Sunday, August 31, 2008

Olympic Hangover, Part Two

Second of a two-part series.

Throughout all of the preparations for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, the organizers kept secret the identity of the final torchbearer who would light the flame in the Coliseum cauldron. Word leaked about some of the athletes who would carry the torch on its final legs, but nobody was certain.


As the anticipation and excitement escalated, I did the thing you’d naturally do on the opening day of the event I’d been thinking about for years – I went to a Saturday afternoon Dodger game.  Lenny Seligman, Mike Greer, Grant and I soaked in the sun as a fan near us claimed she knew the identity of the ultimate torchbearer, but that she was sworn to secrecy. After the game we rushed back to Claremont, with my cassette tape of the Olympic theme, “Bugler’s Dream,” playing over and over all the way to Mike’s house, where we watched the opening ceremonies on TV.  A couple hours into the telecast, Mike’s dad started going outside and looking toward the sky. When we finally asked why, he said he was checking to see if any of the giant balloons from the balloon release drifted our way. No luck.


The Coliseum never looked better (remember, I spent the previous two years working and attending USC, Los Angeles Express and Los Angeles Raiders games). And when 1960 Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson ran the anchor leg of the torch run and ignited the cauldron at the peristyle end, the Olympic Games had finally returned to Los Angeles.


When Beth and I put in our ticket order more than a year before the start of the Olympics, we tried to spread our choices so we could attend many events. Beth ended up giving her tickets away to many of the events, but she still attended track and field, basketball, swimming, diving and probably more. As it turned out, we had tickets for almost every day of the Games. When I added in the tickets I received as payment for working for Track and Field News, we ended up at one or more events every day of the Olympics, except one. I had a media credential, so I went to USC that day and walked around the Olympic Village. And when I wasn’t at a venue, we were watching on television or starting our own events, like the hose game (high jumping over a hose strung across the pool) and synchronized floating, which involved the strenuous task of floating on a raft while doing nothing else.


The first day of athletic competition was on Sunday. While my friends and I played over-the-line at Pomona College in the morning, the results quickly started coming in for the cycling road races from Mission Viejo. The Games had started and I hadn’t yet had a chance to watch.


But that didn’t take long, since we had tickets to our first event that night. Beth and I joined Susie and Gordon DesCombes at the Forum for a first-round basketball game between Australia and Korea. Or maybe it was Brazil… or Canada. I can’t remember who played, but we had great seats, and Pat Riley was just a few rows in front of us. Darleen May, who has since died but was the women’s basketball coach at Cal Poly Pomona at the time, was one of the referees.


The rest of the Olympics were non-stop action. Looking back, I can count going to at least nine of the venues and seeing 11 different sports. That doesn’t count watching multiple days of basketball and volleyball, and five days of track and field (I missed a couple days). I had a portable television plugged into the lighter in my car so I could see what was happening elsewhere (okay, traffic was easy, but I didn’t watch TV while I was driving). One day Lenny and I went to a U.S. men’s basketball game early one afternoon at the Forum (the team with Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Sam Perkins, Wayman Tisdale, Chris Mullin, etc.), and then sped down the freeway (and no rush hour traffic) to Long Beach for volleyball that evening. The next day I did the same thing with Mike, starting with a U.S. men’s basketball game and then wrestling in Anaheim. Then we rushed back to the Kilsby’s house in Claremont to watch the end of an exciting women’s volleyball game on TV.


Greg Setlich and I went to a volleyball game one night, and paired up again later for track and field at the Coliseum. That night we ventured over to USC and found a beer garden area just outside the entrance to the Olympic Village. It was open to the public and had live music, along with plenty of cold refreshments. Athletes would also come over for a beer and to visit friends and family, and as the Games wound down and their events were complete, more and more athletes would join the fun. For the remainder of the Olympics, it became my nightly hangout, and I’d be joined by different friends. Grant I went a couple of times after being at the Coliseum, and Dave was with us one of the nights. Ross Bosson and I went there on the final Saturday night after watching the gold medal boxing bouts at the Sports Arena. Mingling with other fans and athletes, we tried to convince people I was a Swedish pole vaulter.


