I love the Olympics. I’ve been intrigued by the magic of the Games ever since I was a kid. I think my earliest Olympic memory was when I was 8, watching parts of a hockey game at a friend’s house on a black-and-white TV during the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble, France. Oh, and I remember Peggy Fleming.
By the time the 1968 Summer Olympics from Mexico City rolled around, I was hooked. I remember they were in September, because school had started and we talked about the Olympics in class. I loved the pageantry and symbolism, and what it was all supposed to mean. I was captivated by the events. To me, Olympic sports like swimming, diving and track and field were as mainstream as football and baseball.
That’s because the Olympics are so memorable. And while I certainly can’t remember everything, there are athletic achievements that will live forever. They become part of our nation’s social fiber and our history. Remembering past Olympics is different from remembering batting averages or starting lineups. The Olympics are about incredible moments. The big ones come to life every four years, but there are so many others that live on, too.
I mean, when else would you ever watch events like badminton, ping pong (okay, they call it table tennis), trampoline, field hockey, team handball, rowing, fencing, archery, cycling, diving, equestrian and weightlifting on TV? I’ve watched bits and pieces of all of those, along with boxing and tennis. I’ve even watched some soccer, which means this must be special. NBC continues to feed us plenty of swimming, gymnastics, volleyball (indoor and beach) and basketball, and now track and field. Those are the things that TV viewers want. I want more. And more baseball and softball, too (it’s stupid that the IOC is getting rid of those and keeping the obscure sports).
I must have these feelings every four years, but the Beijing Olympics seem extraordinary to me. There already have been so many great moments to remember. If you haven’t seen it yet, check out these frame-by-frame photos in Sports Illustrated of Michael Phelps’ incredible 100-meter butterfly victory for his seventh of eight gold medals.
Forty years after falling in love with the Olympics, I don’t really recall if I actually watched the big events when I was younger, or if they are engrained in my head because of the coverage that followed. I do remember watching Tommie Smith and John Carlos run the 200 meters in 1968, and the medal ceremony that followed when they both raised the black power sign on the medal stand. But I didn’t witness Bob Beamon’s unbelievable long jump of 29-2 to become the first person to clear 28 feet, let alone 29. And I don’t remember watching when Jimmy Hines became the world’s fastest man or when Bill Toomey was crowned the world’s greatest athlete.
But the things that surprisingly still ring clear are both the opening ceremonies and the closing ceremonies. I was so impressed by the torchbearer climbing the steps to light the caldron. And when the games came to and end, there seemed to be such sadness. I remember an image of the word “Mexico 68” in fireworks, and watching as it slowly burned out. But then the word “Munich” appeared, and all was well. It was at that moment that I remember telling my dad that I wanted to go to the Olympics.
My dad died before the next Olympiad, so we were never able to have that experience together. And going to Germany was a bit unrealistic to begin with. But I knew that one day I’d go to the Olympics. Fortunately, in 1984, the Olympics came to me.
It’s just as well that I didn’t go to Munich in 1972, because that was the year the Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and killed the Israeli athletes. It was still at the heart of the Cold War, and the rivalry between the U.S. and Soviet Union was at its peak. As a 13-year-old kid, I thought that the Eastern Block countries were cheating in everything. If not the teams, then the judges and the officials. Remember? They gave the Soviet basketball team three attempts to win until they finally did. The U.S. team didn’t go to the medal ceremonies, and they still haven’t accepted the silver medals…. A Russian won the 100-meters, but after two American sprinters were disqualified because they didn’t run in the early heats. Apparently they were told the wrong time of their races. And the East German women (if you wanted to call them that) won seemingly every event in the pool. Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut was the darling of the Games, but less-popular Lyudmila Turischeva was the true star USSR gymnastics team. The United States had its share of success, led by swimmer Mark Spitz with his seven gold medals. On the track, Dave Wottle, wearing a baseball cap, won the 800, and Frank Shorter won the marathon. Pomona’s Bob Seagren finished second in the pole vault.
I eventually did make it to Munich years later, and I saw the Olympic stadium and swimming pool. But there were no events then, and on that trip I was more interested in the Hofbräuhaus.
Still determined to go to the Olympics, my friend Lindsey Brewer and I decided we’d make a cross-country bike ride to Montreal.
But I watched the Games on TV and remember the highlights – Nadia’s perfect 10, Bruce Jenner winning the decathlon and unknown Edwin Moses winning the 400 hurdles. I also remember watching the platform diving, as Italian Klaus Dibiasi won his third straight gold, beating the 16-year-old American, Greg Louganis. Throughout the games, there was a McDonald’s commercial starring Claremont High’s Patti O’Toole. She was our own local Olympic celebrity.
The Games of 1980 really were only the Winter Olympics for the United States, because of Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the Summer Games in Moscow. Too bad. A couple of years later, when I was in graduate school at USC, the head of the public relations department, Kenneth “Doc” Smith, told me stories of just how great it was in Moscow. He called it the greatest Olympics that America never saw. There was no television coverage, since the U.S. didn’t participate. That summer came and went without the Olympics.
But the winter was different. The Lake Placid games probably provided more memories than most, and they produced one of the greatest moments ever –the American hockey team’s “miracle on ice” victory over Russia en route to the gold medal. I still remember living at the “Animal House” in Pomona, listening to KMET-FM, when Paraquat Kelly came on the air late one Friday afternoon and said, “We beat the Rooskies.” Our typically full house of college students was intently tuned in for the tape-delayed broadcast a few hours later.
My 1984 Olympic memories are too many for this blog, and they deserve a place by themselves. I still look back at that summer as the greatest 16 days ever. In the years that have followed, my love for the Olympics has been adopted by our kids, who look forward to our own special opening ceremonies with the Moores, Seligmans DesCombes and others who share our Olympic spirit. It really is an incredible time. Tune in before the magic is gone.