Thursday, August 28, 2008

Olympic Hangover

First of a two-part series.

Before they get too far behind us, I still wanted to get in at least one more blog about the Olympics. I think this is the first time since the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles that I was truly captivated for every day they were on, and saddened when they ended. Of course, I always miss them when they are over, and I was going through major withdrawals Monday night with no beach volleyball or track and field to watch. The alternative programming was the Democratic National Convention, which got no play in our house.

This Olympics was as good as any I can remember, if not better, and the images of Michael Phelps, Dara Torres, Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson, Usain Bolt, LaShawn Merritt, Misty May-Treanor, Kerry Walsh, and even Kobe Bryant will be remembered forever. I loved turning on the TV at 5 a.m. to watch obscure sports, and trying to stay awake at night to see who won the medals.

This really was a great Olympics.

But it still pales in comparison to 1984. Not only because I was there, but because I was a part of it. I frequently look back on those as the greatest 16-day stretch in my life. Beth sometimes gives me a funny look when I say that, but I actually ran into a guy this week who said the same thing about his Olympic experience in 1984. It was magical.
The 1984 Olympics were more than just those 16 days. The build-up to the Games started for me when I enrolled in graduate school at USC in August of 1982. There was already an attitude around the campus that the Olympics were just around the corner, and my faculty adviser was a guy who had been to the previous five or six Olympics (or more), including Moscow in 1980. The McDonald’s Swim Stadium – otherwise known as the Olympic swimming and diving venue – was under construction on campus, and the Games were simply part of the daily conversation. They were definitely a priority. 

I attended the dedication ceremonies in 1983, and with the completion of the swimming pool, the campus hosted the U.S. Swimming Championships that summer. I ended up working for Associated Press, sending results from the venue. Later that summer, I did the same thing for the synchronized swimming championships. I’d never even heard of synchronized swimming, but there I was, sending the results over a telecopier machine from the press box at Dedeaux Field, which was the backstage press area for the swimming pool. Imagine the fun I had trying to explain to my friends that I worked the synchronized swimming championships.

The World Championships of Track and Field were renewed that summer in Helsinki, Finland. It wasn’t a problem for us that the event was telecast only on late-night TV and on weekends. After all, we were college-age students and staying out late was the norm. We’d go over to Beth and Susie’s apartment in LaVerne to watch, and our motto was “Helsinki – Hell With It.” The most memorable event for me was watching Mary Decker win both the 1,500 and 3,000 meters, including a dramatic come-from-behind victory over heavily favored Soviet runners in the 1,500.
That summer is when the tickets went on sale, and Beth and I decided we wanted to go to as many events as possible. We didn’t exactly have the budget to go to the big things, so we picked a few medal events, but mostly a mix and match of other things to fill out the schedule. We ruled out the opening and closing ceremonies, which were the most expensive tickets, and took our chances with the rest. We sent off our check and kept our fingers crossed, because it was another nine months or so before we’d know what we got.

Throughout my second year at USC, the Olympics were everywhere. They came up in class discussions, with fears of gridlock and pollution. Nike had huge ads featuring athletes plastered on the sides of buildings (even though Converse was the Olympic shoe sponsor). Former USC Olympian John Nabor spoke in one of my classes, and there were student-athletes that I knew who would try to qualify to participate. USC was one of the Olympic villages, and three of the primary venues were within walking distance (the Memorial Coliseum, Sports Arena and swim stadium). As the year went along, new things appeared, like the statues in front of the Coliseum next door, and flags and banners along the streets.

I think the biggest thrill for me to that point came in the spring of 1984. I was a graduate assistant for the sports information program (an academic program that was run in combination by the School of Journalism and the P.E. department). The adviser from the P.E. department invited her friend Bud Greenspan for dinner and to speak at her class one night. She also invited me. If you don’t know, Greenspan is the guy who makes all of the great Olympic documentary films, including the incredible “16 Days of Glory” series. You can’t miss the guy. He has a Telly Savalas haircut, and black horn-rimmed glasses that he always has mounted on his forehead. He wore them like that at dinner, too, as he talked about filming in Munich and Montreal and everywhere else. What a cool experience, eating dinner with the guy who immortalized the heroes.
My Aunt Jerry worked for Coca-Cola, which was an Olympic sponsor. She was able to purchase sets of Coke Olympic pins, and so I quickly became a pin collector. For my birthday that year, Beth gave me an incredible set of five framed posters by artist Ernie Barnes (his artwork is pictured in this blog). That was one of the presents I still treasure most, and the posters still hang in my home. Maybe that’s one of the many reasons I married her.

In the months leading up to the Games, Grant Warhurst and I tried to go to as many track meets as possible. We went to the Times Indoor Games at the Forum, where a team from the Soviet Union participated. That was especially significant, because the Soviets were rumored to be leading an Eastern Bloc boycott of the Olympics in retaliation of the U.S. ban of the 1980 Games in Moscow. We stayed until the end of the meet and watched Sergei Bubka from the USSR set a world indoor pole vault record at 19 feet, 1 1/2 inches, just minutes after American Billy Olson cleared 19-0 ¼. All the other events had long ended, and all eyes were glued to the drama in the pole vault pit.

The Sunkist Games at the Sports Arena were a month later, and there were numerous other meets, because it was an Olympic year. Everything was big, and most drew international competition. The Mt. SAC relays were amazing. Athletes from 23 countries competed, but the highlight was watching Carl Lewis win the 100 meters once again. Jackie Joyner won the heptathlon. Athletes who competed at Mt. SAC won 35 Olympic medals three months later. The UCLA invitational at Drake Stadium followed, leading up to the biggest U.S. meet of the year, the United States Track and Field Trials.
“Doc” Smith, my adviser at USC, helped me to do an unpaid internship with Track & Field News during the Trials and the Olympics. By this time I’d finished my master’s degree, but I wasn’t about to jump into the real world job force until after the Olympics were over. That much was certain after working the Trials. Talk about a kid in a candy store. I had jobs to do, but mostly I got to watch a great track and field competition. I even got to bring Grant.

The Olympic torch run came through Claremont that summer, and so Beth, Susie Rascon (soon to become DesCombes) and I stationed ourselves on Foothill Boulevard just east of Indian Hill to watch the early morning processional. Yeah, that was cool, too.

The organizers of the Los Angeles Olympics did a great job of building the anticipation and creating the buzz. People were ready. My friend Brent Shyer headed up the press operations at the baseball venue at Dodger Stadium, and Don DesCombes was a venue official at the Coliseum. I came to learn years later that George Bradvica was in charge of the equestrian venue at Santa Anita. Pam Bosson was part of the Jazzercise team that performed at the opening ceremonies. On the night she went to rehearsal, Dave Bosson, Grant and I went to Mt. SAC for a pre-Olympic tune-up track meet featuring the U.S. athletes and others. Everybody was seemingly a part of the Olympics.

The big day finally came on Saturday, July 28, 1984, but it seemed I’d already had an Olympic experience worth remembering. And things hadn’t even started.

First of a two-part series.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You said you didn't watch the democratic convention, but have you ever noticed how much Obama looks like Curious George?