Thursday, 21 August 2008

Olympics come and Olympics go

Olympics come and Olympics go. Some are memorable, some are not. Some are recalled for good reasons, some for bad. Here are some of my memories (and the odd little known fact) about past Olympics....

Rome 1960
Although I was born in time for the 1952 Helsinki Games and the 1956 Melbourne / Stockholm Games the first ones I recall were the Rome Games of 1960. This was only the second time that the athletes entered the stadium together for the closing ceremony. Prior to Melbourne they had come in by nation as they did for the opening. Of course, no Olympic event in the 1950s could match up to the 1954 Roger Bannister run which broke the four-minute mile.

In the marathon, Abebe Bikila, running barefoot, outlasted Rhadi Ben Abdesselem of Morocco to become the first black African Olympic champion. A little known fact about the Rome Games is that Yugoslavia got into the football final (which they won) on the toss of coin! No penalty shoot-outs in those days.

Tokyo 1964
The 1964 Tokyo Games were the first to be held in Asia. I don’t recall anything personally but the Japanese expressed their successful reconstruction after World War II by choosing as the final torchbearer Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hiroshima the day that that city was destroyed by an atomic bomb.

Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia became the first repeat winner of the marathon - less than six weeks after having his appendix removed. Australian Dawn Fraser won her third successive gold medal in the 100m freestyle. She was the first woman swimmer to win a total of eight medals (four gold and four silver) in three Olympics. For the first time a fibre-glass pole was used in the pole vault. By winning two medals of each kind, gymnast Larysa Latynina of the Ukraine brought her career medal total to an incredible 18. She is also one of only five athletes in any sport to win nine gold medals.

Lynn Davies won the men's long jump for GB and Mary Rand (later Twomey) won the long jump; Ann Packer won the 800m. Kenneth Mathews win in the 20k walk gave Britain a fourth athletics gold. Rand also got a silver in the pentathlon and a bronze as part of the relay team while Ann Packer got a silver in the 400m.

Mexico City 1968
The choice of Mexico City to host the 1968 Olympics was a controversial one because of the city's high altitude, 2,300m, which meant that the air contained 30% less oxygen than at sea level. Sure enough, the rarefied air proved disastrous to many athletes competing in endurance events. On the other hand, the high altitude led to world records in all of the men’s races that were 400m or shorter, including both relays, and in the 400m hurdles, in the long jump and triple jump as well.

Bob Beamon’s spectacular long jump of 8.90m would last as a world record for 22 years. The Mexico City Olympics were the first Summer Games to include sex testing for women. (since then, only one female compoetitor has not been sex-tested - HRH the Princess Royal). Al Oerter of the United States won the discus throw for the fourth time. The 1968 Games also saw the first drug disqualification, as a Swedish entrant in the modern pentathlon, Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall, tested positive…for excessive alcohol.

Britain's David Hemery won Gold in the 400m hurdles.

American athlete Dick Fosbury won the gold medal in the high jump having introduced the Fosbury Flop - the technique used today. Prior to that competitors had used the straddle jump, Eastern cut or scissors kick to clear the bar.

It wasn't just the medals that made these games memorable to me. At the age of 19 I was at my most vociferous in being concerned about racial issues and 1968 had the famous medal ceremony for the 200m. The black American athletes made names for themselves by an act of racial protest. During the medal presentation ceremony, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medal winners in the 200m, raised a black-gloved fist and hung their heads when their country’s national anthem was played. In doing this, they were protesting against racial segregation in the United States. Like many other people I was torn between the feeling that politics should be kept out of sport and feeling sympathy for the cause that they were espousing. The IOC had no such qualms and expelled them from the Olympic Village.

Munich 1972

Munich was the second Olympics in a row where it was events off the track that made the Games memorable. The 1972 Munich Games were the largest yet, setting records in all categories, with 195 events and 7,173 athletes from 121 nations. They were supposed to celebrate peace and, for the first ten days, all did indeed go well. But in the early morning of 5 September, eight Palestinian terrorists broke into the Olympic Village, killed two members of the Israeli team and took nine more hostage. In an ensuing battle, all nine Israeli hostages were killed, as were five of the terrorists and one policeman. The Olympics were suspended and a memorial service was held in the main stadium. In defiance of the terrorists, the International Olympic Committee ordered the competitions to resume after a pause of 34 hours. All other details about the Munich Games paled into in significance.

The 1972 Games were the first to have a named mascot: Waldi the dachshund. Waldi didn't do us much good - In 1972 Britain got no athletics golds.

Lasse Viren of Finland fell midway through the 10,000m final, but rose and set a world record to win the first of his four career gold medals. U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz won an incredible seven gold medals to go with the two he had earned in 1968.

The media star of the Munich Games was the tiny Soviet gymnast, Olga Korbut, whose dramatic cycle of success in the team competition, failure in the individual competition and renewed success in the apparatus finals captured the attention of fans worldwide.

The star of the games from a British point of view was Northern Ireland’s Mary Peters who won Gold in the pentathlon.

