Person-to-person sportsmanship shows the Olympics at their best

JOE CHIDLEY August 5 1996


Person-to-person sportsmanship shows the Olympics at their best

JOE CHIDLEY August 5 1996



Person-to-person sportsmanship shows the Olympics at their best


In Turkey, they call him Pocket Hercules. And although he stands less than five feet tall, nobody in the world of Olympic weightlifting is bigger than Naim Suleymanoglu, a four-foot, 11-inch, 141-lb. dynamo with abbreviated arms and legs like tree stumps. An ethnic Turk born in Kircali, Bulgaria, 29 years ago, Suleymanoglu set his first world record in 1983, when he was only 16 years old. Since defecting to Turkey in 1986, he has become a national hero to his ethnic homeland. Suleymanoglu captured his first Olympic gold in Seoul in 1988. He did it again in 1992 in Barcelona.

And in Atlanta, he faced only one real contender for his crown: the man he beat in Barcelona, 30-year-old Valerios Leonidis, five inches taller than Suleymanoglu, who calls his rival simply “the Greek.” Last week—five days before the bomb that shattered the ancient Olympic tradition of peaceful competition—Leonidis and Suleymanoglu met for their second Olympic showdown. With hun-

dreds of Greek fans packing one side of the Georgia World Congress Center arena, and across from them hundreds of Turks screaming “Naim! Na-im!”, the stage was set for a noisy encounter between historical, bitter enemies—a test of national wills. But it turned out to be much more than that.

This battle of tiny titans was, in short, the greatest event in the history of weightlifting—among the purest of sports, a straightforward pitting of strength against strength.

In the first phase of competition, the snatch, Suleymanoglu bested Leonidis by 2.5 kg, lifting 147.5 kg— almost 325 lb.—in one swift motion.

(To put that into perspective, it is a Mickey Rooney hoisting a Shaquille O’Neal over his head.) In the clean and jerk, the Turk lifted 185 kg in his second attempt, eclipsing Leonidis’s previous world record of 183 kg. Then, the grimacing Greek promptly set a world mark of his own—187.5 kg, more than three times his body weight. Suleymanoglu took it in stride. With a sharp intake of breath and swaying under the incredible weight, he equalled Leonidis’s effort, setting

another world record for total weight. And after Leonidis tried, and failed, to lift 190 kg in his last attempt, Suleymanoglu became the first weightlifter ever to win three Olympic titles. As the Turkish fans cheered, Leonidis, crushed, began to weep. And then a funny, moving thing happened. The champion waddled up to Leonidis—and gave him a hug. A Turk hugging a Greek? Only at the Olympics.

Happening early in the first full week

qf the 16-day Games, it was the Atlanta competition’s first real “Olympic moment,” as TV commentators like to say. But Suleymanoglu’s class act was also the first real reminder that its

can transcend politics and nationality. In Atlanta in 1996, the point is easy to forget. These are, as NBC never tires of telling its viewers in its exclusive host-country Olympic TV coverage, “America’s Games.” And not surprisingly, most of the focus in Atlanta has been on the U.S. team and its oftenstirring accomplishments—like 18year-old Kerri Strug’s ankle-spraining vault to secure the first American gold medal in women’s team gymnastics. As “moments” go, it was tailor-made for TV.

But small-screen theatrics could not whitewash a more dubious U.S. accomplishment: staging the most bitterly complained-about Olympics in memory, as athletes and journalists continued to struggle against a chronically tardy transport system, scheduling foul-ups and a seriously lazy computer network that was supposed to provide up-to-the-minute results and athlete biographies—and failed on both counts.

Happily for the fans, the Atlanta Olympics have provided more than that. Beyond the triumphs on the rowing courses of Lake Lanier and the split-second shows on the 100-m

Limpert racing;

sprint track, Canadians marked a scattering of personal triumphs, including medal performances by cyclist Clara Hughes and swimmers Marianne Limpert and Curtis Myden. And like the little Turkish weightlifter, a host of international athletes made history of their own. One was darkhorse swimmer Michelle Smith, who became the first female competitor from Ireland ever to capture Olympic gold—and

then did it twice more, finally winning a fourth medal, a bronze, for good measure. Or Penny Heyns, another swimmer, the first gold medallist for post-apartheid South Africa who won the 100-m and 200-m breaststroke events. There was Aeksandr Karelin, the Siberian bear of superheavyweight Greco-Roman wrestling, who emerged triumphant in a tough final match against American Matt Ghaffari. Chinese gymnast Li Xiaoshuang rebounded from a terrible performance in men’s team competition to capture individual gold, while Ukraine’s stoical Lilia Podkopayeva won the women’s event. And a plucky Japanese soccer team, incredibly, defeated powerhouse Brazil 1-0—prompting Japan’s Chunichi Shimbun newspaper to run the headline, “Grabbing a miracle! Open the door of history!”

Forget the glitz and the inevitable hype, the bomb as a manic interruption. At these Olympics, the Games are still the thing.

