thirty-two years. So Bob Beamon comes flying down the track, hits the board with one foot, and goes airborne. They had an electric eye at the other end, to record the length of the jump in millimeters. He jumped beyond that. Let me repeat, he jumped beyond the ability of the officials to measure! They had to send somebody to find an old-fashioned tape. When I said unbelievable, for once I was using the word literally. It was taking a long time, and Beamon was wondering what the problem was. Then they told him he had jumped 8.9 meters. Being an American who had competed in meets measured in yards, he wasn’t used to metric measure, so they told him that was 29 feet 2.5 inches. Almost 22 inches beyond the world record! He collapsed in shock. You can see it here.
Aided by the high altitude? Yeah, a little, sure. But no one else who jumped that day even passed the previous Olympic record, so it wasn’t that much of a factor. I honestly can’t think of anything anyone has ever done in sports competition that can compare to that jump.
This was also the first Games where they had you pee in a cup. And it resulted in the first disqualification for drug use: a poor Swede named Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall who … get ready for it … drank two beers before competing in the Modern Pentathlon, possibly the most obscure Olympic sport since they discontinued croquet in 1904. I’m not kidding! Croquet! And two beers? If anything I’d think that would hamper you rather than aid you. But the Swedish team had to return their bronze medal.
Six defeats in a row for Detroit. The Motor City just can’t get a break.
X Winter Olympiad, Grenoble, France, 1968. There were two superstars in this one. Jean-Claude Killy won all three alpine events. And Peggy Fleming won the women’s figure skating. This was huge for the United States, since the entire US skating team had been killed in the horrific crash of Sabena Flight 548 in 1961. Seventy-two dead, including 18 athletes of the 1961 U.S. figure skating team and 16 family members, coaches, and officials. Before that crash the US had dominated figure skating, and after 1968 they would again for many years.
Is anyone old enough to recall compulsory figures, also called school figures, in figure skating? It’s almost forgotten by most people, but these figures used to be what the early days of competitive skating was all about. Ever wonder why it’s called figure skating? It was about cutting figures! There was no artistic component. In Olympic competition, figures counted for 60% of your score until 1968, when they were reduced … to 50%. The skaters would perform six figures, cutting circles and figure-8s and triple circles on the ice. Then the judges would squat down with tapes and measure, to the fraction of an inch, how perfect the circles were. Other than golf, it’s hard to imagine a more boring sport. Matches lasted all day long. By ’68 the pressure to reduce the importance of this silly stuff increased, and they were scaled back and finally eliminated because, let’s face it, who gave a shit, other than the skaters who were good at it? People watching on TV were incredulous that skaters who were clearly inferior in the free skate, the only part that was watchable, were winning medals because they had racked up such a lead in the schools. Peggy Fleming was good at them, went into the free skate with a big lead, but she was also clearly the best skater at the artistic skating. This was the beginning of the transformation of the discipline from an obscure sport into the huge thing it is today, by far the biggest draw of the Winter Games on TV.
XX Summer Olympiad, Munich, Germany, 1972. It’s really sad, but I will never be able to hear the word Munich without thinking of that terrible day when eight thugs calling themselves Black September entered the Olympic Village and took eleven Israeli athletes and coaches hostage. Are you old enough? Do you remember Jim McKay, a crackerjack sports announcer who had no experience at all of covering a story like this, narrating it all to a horrified world? He distinguished himself that day, and into the night. A night when the German police and army laid to rest once and for all that myth of German efficiency. Seldom has there been a more botched operation. It was a shameful clusterfuck from the very beginning.
Do you remember the sense of relief when the Germans announced that they had freed all the hostages? And the stunned disbelief when they soon came back to say that they … um, well … that they may have been “overly optimistic?” I’ve always wondered, what moron decided to announce a successful rescue operation when he knew the eleven were all dead? It’s a clear case of trying to cover one’s ass, but what was the point? Did he think they would come back to life? That maybe no one would notice? It’s all totally inexplicable.
So, aside from that, athletes of the world, how was your Olympic experience?
Well, after a day of mourning (I seem to recall a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth in the stadium, but can’t find any confirmation of that) the Games did resume, and there were several notable stories. Mark Spitz set seven world records while earning seven gold medals. He is a swimmer I respect, as opposed to Michael Phelps, who strikes me as an asshole.
In basketball the US had won not only every previous Olympic gold medal, but every game. A 73-0 winning streak. They had racked up scores like 125-66 against Japan. Well, sure, an American invented the game. It was our game. The 1972 team won its first eight, and then lost to the Soviet Union in the final (51-50), with the help of no less than three illegal calls by the refs in the final three seconds. I say this not just as a possibly chauvinistic American, though I despise everything about the Soviet Union, and not even as someone who knows much about basketball (and cares even less). It’s easy to find videos that go into chapter and verse of the scandal, by more-or-less neutral observers. Except for Russians no one believes the game was won fair and square. The American team decided to not show up for their silver medal, and I still can’t decide if that was the right decision. It looked like poor sportsmanship, and maybe it was.
This was the year that a little five-foot-nothing seventeen-year-old Byelorussian firecracker from Minsk (competing for the Soviet Union) named Olga Korbut revolutionized the sport of gymnastics by just owning three of the four women’s events. In the balance beam she did a backflip, then a front flip dismount. Nobody was doing that! It was insane! That bar is four inches wide!
In the floor exercises she brought a gamin charm to what had been more or less just a tumbling discipline.
But it was in the uneven bars that she stunned the world. She swung her way up to the top bar and stood there for a brief moment, then leaped off it backwards, flipped in the air, and caught the bar again at the last possible second. And unlike today’s gymnasts, she did it without a spotter standing by. We all gasped, we were all terrified for her. The rest is history. Like Torvill and Dean in ice dancing and Sonja Henie in women’s singles, she changed the sport forever.
XI Winter Olympiad, Sapporo, Japan, 1972. I’m sure I watched these Games, but I don’t remember anything about them. That’s probably because nothing happened that anyone but followers of a particular sport would remember. No scandals, no terrorists, very little controversy other than that horrible old man, Avery Brundage, getting his shorts in a twist over “professionalism” in skiing. As you may know, when Baron de Coubertin founded the modern Olympics in 1896 they were to be for amateurs only. This was designed to keep out the riff-raff, since only gentlemen with no need to earn a living had the time to devote to becoming a good runner or jumper. Brundage clung to this idea to the grave in 1975, a location I was happy to see him arrive at. I think athletes should be able to make a living at what they have devoted their lives to. Doesn’t that make sense?
Detroit bid again, lost for the seventh time. In retrospect they might have been happy about that. Who knows if the Black September thugs might have come to America to perpetrate their outrage? And they finally knew when they were licked. After this, Detroit never bid again, and anyone fool enough to suggest it would probably have been hung. Detroit was already a shithole when I lived there in 1965, and it only got worse. Spend millions of dollars on Olympics? A really criminal idea.
March 28, 2018