HEROES OF THE XXI OLYMPIAD

Michael Posner August 1 1976

HEROES OF THE XXI OLYMPIAD

Michael Posner August 1 1976

HEROES OF THE XXI OLYMPIAD

Michael Posner

The Americans landed on Mars and an earthquake flattened Tangshan. There were riots in South Africa, murders in Northern Ireland, carnage in Lebanon. Pitcher Randy Jones won his eighteenth game and Jerry Pate captured the Canadian Open. Sony Inc. reported that second quarter profits were up 100%. The franc dropped against the dollar and the price of gold dipped to a three-year low. Lady Banting and Mickey Cohen died. It rained, at last, in Europe.

All of this the world briefly noted and then ignored. For 16 days last month, the attention of millions was riveted elsewhere, on the city of Montreal and the Games of the XXI Olympiad. Nothing rivaled it. For several hours every day North Americans sat enthralled before their television sets, suddenly learned in the finer points of Greco-Roman wrestling. Even Sesame Street was preempted. The world’s leading newspapers ran Olympics stories on page one. No fewer than seven magazines displayed the pubescent form of gymnast Nadia Comaneci—the first woman to score a perfect mark in the Olympics—on their covers. In Montreal, scalpers exchanged $30 seats for $200 in hard cash. Spectators lined up for hours to secure standing room tickets or a brief glimpse of the Olympic Village. Telly Savalas, Mick Jagger and Queen Elizabeth came to call. In the streets of a city in which

even the women who hawk Jehovah’sWitnesses literature are chic,there was singing until 3 a.m.

It was an occasion. Conceived in fantasy and reared amid controversy, the Montreal games—to the surprise of everyone— were executed with near-flawless precision. Predictably, there were complaints about security, but the indefatigable presence of Canadian army officers clearly had its intended effect. The closest approximation to an incident was the crashing of the closing ceremonies by a lone streaker. In the end, even Roger Taillibert’s Stade Olympique, an edifice of classic proportions, was ready (if not finished). And though the debt for this fortnight’s festival was estimated at $1.5 billion and still climbing, Montrealers seemed to accept it with Gallic indifference. Spent or misspent, the money had already changed

hands; one might as well enjoy it.

Every Olympiad engenders its own set of heroes, new demigods of sport. To the scrolls that bear the now legendary names of Kuts and Zátopek and Nurmi, the Montreal games will add Lasse Viren, the inscrutable Finnish game warden, and the first man to win both the 5,000and 10,000metre races in consecutive Olympics; Nadia Comaneci, the sullen 14-year-old princess of the balance beam, a child in everything but grace; Vasili Alexeyev, the strongest man in the world; Alberto Juantorena, a six-foot two-inch Cuban revolutionary with the speed of Secretariat and the strength of Man O’ War—it is not for nothing that his teammates call him El Caballo; Irena Szewinska, a 30-year-old Polish housewife and mother, competing in her fourth Olympics and winning the 400 metres (her seventh medal) in world record time; Bruce Jenner, the essence of the American Way and quite simply the finest all-round athlete in the world; and Komelia Ender, owner of four gold medals, the fastest swimmer of her generation.

Their performances in Montreal transcended the narrow bounds of nationalism. Juantorena may have dedicated his victories to Fidel Castro, but his finishing kick owes nothing to socialism. It stands alone. At its core—at its best—sport is politically neutral. And these were the best.

To watch Lasse Viren fight off four challengers in the last stretch of the 5,000metre race, his muscles taut with agony; to see a doll-like Romanian teen-ager perform a double twisting somersault off the uneven bars, to watch Ender explode from the starting blocks to a half-length lead— these are vignettes that possess their own exquisite permanence. “One day,” said Juantorena, “my records will be broken. But people will always remember what I did here, that I won the gold medal.” Four years hence, a new set of heroes will emerge, but these images of excellence will not fade.

There once was a time when North Americans knew little and cared less about the sport of gymnastics. That was before Olga Korbut. In league with ABC, the net-

work of the Olympics, Korbut’s acrobatic flourishes in Munich created an instant audience of millions. Its high risks, intense pressures and demanding skills were perfectly suited to the television medium.

