olympic memories mexico city 1968

These were the first Games to be held at altitude. It led to some explosive performances and to fears for the health of those involved in the endurance events. Training was less sophisticated in those days and oxygen bottles were supplied for those unable to cope with the thinner air.

The iconic image of these games is the Black Power salute given by Tommy Smith and John Carlos on the podium as the “Star Spangled Banner” marked their medals in the 200m. Broadcast on prime time TV in the US,  America regarded it as an affront that athletes should make such an overt political statement. Then, as now, African Americans are allowed to succeed in American (and British) society in the fields of entertainment and sport but are not        expected to engage in politics.

I was 15 at this time. I was aware of the civil rights movement. Aware of  the Reverend King, Malcolm and of the Panthers. The iniquities of the Vietnam war were daily shown on TV Muhammed Ali had shown courage to speak out against racism and the war. I was not shocked by the gesture. I knew of the strong views held by these athletes and was thrilled they had used such a high profile moment to make it. Lee Evans was part of this same group of athletes. He had won the 400m and the US took all 3 medals. While they all wore berets to the medal ceremony there is less of a gesture. The athletes had been warned about their behaviour. Evans smashed the world record in his event and then anchored the 400m relay team to gold. The relays are traditionally held at the end of the meeting. What were the authorities going to do, send them home ? They were going any way.

Lee Evans worked in 6 African countries as a coach to help athletes. He returned to coach at a US university. He said at the time that on retirement he

would live in Mexico or Africa where “you are truly free – not like this fake freedom America has everybody believing in.” His world record stood for 24 years ! Everyone remembers Smith & Carlos. I remember Lee Evans as a man of principle and as a great athlete.

The high jump was won by an American, Dick Fosbury. Before Fosbury the 2 prevailing styles of high jump, the straddle and the western roll, both involved the jumper attempting to pass over the bar while facing it. now along comes this crazy american who is going over backwards…wacky ! Not only that but he won the event in an Olympic record with the new sensation the “Fosbury Flop”. Fosbury revolutionised the event. 4 years later in Munich there were 28 floppers against 12 diehards. Now they all do the flop. One of the most influential of modern athletes.

The time difference meant that we saw the live athletics at a very late hour in Britain. I stayed awake as long as I could.My dad had to be at work by 7.30 a.m. and did not stay as late as I could. For the long jump we both decided to watch the full competition. It was our one defending champion, Lynn Davies, again faced by the American, Boston, and the Russian Ter-Ovanesyan. This rivalry had sustained the event since the last Olympics. We felt ourselves to be athletics afficionados and were aware of the potential of the young American, Bob Beamon. He had shown winning form all year.It was though still potential and he had not yet challenged the experienced three in major championships.

Beamon’s first jump in the competition remains one of the most extraordinary things I have ever witnessed in a sports competition. His gangly frame became more graceful, more unified as he approached take off. He seemed to defy gravity. This was a loooong jump, not just in distance but in the time he spent in the air. Beamon had jumped 22 and three quarter inches further than anyone had ever done before. He not only became the first man to have ever jumped 28 feet but had bypassed that mark and jumped further than 29 feet ! This record stood for almost 23 years before it was exceeded. The adjective “Beamonesque” was coined that night. My dad and I shared a look. There would be no need for him to go to work tired tomorrow, the competition was over.

Beamon never jumped further than 28 feet again in his career. A combination of a legal tailwind, the thin air of altitude and his determination to land a big opening jump in the most important competition of his life so far coincided to provide a truly astounding moment of athletics.

olympic memories Tokyo 1964

Abebe Bikila had won the marathon in Rome in 1960. He was the first athlete from sub-Saharan Africa to win gold. The Ethiopian was a pathfinder for the success of future athletes from the continent and he had achieved his success while running barefoot ! In 1964 he returned to the event in Tokyo & won for a second time. For this race he did wear shoes. There was not the circuit of high profile city marathons that exists today. the distance was rarely run & was still regarded as a dangerously long way to run. Bikila won the race in a new world record time. He proceeded to show his remaining energy with a display of calisthenics in the centre of the arena while the trailing athletes arrived to finish their race. it was an amazing display of showmanship by the first African superstar of athletics.

