olympic memories moscow 1980

There had been a boycott by some nations in 1976. The USA decided not to attend these Games because of, ironically, Soviet incursion in Afghanistan.  The 70s had seen an effective British boycott of contact with South Africa and the Tory government were in favour of non-attendance. It was left to the athletes to decide and very few of them stayed away.

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This is the winner of the pole vault, Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz of Poland. He was competing against the local favourite Volkov and the partisan crowd were not keeping quiet during his jumps. Kozakiewicz had the day of his sporting life and broke the world record. On landing his jump he let the crowd know what he thought of them by giving the crooked elbow salute. “Kozakiewicz’s Gesture” as it became known was also interpreted as a protest by the Eastern European against the Soviet Union and the Russians did protest that his medal should be withheld because of the perceived insult. In a world where soundbites by so many sportsmen and women are so asinine and platitudinous it’s just good to see someone showing their emotions in such an individual way.

It was a toss up whether I would include the Steve Ovett/Seb Coe rivalry in 1980 or in 1984. There is another British hero across both these Olympics and he will get the next one. The 100m is now regarded as the blue riband event of athletics.  British fans  had grown up with the stories of the first 4 minute mile by Roger Bannister, helped by an outstanding generation of middle distance runners. We saw the “metric mile”, the 1500m as the glamour event.

Britain had 2 outstanding athletes at this distance. They were not just rivals but very different personalities. Ovett was more extrovert. He had won the European Championships easing up and waving to the crowd. He sometimes grew a scruffy beard, a bit of an outsider. Coe had a purple patch a year later in 1979. He set 3 new world records in 41 days. He was a trim, smart polite boy. Even before he entered politics he was the poster boy for the new Thatcherite  Britain. Your mum loved Sebastian and your mates were for Ovett. It really was split like that. However, if Ovett was to succeed at the Olympics then he was gonna have to raise his game.

Steve was favourite for the longer distance, Seb for the 800m. In fact they won a gold medal each but in their less favoured events. This was only the 2nd time they had actually raced each other and they certainly did not appear to be the friendliest of team mates.

There was a 3rd British competitor in the 1500m final. Steve Cram had to aim high if he was to be even a worthy 3rd best. By 1983 he was the World Champion. It was an amazing time for British middle distance running where we had the 3 best in the world. However they did not run against each other very often. We would go to Crystal Palace and watch all 3 win separate races with world class turns of speed. I’m sure that the egos of the protagonists got in the way. Maybe now with the benefit of hindsight they regret that they did not bring the best out of each other in more races.

Coe, Sebastian

In 1984 I hoped to see the above image into the last bend of the 1500m final. It was not to be. Ovett had respiratory problems and failed to defend his 800m title. He stepped off the track at the beginning of the last lap. Coe went on to defend his title and Cram won the silver. It really was a golden age for British athletics with medals and world records for all 3. Steve Ovett remains a sporting hero of mine for his ability, his attitude and his cussedness. I would have loved to have had the chance to have bought the man a beer.

olympic memories montreal 1976

In 1976 the concept of perfection in sport was brought into focus during the Montreal Olympics. 4 years previously Olga Korbut had charmed the world with her ability. This time around it was the 14 year old Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci in the spotlight. She had received the ultimate perfect score of 10 in previous competitions but no competitor had ever done this in the Olympics. The scoreboard manufacturer inquired if 4 digits would be needed and were told that this would not be necessary. Nadia’s score appeared as 1.00 to the initial confusion of the crowd. She went on to score 6 more perfect scores and won 3 gold medals. Gymnastics has always been popular in the USA and Comaneci was the sensation of the Games. Personally I feel that the ability of these teenage muscle girls is admirable but my favourite gymnast of this era remains the Russian Nellie Kim who was older (though only 19 in 1976) more feminine and more graceful so gets a photo here.