Four years ago, the Russians—Korbut, Ludmila Tourischeva, Nelli Kim — were the best in the world. But in Montreal they were all eclipsed by a four-foot six-inch, sad-eyed elf named Nadia Comaneci, who in the opinion of the judges and the crowd, could do no wrong. Seemingly oblivious to the frantic whirr of movie cameras and motor drives, the crackle of flash bulbs or the fierce stress of Olympic competition, Comaneci moved through her daring routines with unflappable cool—never missing so much as a toe point. On the balance beam—a four-inch width of padded spruce, four feet above the floor, she flipped effortlessly into somersaults, handstands and splits. On the uneven bars, she whipped her elastic body through breathtaking manoeuvres: handstands and full twists at high speed. Against this unerring daughter of a Romanian garage mechanic, Korbut, Tourischeva and the others scarcely had a chance. Seven times during the competition, perhaps swayed by the volatile crowds in the Montreal Forum, the judges accorded Comaneci the sport’s highest honor—a mark of 10. But her victory dance seemed as programmed as her routines: a wave of the arms and a frozen smile that vanished the moment the television cameras turned away.

Comaneci was equally at ease with the horde of international journalists clamoring for her secret.

“How did Nadia feel about receiving perfect scores?”

“It is nothing special. I have done it before.”

“Is Nadia afraid of anything?”

“Only when I fight with my brother.”

The media heavyweights came to marvel at the child-goddess and Nadia brushed them off like so much dandruff.

Individuals aside, the single most impressive achievement of the Montreal games was the performance of the German Democratic Republic. In all, GDR won 90 medals,including 40 golds—more than the United States or Japan or Great Britain. But the tally does not begin to suggest the East Germans’ depth. In most competitions, GDR athletes scored as many fourth, fifth and sixth place finishes as they did firsts, seconds and thirds. By 1980, presumably, the second rank will have developed into champions, and a new breed ofjuniors will have taken their place. They will be

graduates of the most awesomely efficient sports system in the world, launched a mere 15 years ago. There is no magic in the GDR program. A 400-metre track in Halle is not appreciably different from a 400metre track in San Diego or—though Canadian athletes shun the recognition— Sudbury. The force required to snatch a 200-pound weight is the same in Bitterfeld as it is in Boston. What the East Germans have mastered, however, is organization. From kindergarten through university, athletic abilities are screened and tested. Those who show special talent are en-

rolled in special sports schools, studying in the morning, training in the afternoon. Equipment, facilities, coaching—everything is provided by the state. The package is complete. Its motivation may be blatantly political and the system of selection, by Western standards, undemocratic—but after Montreal no one would dare pretend that it does not work. That a nation of 17 million people can produce 90 Olympic medalists is a staggering achievement.

The GDR juggernaut was best witnessed in the Olympic swimming pool, a handsome, 10-lane affair conducive—it had

been forecast—to fast times. And so it was: East German women set eight world records en route to winning 11 of 13 events. For most finals, the only issue in doubt was who would win second and third. First place almost invariably went to a strapping East German fraulein, usually named Komelia (Konny) Ender, a 17-year-old swimming machine blessed with size 36 shoulders and a pair of biceps most men would be proud to claim. “She has a good stroke, she’s as tough as nails, and she's about as attractive as the East Germans get,” said American backstroke specialist John Naber—a compliment Ender might justifiably ignore. “She swims like a man,” noted Mark Spitz, ABC-TV’S color commentator. “I don’t mean that pejoratively either. The male stroke is just more efficient. So is hers.”

North Americans saw ample evidence of Ender’s efficiency. At one evening session, she won two gold medals within 27 minutes (in the 100-metre butterfly, and the 200-metre freestyle), an achievement roughly comparable to running and winning a 400-metre and a 1,500-metre race in the same day; it isn’t done. Far from wearying at the end, she turned into her last 50 metres head to head with arch-rival Shirley Babashoff of the United States, then simply geared into overdrive to win by a full length and one-half. “No one’s going to beat Ender,” said Canadian coach Deryk Snelling. “She’s ahead of her time. Eventually, the rest of us may catch up, but for the moment she’s unquestionably the best in the world.”

The chief casualty of the East German coup de piscine was Babashoff, at 21 all vacuous innocence. “In the United States, people do sports for fun, not to live,” Babashoff said, defending her silver medals. “For me swimming is fun, but it looks like it’s a job for the East Germans. I wasn’t picked to be a swimmer when I was in kindergarten and sent to a training camp for

10 years. Those girls are told when to get out of the pool. They’re told to work hard and think of nothing but swimming.” Scoffed GDR swimming chief Dr. Rudolfe Schramme: “The American men are as successful as our women. Aren’t they having fun? Of course, the argument is invalid. It isn’t possible to do this well and not have fun. Come watch us train and see for yourself.” So saying, Schramme adjourned the interview for another training session.