Rain poured down on the bicycle road-racing course in suburban Atlanta on the first Sunday of the Games, turning the 108-km course slick and many of the best riders in the world cautious. But halfway through the race on the streets of suburban Atlanta, a small group of cyclists pulled away from the pack—and among them was a red-haired 23-year-old from Winnipeg, Clara Hughes. Going for the break, Hughes later said, was a matter of instinct.

“The road race is such a lottery,” she added, “you just never know if you’re going to get the moment you need.” In the end, it was the right moment: Hughes crossed the finish line in 2:36:44—only seconds behind France’s Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli and Italian Imelda Chiappa, and fast enough for Canada’s first medal, a bronze. ‘To be the first Canadian medal in these Games is something so special—words are really limiting,” said an emotional Hughes, who only took up competitive cycling at 18. “It’s something I’ll never forget.” Neither, no doubt, will her parents. With their daughter’s two events separated by two weeks, Maureen and Ken Hughes decided to travel to Atlanta to watch her specialty, the 26.2-km time trial, on Aug. 3. And Clara Hughes had something special to give to her mother on arrival: the bronze medal. “It’s a way for me to give my parents something back,” she explained, “something that means a lot to me.”

Canadian medal achievements gained momentum lat-

er on that first Sunday on the other side of Atlanta, as more than 14,000 mostly American fans at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center cheered homegrown favorites Tom Dolan and Eric Namesnik in the 400-m individual medley swimming contest. But the noise did not faze competitor Curtis Myden of Calgary. “The crowd was loud, but it helps keep you going in the race,” said Myden, a 22-year-old physical education student at the University of Calgary. “You know that something exciting is going on.” Not that you could see the

excitement in Myden—a swimmer whose emotions are hard to read, even for his coach of six years, Deryk Snelling. “He doesn’t show emotion at winning, or losing, or swimming great or swimming just OK,” says Snelling. “He plays his life like poker, you know? He plays the cards he has.”

In the 400-m medley, those cards were good enough for a bronze medal behind Dolan and Namesnik—a nice birthday gift from the Canadian swimmer to coach Snelling, who turned 63 the next day. And the personal-best performance provided a mental boost going into the 200-m individual medley four days later. The strongest butterfly swimmer in the field, Myden got off to a fast start, leading the pack for the first 50 m. And although he fell off in the backstroke and breaststroke laps to eventual winner Attila Czene of Hungary and silver medallist Jani Sievinen of Finland, the Canadian hung on in the freestyle to capture his second bronze medal. With that, the soft-spoken Myden came close to the double-medal performance of his idol, Aex Baumann, who won two golds at the 1984 Games.

Canada’s best performance in the pool this year came from Marianne limpert. The personable 23-year-old from Fredericton, who joined the national team in 1991 as a junior phenom, has let Hamilton’s Joanne Malar take the medley spotlight in recent years. But head coach Dave Johnson says she came into the

Games better prepared than he had ever seen her. In the morning qualifying heats for the 200-m individual medley, limpert broke the Canadian record she set four years before. More importantly, her time was the fastest among the eight swimmers who, in the Atlanta twilight, took their marks with a shot at gold. She set the pace early, but after turning for home in the last 50 m—the freestyle segment of the medley—Irish swimmer Smith roared past for the victory.

Malar, meanwhile, swam a blistering final 50 to grab fourth place. When Limpert emerged from the pool, and when she stood on the podium with her new silver medal around her neck, she searched the stands for a sight of her parents. “It’s sort of a rule that I don’t talk to them before a race—they kind of freak me out,” Limpert said with a laugh. “But now, they can freak me out all they want.”

Finishing second to Smith foisted limpert into the major sporting controversy of the Games last week. After Smith won her first gold medal in the 400-m individual medley on July 20, the U.S. team lodged a formal complaint that she had registered too late for the 400-m freestyle—an event she won after an IOC arbitration panel ruled that she could race. But then, American swimmer Janet Evans raised the spectre of drug use to explain the 26-year-old Smith’s remarkable performances—the Irishwoman has improved her time in the 400-m freestyle by nearly 19 seconds since last year. “I think any time any person, any country, has dra-

matic improvement, there is that question,” Evans said. Adding fuel to the speculation: Smith’s husband and personal trainer, Erik de Bruin—a former world silver medallist in discus—is currently under a four-year ban from competition after testing positive for steroids.

After winning the 200-m medley, Smith angrily denied taking performance-enhancing drugs, saying that she has been tested repeatedly over the past 12 months with negative results. “When someone else is successful and you aren’t,” Smith said, in a clear

Hughes: being the first Canadian medal winner is something special

reference to the Americans, “it is easy to point the finger.” But while the Irishwoman vocally took on her critics, Canadian limpert seemed to be treating her part in the controversy—if Smith were disqualified, she would stand to get gold—with a typically wry sense of humor. When told that officials were still waiting for Smith’s drug-test results, Limpert flashed a wicked smile and said: “So am I.”