This dude escorting two dolly birds is Lynn Davies, a handsome young Welshman who had won gold in the long jump in Tokyo. He and walker Ken Matthews were our only track and field gold medallists. (We were good at walking in the 60s). Davies gatecrashed the Cold War showdown between the US champion Boston & the Russian Ter-Ovanesyan. On Sunday Britain won this event again for the first time since his success. He showed up on TV to add his knowledge and congratulations. 70 years old now is Lynn & he was looking pretty good still.

On his left arm is Mary Rand, the Golden Girl who won the long jump ( we were good at this too), gained a silver medal in the pentathlon and a bronze in the relay. Another British woman, Ann Packer, won an identical pair. Mary was (and is) film star gorgeous in a Julie Andrews, English rose kinda way. Nowadays she would be a marketing departments dream. Fortunately, in those more innocent times, though she became a public figure she was allowed to glow beautifully and to do the things she did so well on the track.

To Lynn’s right is Lillian Board. Lillian@s Olympic moment would come 4 years later in Mexico City. A powerful 400 metre runner she won a silver medal, losing the gold by just one tenth of a second. She was 19 years old & her future as a world ranked star was assured. Two years later she contracted cancer and she died just two weeks after her 22nd birthday. A tragic loss to not just the world athletic scene.

Don Schollander was the first American athlete to win 4 gold medals in one Games since Jesse Owens. He was the first of the multi gold winners in the swimming pool. The exploits of Mark Spitz, Ian Thorpe & Michael Phelps have made them conspicuous among the group of medal accumulators. You know, in athletics a 100 metre sprinter could not win the 400 metres, There are great athletes who have perfected one event while swimmers seem to be able to be the fastest in different styles of swimming. I am sure that this quartet are all outstanding athletes of their era but I remain unconvinced that such a dominance being turned into a facility to acquire a fistful of medals is a true reflection of their place in the Olympic pantheon.

Olympic memories 1960 Rome

This is the only photo that Google coughs up of C. T. White a distinguished athlete in Britain in the post war years. He represented Great Britain in the Olympic Games of 1948 & 1952 and was a national champion in the 880 yards. he was my father’s mentor and trainer. My dad was a national junior champion at 440 yards. “Uncle” Tom White was also my godfather. As a kid I accompanied the two men to  meetings to either see them compete or to watch championship athletics.

As an inquisitive sports nut I loved the long car journeys, using the time to elicit stories of the great athletes the two had raced against or had seen race. They showed me how to understand athletics. How the runner to watch is not the one who leads at the first bend who is winning but the one who keeps his style, who paces his effort correctly. The Olympic Games of 1960 in Rome were the first ones I watched on TV with my dad & Tom. Their enthusiasm and, I hope, a little of their knowledge was passed to me as I listened to & ,sometimes, shared in the conversation.

These two fine young people are the double gold medal winner Wilma Rudolph and the hero of Italy Livio Berutti who had won the 200 metres gold in his home stadium. Wilma was the first African American  to be the fastest woman alive. Tall and elegant she looks like a member of a girl group. She is rocking that individual casual look like she was Francoise Hardy or Jean Seberg. Livio wore sunglasses when he ran. He had more of a Mastroianni vibe at the stadium. Here he has that “Plein Soleil” Alain Delon, European scenester feel. Two young people at the peak of their athletic powers. A lovely picture.

The 1960 Olympics was the first time I was aware of Cassius Clay, a young,gauche, strong winner of the boxing heavyweight gold medal. He was fast tracked to a fight for the professional heavyweight title against Sonny Liston a man who seemed to intimidate his opponents into inaction. Clay defeated a generation of boxers before beating Liston twice. Along the way he showed himself to be a master boxer and a master of the new arts of promotion and propaganda in the new world wide television market. He was the first and the best to do this. The most famous man in the world for 30 years and the most significant athlete of the 20th century. Muhammed Ali has been an inspiration to many of us for the past 50 years.

Great Britain did not win many gold medals in the 1960 Games.This bespectacled clerk Don Thompson won gold in the 50 km walk, the longest event. In 1956 he had to withdraw with dehydration. This time he filled his bathroom with steam, put on his heavy tracksuit and turned the heating up. In temperatures up to 87 F  and a hat made by his Mum he won in almost 4 and a half hours. Race walking will never look anything but plain silly but Don, “the Little Mouse” was our Olympic hero in Rome.