Montreal 1976
The 1976 Montreal Games were marred by an African boycott to protest the fact that the national rugby team of New Zealand had toured South Africa and New Zealand was scheduled to compete in the Olympics. Fourteen-year-old gymnast Nadia Comaneci of Romania caused a sensation when, for her performance on the uneven bars, she was awarded the first-ever perfect score of 10.0. She eventually earned seven 10.0s. Alberto Juantorena of Cuba put together the first 400m-800m double victory. To me this was not a particularly memorable Olympic Games but I remember Lasse Viren extended the line of great Finnish distance runners by winning the 5,000m and 10,000m events for the second time in a row. He also competed in the marathon, attempting to emulate Emil Zatopek's 1952 distance treble, and in his first attempt at this distance, finished fifth.

Princess Anne competed in the equestrian events.

Brendan Foster was the only British medallist in the athletics gaining the bronze in the 10,000m.

The Olympics were a financial disaster for Montreal, as the city faced debts for 30 years after the Games had finished.

Moscow 1980
The Olympics were disrupted by another, even larger boycott, this one led by U.S. president Jimmy Carter, part of a package of actions to protest the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This reduced the number of participating nations to 80, the lowest number since 1956.

The worst thing about the boycott from my point of view was that it denied Ed Moses the chance of a third Olympic gold in the 400m hurdles - n event he dominated for nine years, never losing a race.

In a dramatic confrontation, arch-rivals Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe faced each other in the 800 and 1,500m. The whole country stopped to watch these two races take place. Everyone had their favourite - mine was Coe. In the 800m, Ovett won the gold medal ahead of his compatriot. Six days later, a determined Coe redeemed himself in the 1,500m. He took the gold, while Ovett managed only a bronze. (Steve Cram – seen here between Coe and Ovett - finished well down the field but was to break the World record for this distance in a couple of years time.)

Daley Thompson took Gold in the Decathlon.

Allan Wells picked up the Gold Medal in the 100m in the absence of the US sprinters. He also got the silver in the 200m.

Los Angeles 1984
Although a revenge boycott led by the Soviet Union depleted the field in certain sports, a record 140 nations took part in an Olympics which was the first of the modern era to try for spectacle as well as sport.

Carl Lewis won both the 100m, 200m and the long jump and earned a fourth gold in the 4x100m relay.

Daley Thompson successfully defended his Olympic Decathlon title, beating off West Germany's Jurgen Hingsen. Sebastian Coe became the first repeat winner of the men's 1,500m with Steve Cram earning silver. Tessa Sanderson took the Gold medal for GB in the women's javelin and Fatima Whitbread got the bronze.

Seoul 1988
I'm the only person I know who watched the whole of the Seoul Olympics live - thanks to a few month old Richard who didn't sleep any better then than he does 20 years later.

In a coup for the Olympic Movement, Korea (South Korea) turned democratic in order to welcome the world to the Summer Games. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) boycotted, and was joined by Cuba, Ethiopia and Nicaragua. Still, records were set with 159 nations participating, 52 winning medals and 31 taking home gold medals.

Hodori - the friendly tiger - symbol of the 1988 Games.

These were the last Olympic Games in which live doves were released during the Opening Ceremonies as a symbol of peace, due to protests following an incident in which a number of the doves were burned alive by the lighting of the Olympic torch.

Florence Griffith-Joyner (FloJo) dominated the women's sprints taking Gold in the 100m, 200m and 4 x 100m relay. A colourful character, FloJo's fingernails had more colours than the rest of the Olympics put together. Sadly, she died in 1998 during a sever epileptic seizure. East German, Christa Luding-Rothenburger, who was also a speed skater, earned a silver medal in cycling to become the only person in history to win Winter and Summer medals in the same year. Steffi Graf concluded her Grand Slam tennis season by winning Olympic gold. Record holder and world champion, Russian Serguei Bubka dreamed of an Olympic title. He won the gold medal, but only just, vaulting 5.90m at the third attempt.

Sadly these Olympics are best remembered for the 'win' in the 100m Ben Johnson who beat Carl Lewis . Subsequently Johnson was disqualified for drug taking and his medal revoked, leaving a sour taste in everyone's mouth and casting a pall over athletics in general and sprinting in particular for years to come. Ben Johnson - one of the first superstar athletes to be caught using steroids - was eventually banned for life in 1993 for testing positive again. Britain's Linford Christie moved up to silver medal place as a result.

Meanwhile, in the 100m hurdles, Colin Jackson took silver.

In 1988 Britain got no gold medals in the athletics.

Barcelona 1992

South Africa was allowed to compete in the Olympics for the first time since the 1960 Games, after a long suspension for its apartheid policy. White South African runner Elana Meyer and black Ethiopian runner Derartu Tulu fought a close race in the 10,000 m (won by Tulu) and then ran a victory lap hand in hand.