The USA boxing team of 1976 is regarded as the strongest team sent by that country to the Olympics. They won 5 gold medals and 4 of these winners progressed to professional world titles. The Spinks brothers, Leon & Michael, had high profile careers but it was Ray Leonard (nicknamed “Sugar”) who caught the eye the most.He became World Champion in 1979 stopping future Hall of Famer Wilfred Benitez. In 1980 he returned to the Montreal Olympic stadium and lost his title to Roberto Duran. He avenged this loss and regained the title just 5 months later in the famous “No Mas” fight. Leonard was the most famous fighter of his generation. In the early 80s I worked in a small warehouse with a young guy who did not seem in the mood on one particular day. I asked if there was a problem and he said that Sugar Ray was appearing at a nearby gym. He really would rather be there than at work. I told him to keep quiet and clear off for a couple of hours, I would cover for him. He was surprised and pleased that I would do that for him. I did not have to make the tea for about 6 weeks !

The 400m and the 800m were both won by a powerful Cuban, Alberto Juantorena. He was the first man to do such a double at these championships. A wonderful natural runner he had only seriously run the longer distance for a year. He set a new world record in this event. Alberto is remembered as a great athlete and for a remark made by the indomitable British commentator, David Coleman who said “Juantorena opens his legs and shows his class !” Oo-er.

olympic memories munich 1972

I’ve got to be honest, real life got in the way of the Olympics in 1972. I had some important exams & went on holiday for a week. I was away from a TV for a few days. I must have watched the athletics. I don’t think my alternative lifestyle went as far as abandoning sport. I was however away for the defining event of the Games.

Black September, a Palestinian cadre, entered the Olympic village and took Israeli athletes hostage killing two people. Their demands were for the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israel and of the leaders of the German Baader Meinhoff group. Negotiations quickly moved the situation forward and by the evening helicopters were ferrying hostages and kidnappers to an airfield. German authorities never intended to allow the Palestinians to leave the country but the rush to exacerbate the situation had not been conducive to the development of any coherent plan further than killing them. The shoot out went horribly wrong and 17 people died, 11 Israelis, 5 of the Palestinians and a German policeman. The games, suspended for 12 hours, continued.

In the early 1970s radical groups understood the symbolism of gestures which occurred under the scrutiny of the world’s media. Hi-jacks, bombings, robberies and murders became the way these groups publicized their cause. The authorities were slow to react to this threat. There is no greater world wide event than the Olympic Games. The security surrounding the Games is understandable, any incident never mind one as disastrous and as horrible as this massacre is magnified by the intense coverage. Whether the Germans had prior warning of the raid, or were under pressure to resolve the situation as quickly as possible, mistakes were made which caused the death of 11 coaches and athletes.

The women’s athletics were dominated by 3 countries and were disastrous for the USA. USSR, East and West Germany won all the events except one. Heide Rosendahl won 2 golds in the long jump and the relay. She was the local favourite for the pentathlon. It took a new world record to beat her and it was Mary Peters from Northern Ireland who made the record and took the gold. Mary had charmed the Bavarian crowd with her effervescence, her obvious delight in competing before a packed stadium. There were chants of “Mary, Mary” heard as she competed. She charmed our country as well and became Dame Mary Peters within a year. She continued to compete and in retirement became an ambassador for British athletics. This weekend she celebrated the victory of Jessica Ennis, at 73 she looked fit and well and as happy as someone who for two days performed her chosen event better than anyone had ever done.

Precious Mckenzie a diminutive (4ft 9ins) weightlifter was omitted from the South African Olympic team of 1960 because he was the wrong colour. In 1964 he was told he could compete but he must be segregated from the white athletes. He refused to go and left South Africa for Britain. Fast tracked to British citizenship he competed in 3 Olympic Games. He did not win a medal but he did win 3 golds for England in Commonwealth Games. He moved to New Zealand in 1974, winning a fourth gold for them. Precious became a personality during his time in Britain turning up to do things like lift Muhammed Ali in his shoulders. I love this photograph. I hope that after the humiliations brought upon him by the disgusting regime in his home country that he found his adopted country to be a welcoming place. In 2006 he was elected to the South African sport Hall of Fame. Too little too late for a whole generation who suffered I think.

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.