The American counterpoint to Ender was lanky John Naber, a six-foot six-inch backstroker with a taste for theatrics. He turned his four gold medal victories into the John Naber Hour, waving kisses and the flag to a predominantly American crowd, acknowledging their applause with elaborate bows and at one point swimming four extra victory laps. A use junior headed for a career in public relations, Naber proved as confident and congenial oneon-one as he was before the cheering crowds. “I feel a personal tie with the audience, and my behavior isn’t rehearsed. It’s just my way of releasing tension. Why am I good? I pin myself against myself. I know what times I’ve swum and I assume I’m capable of doing better. If I’m going to go 55.5 and somebody else can beat it, he deserves the gold medal. You have to crash the pain barrier to have a great swim, and it’s hard to get motivated to making it hurt. I’m almost tired of the sport now and when I’m tired, John says good-bye.”

When Naber was not becoming the first man to break two minutes in the 200m backstroke, or answering questions or attending Christian prayer sessions (he’s a fundamentalist, though his parents are atheists) or playing his guitar, he’d stroll through the Village in his beanie—specially knit for the games by his grandfather’s secretary, Mabel. “It keeps my head warm, it’s red, white and blue and it gives me something to do with my hands.” The son of a San Francisco business consultant, Naber spent four years in Italy (aged four to eight) and once spoke fluent Italian. An elder brother is an A + cadet at West Point. A sister is a model and a second brother plays 60 minutes of highschool football. “My parents said to me, ‘John, you find out what you want to do and we’ll back you 100%.’ They’ve given me the freedom to make my own decisions, and made me accountable for them.” Few 20-year-old athletes anywhere in Montreal sounded quite so together. Even the East German dynamos were unable to shake Naber’s confidence. Against the GDR national hero Roland Matthes (seeking his third consecutive backstroke gold medal), Naber’s margin of victory in the 100-metre event was so convincing that Matthes simply withdrew from the 200 metres, and spent the rest of the meet coaching his fiancée, Kornelia Ender.

But John Naber’s heroics in the pool were small consolation to the U.S. track and field team. For the first time in 48 years, an American did not place in the 100-metre sprint. For only the third time in 80 years, an American failed to win the 100-metre hurdles, as Frenchman Guy Drut fought off Cuba’s Alejandro Casanas for the gold medal. (Asked how the French, so devoted to food and drink, could possibly produce an Olympic champion, Drut replied: “That philosophy is not altogether wrong, you know. Sports is important, but it’s not everything. Life is short, and we have to live it to the full. I love sports, but I’ve never sacrificed in order to train. The day I do is the day I quit.”) Shot putter George Woods barely qualified for the final. Marathon favorite Frank Shorter succumbed to the rain, the hills of Montreal and a tireless East German named Waldemar Cierpinski to finish second. Rain likewise destroyed high-jumper Dwight Stones, who had boasted for what seemed like months of his impending gold medal victory in Montreal. “It was fate or destiny or whoever is up there running the show,” Stones said of his third place finish. “I obviously wasn’t supposed to win. I said all along that if it rains, Dwight is in big

trouble. There’s no doubt that if it had been dry I would have broken the world record and won the gold medal.”

Assessing the American performance, hurdler Willie Davenport, at 33 the grand old man of American track and field, observed: “What we lack clearly is a post-collegiate development program. The kids come out of college with all sorts of talent and training but nowhere to go. I think the United States is still as great as it was, but the rest of the world has simply caught up.” The distribution of medals seemed to confirm that thesis, as 13 nations shared 23 possible golds.

Meanwhile, the defeats continued. Rick Wohlhuter(in the 800 metres) and Fred Newhouse (in the 400) had the singular misfortune to encounter Alberto Juantorena, whose powerful and sustained finishing kick in both events left other competitors incredulous. “He’s an animal,” said Dwight Stones, a term of infinite respect in the Stones lexicon. “He’s very strong and very relaxed and very impressive,” said Newhouse. “He was as tired as I was in the stretch, and we were even with 80 metres to go, but that stride of his is just that much longer than mine.” A graduate student in economics at the University of Havana, and a former basketball player (until his coaches discovered he was more adept in running up the court than sinking baskets), Juantorena is 24 but appears older. When he gives interviews, only one eye stays on his questioner; the other scans pedestrian traffic and winks at every pretty girl. His revolutionary fervor (“I have worked twice in the sugar cane harvests and, knowing the importance of sugar to the Cuban economy, would be honored to do so again”) seems genuine. He belongs to the same Communist youth league as boxer Teofilo Stevenson. Eight years old when Castro came to power in 1959, Juantorena remembers enough of the Batista’s re-

gime to welcome socialism. “We have free clothing, free education. Did the revolution change sports in Cuba? Well, let’s see, do you recall any medals we won before the revolution?”