I went to water polo with Jim Moore, and Beth and I went to baseball at Dodger Stadium with Jim and Andi. That was the team with Claremont’s own Mark McGwire, whose dad, John, was my dentist at the time.


The track and field was the best. There would be separate morning and afternoon/evening sessions. The mornings were mainly heats and qualifying events, but they were still fun to watch. Dave, Grant and I watched a few decathlon events in the morning, and then walked back over to USC so I could work on the newsletter for T&F News (in which I wrote that Mary Decker was a lock to win the 3,000). We returned to the Coliseum to watch Daley Thompson from Great Britain earn the title of World’s Greatest Athlete as the winner of the decathlon.


Beth and I were there to see Carl Lewis win the 100, and to see Jackie Joyner fade in the 800 meters and lose the heptathlon to Glynis Nunn of Australia by just five points.


Grant and I watched Lewis win the long jump, and we witnessed countless other events. But of course, the clearest memory is the women’s 3,000 meters. With her win at the World Championships in Helsinki the year before, Decker was the favorite. But teenage South African barefoot runner Zola Budd, running for Great Britain, had recently set the world record in the 2,000 and was suddenly Decker’s biggest threat.

Sitting fairly low on the north side of the track near the peristyle end, I had the binoculars clearly focused on the pack as they ran on the south side in front of the press box. Then it happened. I saw the bodies bounce and the runners break stride. The one in red tumbled to the ground. With the field glasses still pressed against my eyes, I shouted to Grant, “It’s her. She’s down. She’s out. It’s over.” Mary Decker wasn’t getting back to her feet. She stayed down as the training crew, led by Upland’s Mark Hill, came to the rescue. But the event that people came to see had lost its suspense. Maricicia Puica of Romania (the only Eastern Bloc country that participated) ran away from the field and won easily. A flustered Budd faded to seventh.

To this day, Beth and Susie take the credit – or blame – for Decker’s misfortune. Neither liked the cocky American crybaby, and as they watched the race at home live on TV, they commented that they wished she would fall. She did. Beth and Susie had the decency to admit they felt badly afterwards, because it was their fault (so stop blaming Zola Budd).

The 16 days of the 1984 Games proved that Los Angeles was a different place when the world was visiting. As Beth and I drove on Manchester toward the 110 freeway after the women’s basketball gold medal game at the Forum, a seedy-looking guy pulled up next to us and waved to get our attention. Ignoring him would have been the smart thing to do in South-Central Los Angeles. But cautiously, we cracked the window enough to hear him ask, “Did we win da gold?”

That's the reason I love the Olympics. It's not just the sports and the athletic competition, but the world putting everything else aside (for the most part) to come together for something magnificent, where people's accomplishments are celebrated and their achievements live forever in the memories of guys like me.

On Sunday, Aug. 12, the Olympics came to a glorious conclusion, but not without a few final-day events. Beth and I met her mom, Jeanette, at the swim stadium for the platform diving finals, where Greg Louganis dazzled the world with his gold-medal performance.

That was all for us. We were home with hours to spare before the local grocery clerk took the Coliseum stage and led 93,000 people singing “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” and the final fireworks lit the sky.


Within days, life returned to normal in L.A. The freeways were again packed, and smog filled the air. But for that magnificent summer, Los Angeles was the capital of the world.


As expected, the United States was the big medal winner that year, as it was this summer in Beijing. Interestingly, Americans won this year’s much-ballyhooed Olympic medal count with an impressive 110 total medals. By comparison, and with the absence of 14 Eastern Bloc nations, the U.S. won an astounding 174 medals at the 1984 Summer Olympics, including 83 gold medals. Nineteen-eighty-four really was a year that shined with gold in Los Angeles.

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