Following its reunification in 1990, Germany sent a single, unified Olympic team for the first time since the 1964 Games. As the Soviet Union had been dissolved in 1991, the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania sent their own teams for the first time since 1936. The other Soviet republics competed under the name "Unified Team." The break-up of SFR Yugoslavia led to the Olympic debuts of Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Due to United Nations sanctions, SR Yugoslav athletes were not allowed to participate with their own team, but could compete under the Olympic flag as Independent Olympic Participants.

In the diving competitions, held in the view of the Sagrada Família, Fu Mingxia won the high dive event at the age of 13. The image of her diving from the springboard was one of the lasting ones of these games. In basketball, the admittance of professional players led to the formation of the "Dream Team" of the United States, featuring Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and other NBA stars.

Evelyn Ashford won her fourth Olympic gold medal in the 4x100 metre relay, making her one of only four female athletes to have achieved this in history. Gail Devers won the 100m.

Sally Gunnell won Gold in the 400m hurdles and bronze in 4 x 400m relay. Britain's Chris Boardman won the 4000M individual pursuit track cycling event for Great Britain. Sadly, Tony Jarrett could only manage fourth in the 100m hurdles.

Linford Christie finally won gold in the 100m, at 32 years old the oldest champion of the Olympic 100m.

Derek Redmond of Great Britain tore a hamstring during a 400m semi-final heat. As he struggled in agony to finish the race, his father entered the track without credentials and helped him complete the race, to a standing ovation from the crowd. Sergey Bubka had won gold in the men's pole vault in Seoul 1988, setting an Olympic record. He was favored to easily take the gold again, but he left Barcelona empty-handed, failing to make any height in the pole vault. He failed in all his attempts. A little over a month later, in Tokyo, Bubka would vault 20 feet 1 and 1/2 inches - his 32nd world record.

The Kenyan team took all three medals in the 3,000-metre steeplechase.

Atlanta 1996

The 1996 Games were given a dramatic start when the cauldron was lit by Muhammad Ali. On 27 July during a concert held in the Centennial Olympic Park, a terrorist bomb killed one person and injured a further 110 people, but the Atlanta Games are best remembered for their sporting achievements. A record-setting 79 nations won medals and 53 won gold.

American long jumper Carl Lewis became only the third person to win the same individual event four times and the fourth person to earn a ninth gold medal.

Michael Johnson in his golden shoes smashed the 200m world record to complete a 200m and 400m double. His 200m record lasted until Usain Bolt beat it in 2008.

Gigi and Mary Jo Fernandez of the USA beat the Czech pair of Jana Novotna and Helena Sukova in the women's tennis doubles with Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Conchita Martinez of Spain in the bronze medal place.

France's Marie-José Pérec won the 200m and then broke the 400m Olympic record, thus achieving the best performance for ten years. She became the most successful French female athlete of all time and the first sportswoman to win the Olympic title over 400m consecutively. Jamaican Merlene Ottey was second in the 200m. Australian Cathy Freeman won Silver in the 400m making her the hope of the Aussies for 2000.

1996 was another poor year for British athletes with Denise Lewis's bronze in the heptathlon being the only women's medal. Roger Black got a silver in the 400m and helped the relay team to silver. Jonathan Edwards got triple jump silver; and Stephen Backley did the same in the javelin.

Sydney 2000

The battle to hold the 2000 Olympics made all the events look as though they would pale into insignificance but eventually Sydney won the prize. The Sydney 2000 Games were the largest yet, with 10,651 athletes competing in 300 events. Despite their size, they were well organised. 199 nations and four individual IOC sponsored athletes took part.

Cathy Freeman had the honour to light the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony of the Games. (Like the doves a few years earlier she nearly got roasted in the process). She symbolized the desire to reconcile the white and Aboriginal populations of Australia and was the aborigine medal hopeful. Holding the nation's hopes on your shoulders is usually the death knell for Olympic athletes but Australia's Cathy Freeman won the 400m at the 2000 Sydney Olympics in a night of passion and drama.

Rower Steve Redgrave overcame diabetes and a hatred for training to win five consecutive Olympic golds from 1984 to 2000 and become Britain's greatest ever Olympian.

Triple jumper Johnathan Edwards got a Gold medal for GB. 2000 saw Britain's best medal total for eighty years with eleven Gold medals. Golds were also achieved by (inter alia) Stephanie Cook (modern pentathlon); Denise Lewis (heptathlon); Audley Harrison (boxing); Jason Queally (1km cycling time trial); Ben Ainslie (Laser dinghy).

Athens 2004

In 2004 the Olympic Games returned to Greece, the home of both the ancient Olympics and the first modern Olympics. For the first time ever a record 201 National Olympic Committees (NOCs) participated in the Olympic Games. The overall tally for events on the programme was 301 (one more than in Sydney 2000). Popularity in the Games reached soared to new highs as 3.9 billion people had access to the television coverage compared to 3.6 billion for Sydney 2000.

Swimmer Michael Phelps won 6 gold medals and set a single-Games record with 8 total medals. Runner Hicham El Guerrouj won both the 1,500m and the 5,000m, while on the women's side Britain's Kelly Holmes triumphed in both the 800m and the 1,500m.

I wonder what I shall remember about Bejing 2008...

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