As Limpert, Myden and Hughes captured medals, disappointment dogged some other Canadian athletes. Highboard diver Anne Montminy, a Pointe-Claire, Que., native, ranked fourth in the world, failed to qualify for the final. Montrealer Nicolas Gill, who won bronze in the judo 86-kg weight class at the 1992 Barcelona Games, had a shot at a top-three finish in Atlanta. Then he ran into Dutchman Mark Huizinga. Officially, it all ended with four minutes, 55 seconds remaining in the five-minute match. But Huizinga, who went on to win bronze, needed far less than five seconds to convert Gill’s opening charge into a lightning-fast shoulder throw, winning the match and dashing the Canadian’s medal hopes. “He was waiting for me, that’s obvious,” Gill, 24, said afterwards. “I did exactly what he was expecting.” Gill’s fa-

ly was expecting.” ther, who watched from the stands, was philosophical about the loss. “This is one bad day in life,” Denis Gill said, shrugging his shoulders. “In Barcelona, he had a good day.”

As days go, ACOG—the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games—did not have many good ones. That, at least, was the conclusion of most of the 15,000 or so journalists who descended upon the piping-hot city of three million, where getting around is difficult at the best of times. Hell hath no fury like a journalist

waiting for a bus—and waiting became something of a non-official Olympic event in Atlanta, as complaints about late transports to and from Games sites persisted.

But the caterwauling over transportation was as nothing compared with the expletives reserved for the $80-million, IBM-co-ordinated computer system, designed to provide up-to-theminute results and e-mail for 150,000 accredited officials and reporters around the world. Last week, breakdowns were frequent, and many athlete biographies remained unavailable or inaccurate—one had a waifish, four-foot, 11-inch U.S. women’s field hockey player weighing in at over 200 lb. And several news agencies, who had paid thousands of dollars for a direct feed from the results system, complained of delays. Some demanded a refund. And IBM officials acknowledged that problems exist “We are obviously very upset about it because we don’t like

anything not to work,” said G. Richard Thoman,

the company’s chief financial officer. “There’s an urgent focus on getting it fixed.”

The seemingly airtight security, meanwhile, is under scrutiny after the bomb blast in Centennial Olympic Park. Even before that, 55-year-old Roland Atkins of Colorado managed to enter the opening ceremonies carrying a handgun and a knife. Tellingly, he initially escaped detection because, officials said, he was dressed as a security guard. And late last week at a downtown intersection, one civilian offered unsolicited aid to police in directing traffic. One problem: he was stark naked. As chaos seemed to reign in Atlanta, England’s Daily Telegraph newspaper summed up the sentiments of many by dubbing the 1996 Olympics “the cock-up Games.”

Still, ACOG seemed to be slowly working out the bugs in the system. And, as some Atlantans point out, journalists are wont to report their own problems in lieu of any real

As the Olympics entered their final week, the big-draw events in Atlanta were destined to be in track and field—hurdles, decathlon, high jump and pole vaulting, in an athletics schedule culminating in the men’s marathon on Aug. 4. And the American Dream Team ends its inevitable march to another gold medal over vastly inferior opponents—the basketball equivalent of the Gulf War. Canadians, meanwhile, looked for good performances in cycling, yachting, boxing and diving.

Whatever the accomplishments of the Canadians—or those of any other nationality, for that matter—the second week of the Atlanta Games promised more stirring victories and shocking disappointments, more “moments” for the TV cameras to capture. Just as inevitably, there will be controversies and foul-ups, logistical glitches and nightmares. And the Games, in their ancient origins a time of truce between hostile states, remain subject in their modern form to the menace of violence. But in the end, the remarkable thing about the Olympics is that they happen at all.

news—as was the case in the early days of the Games. But the foul-ups affected some athletes, too. On July 24, kayaker Heidi Lehrer of Antigua sustained a minor back injury when the bus she was on rammed into a concrete barrier near Lake Iraniër. Earlier in the week, the Canadian men’s table tennis team of Joe Ng and Johnny Huang awoke at 7 a.m. to warm up for their first match, scheduled for 10:30—only to find out that their game had been pushed back two hours. In that match, the team lost in straight sets to an Austrian pair they had defeated only two weeks earlier in the U.S. Open. “We have no idea of the schedule, we have no idea when our next match is,” said a visibly upset Huang, of Toronto. ‘We have to organize our own practices. I don’t understand why.”

The athletes’ village has also been the object of some scorn— the rooms are cramped, workers move furniture late into the night, and some athletes complained that security officers treat everyone like potential criminals. But table tennis veteran Lijuan Geng had only one complaint: the food. The Chinese-born 33year-old is not only the sixth-ranked female player in the world, but also the co-owner, with husband and coach Horatio Pintea, of an Italian food franchise in Ottawa. “My pasta,” Geng said simply, “is much better than here.”