In the continued assault of American expectations and traditions, there was but one notable exception: Bruce Jenner, a sixfoot two-inch, 215-pound specimenof athletic perfection. Packaged and sold as only prime time television can sell, Jenner is to track and field what Nadia Comaneci is to gymnastics. He can do everything. During two exhausting days, he outran, outjumped and outhurled the world’s best athletes, to set a world record (8,618 points) in the decathlon and win a gold medal. The Americans badly needed Jenner’s victory. He restored their faith in the system. He defended the flag. East Germany might win nine of 14 medals in women’s events, but there were no Bruce Jenners in the German Democratic Republic—no one with his clean-cut good looks, his total talents, his assurance before a microphone.

Traditionally, the decathlon’s 10 events leave competitors physically and emotionally drained. But barely 30 minutes after he had run the last event—1,500 metres in the enviable time of 4.12 minutes—Jenner looked like a man who had just slept eight hours as he launched into a detailed 20minute analysis of the competition. The adrenalin was still flowing. He was an athlete at the absolute apogee of his form. “Well, I did the third lap in 68 seconds and

felt the best I've ever felt. And the more I picked up the pace, the better I felt. I couldn’t believe it. I knew 1 was close to 8,600 points and I wanted to score 8,600 in the last meet of my life. So I couldn’t let down. When I crossed the line and saw my time, it was the happiest moment of my life. 1 wasn’t even tired. I’ve enjoyed the climb to the top. I’ve set goals and met every' one of them. I hate to say our system wins, but I grew up in a country that let me do whatever I wanted to do.” The Americans had found a hero.

More inspiring than even Jenner’s achievement were the twin golds of Lasse Viren. The soft-spoken Finn spent “most of 1973 celebrating” his dual Munich victories. “Then through 1974 and '75 I had injuries and ran poorly.” Few observers expected another double. But Viren was ready. He spent five weeks running 30 miles a day through the rarified atmosphere of Kenya, and another month in Colombia taking careful aim at what no one since Zátopek had ever achieved—gold medals in the 5,000, 10,000 and marathon races. But Zátopek never had to run qualifying heats and the level of competition in 1952 was not as fierce. (The Czech’s margin of victory in the 10,000-metre race was a full 15 seconds.) American marathoner Frank Shorter had even passed up the 10,000 race, saying it would be simply too difficult to run three long races (heat, final and marathon) in eight days. But Viren, planning five races in eight days, paced himself. He breezed through the heats, scored a relatively easy victory in the 10,000-metre final (letting Portugal’s Carlos Lopes lead for most of the race, then taking command with 400 metres to go) and prepared for the 5,000-metre final.

The impressive field included former milers like Dick Quax and Rod Dixon of New Zealand, who had great speed over the last 1,500 metres. To win, Viren needed to control the pace of the race. If the early laps were too fast, he would have nothing left at the end. If they were too slow, his opponents would beat him with their speed to the finish. The early pace was fast,

too fast for Viren’s liking. So after five laps he went to the front and slowed it by three seconds a lap. In the last mile, the lead changed hands three times, but Viren regained it with 1,000 metres to run. “I thought it was over at that point,” Quax said later. “I thought Viren was finished. I never thought he’d be able to sustain his kick.” But he did—as first Quax and then West Germany’s Klaus Hildebrand and finally Dixon came at him for the lead and then fell back. They could not catch him.

Only 24 hours later, Viren started his first marathon. He managed to stay with the leaders through 30 kilometres, but the strain of his other races finally caught him. He finished an honorable fifth. His time of two hours 13 minutes was 10 minutes faster than Zatopek’s time in 1952.

It was not an Olympics the Soviet Union will fondly remember. The Russian soccer squad, boasting the finest players (amateur or professional) in the game, finished a disappointing third. After a critical 2-1 loss to East Germany, a senior Soviet football official noted: “Well, we’ll have to get rid of

these guys. They obviously lack a proper sense of obligation to their country.” By those standards, a number of other Soviet athletes may likewise have their performances reviewed. Sprinter Valery Borzov, a double gold medalist at Munich, finished third in the 100 metres and then failed to turn up for his qualifying heat in the 200 metres, sparking unfounded rumors of his defection. (Another Russian athlete, 17year-old diver Sergei Nemtsanov, did defect, reportedly with the aid of his American girl friend.) The men’s basketball squad, gold medalists in 1972, were humiliated by Yugoslavia and forced to settle for bronze. The men’s volleyball team finished second to Poland, then consoled themselves with a four-hour shopping spree on suedes, leathers and blue jeans. Heavyweight boxer Viktor Ivanov, touted as a distinct threat to Cuba’s Teofilo Stevenson, didn’t make it past the tournament’s second round. But the most crushing Soviet embarrassment was occasioned by 45-year-old fencer Boris Oneschenko, who carried his quest for Olympic victory beyond good taste: he cheated,

rigging the handle of his epee with sophisticated electronic circuitry, enabling him to record a “hit” on his opponent even when he hadn’t. Had he been more discreet he might never have been caught. Instead, he began registering “hits” even when he had not come close to his opponent. Finally a hit was challenged, the weapon seized and inspected and One-

schenko flown home in disgrace, though not before he was overheard screaming at his coach, “You made me do this.”

Typically, the Soviets kept close watch over all their athletes—winners and losers alike. For the first 10 days, they were allowed" outside the residential block only to eat and to train. Visits to the international sector, with its discotheques, cinemas, boutiques and videotape replay rooms for every sport were forbidden.

But back in the fields of competition, the Russians produced a few heroes of their own—and provided them with ample rewards—an estimated 4,500 rubles

($30,000) for gold medalists and half that to winners of silver. For the third consecutive time, the seemingly ageless Victor Saneev won the Olympic triple jump. Hammer thrower Yuriy Sedyych defeated his own coach and Munich gold medalist Anatoli Bondarchuck to win the gold. “I knew Yuriy was better than I was,” the balding Bondarchuck said later. “In a moral sense, it was satisfying to see him win.” Tatiana Kazankina, a frail-looking graduate student in economics from Leningrad, became the only woman to win two gold medals in track and field, winning the 800 and 1,500 metres, the former in world record time. And superheavyweight Vasili Alexeyev, perhaps the Soviet Union’s most popular athlete, set a world weight-lifting record in the clean and jerk, hoisting 562 pounds to win the gold medal.

And what of Canada—the first host nation in Olympic history that failed to win a single gold medal? On paper, the country’s 11-medal total (eight alone in the swimming pool) is not exactly imposing. But the Canadian effort was actually a vast improvement over the team’s performance in Munich. In the silver medals of highjumper Greg Joy, canoeist John Wood and equestrian Michel Vaillancourt; in the performance of the sprint relay teams, in the stubborn determination of Jack Donohue’s basketball squad (which finished fourth), there are grounds for optimism.

Every Olympiad carries its own asterisk. In 1968 at Mexico City, the army opened fire on protesting students, killing eight. In 1972 at Munich, the violence moved indoors: 11 Israelis dead from the guns of Arab terrorists. In 1976, a 29-nation walkout, the largest boycott in Olympic history. Politics has never been far removed from international sport, but seldom have their diverging interests been so ensnarled. First, to the dismay of an American press corps grimly determined to misunderstand the issue, Ottawa told the International Olympic Committee that Taiwan, otherwise known as the Republic of China, could not pretend to represent the interests of mainland China to 22 million Canadians who knew better. The Taiwanese could fly their flag and play their anthem, but they could hardly be allowed to imperil Sino-Canadian relations by calling themselves the Republic of China. Unwilling to accept this compromise, the Taiwanese withdrew—perhaps permanently— an exit that now facilitates the longawaited admission of the People’s Republic of China to the ioc fraternity. But even while Taiwan’s athletes were packing their bags and heading for home, thousands of Olympics visitors were buying souvenirs stamped MADE IN TAIWAN.

Far more serious was the black African walkout (28 nations in all), ostensibly in protest of a tour of South Africa by a New Zealand rugby team. “Sports ties with the racist regime of South Africa constitute implicit support for apartheid,” declared one African official. “This must not go unnoticed. If New Zealand stays, we leave.”

The African position conveniently ignored the fact that rugby is not an Olympic sport, that many other nations (including Canada) maintain sports ties with South Africa and that their own black athletes—including such exciting runners as Filbert Bayi and Miruts Yifter—suffered most from the boycott, denied a chance to test their talent against the world after years of training. The Africans earned some headlines but not much more. Only a handful of competitions missed their presence. Still, their walkout again underscored the political value of the Olympics, and its force as a focus of world opinion. Condemn South Africa at the United Nations and a diligent reader of the New York Times might find the item on page 62. But dare to boycott the Olympic Games and the world jumps smartly to attention.

The long term effects of the African power play are difficult to read. In any event, it is just one of myriad problems the ioc must soon grapple with. If politics does not savage the games, the costs of staging them may, and the ioc must soon decide whether lofty Olympic ideals are worth a billion dollars and the threat of terrorism, whether all 21 Olympic sports are worth keeping; whether a permanent site in Greece (or elsewhere) ought not to be established. In the months to come, in the cozy salons of Geneva and Lausanne, the ioc will do its work. The heroes of the XXI Olympiad have done theirs and taken their rightful place in history. T1?