Aug 6, 2008

Why I am an Olympics Geek

I love the Olympic games. I know, what the heck is so interesting about them? All the controversy and politics involved, it makes most people want to wish it would all go away. But I still love to watch them. I love competition, and especially love competition at it's best. When it is done right, and there isn't a message being thrown in your face, it brings out the best in us. I am drawn to the power, the beauty, the grace of athletes who are the best at what they do. And I am drawn to the stories behind the athletes, what they have given up to become the best.

I like both Summer and Winter games, and have favorite sports in each. The Winter games are special to me because I used to race downhill back in the day, and in the Summer games I love to watch the mile and the 800 meters, because I used to run both of those events.

I am also a fan of watching the marathon, because I have run that race and have friends that still run that distance. It is such a huge test of endurance, and to do it at the pace the Olympic athletes do it in, just boggles my mind.

But the best thing about the Olympics to me isn't the competition itself, it is the stories behind the scenes. The big stars are fun to watch, and I appreciate watching the best that the sport has to offer, but give me the underdog any day. The one who doesn't have a staff of people tending to their every need, the one who has to hold down a full time job and train at the same time. Those are the special stories.

I have favorite moments that bounce around in my head, both amazing athletic achievement, and the moments that break your heart. I tried to find some of the stories online, some I could and some I could not. But here are the stories that I love...

Cathy Freeman lit the torch to open the games in Sidney, then won for her country and the recognition of the Australian Aborigines when she took gold in the women's 400m at Sydney.

Britain's Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean earned 6.0s in 12 of their 18 marks for their free-dance interpretation of "Bolero" in 1984. They received unanimous perfect scores for artistic impression and were the first non-Soviet or Russians to win ice dancing gold.


Ali lighting the Olympic torch in Atlanta


Brian Boitano beating Brian Orser in mens skating by the narrowest of margins.


Hermann Maier crashes during the mens downhill, which was his specialty. He is knocked unconscious, and has a messed up shoulder, and still comes back the next few days to win the Giant Slalom and Super G.


Another of my favorite skiiers, Franz Klammer wins in his homeland of Austria where skiing is like religion. People line the course like we show up for football in the south.


I was cheering and crying when Dan Jansen finally got the monkey off of his back and won the gold in his final race.


The beauty of Nadia Comaneci in 1976 when she became the first to ever get a perfect score.


My favorite runner of all time, Emil Zatopek, had a running style that was completely without style, and he looked much older than he really was. If you were to pass him by on the street, the last thing on your mind would be world class runner. But he accomplished what nobody has ever done, and probably will not do again. Win the 5K, 10K, and the Marathon. They are all such different running disciplines, I can't imagine anybody being able to do it. Emil is the man in my avatar here on Blogger.


Billy Mills beating his own personnel best by 46 seconds in the 10K?!?! That is impossible, just ask anybody. But he did it.


All great performances, but other moments have been even more special to me. These are the stories that I love to hear, where people have competed for their country and for themselves just for the love of the sport. People like:

Eddie the Eagle!


Derek Redmond who tore his hamstring and still limped to the finish with his dad. His dad, by the way, bowled over two security guys like they were toddlers on the way out of the stands to go to his son.


Eric Moussambini of Equatorial Guinea swimming the 100 meters for the first time in an Olympic sized pool. He almost drowned! He trained in a hotel pool in his home country, and showed up at the Olympic games without any gear. The American and Australian teams set him up with caps, goggles, and worked on his stroke for a bit, but in the end it was all he could do to finish his first heat. Go Eric go!! Check him out here.

One special story that I just love is about just qualifying to make the Olympics. It is the story of two young girls who compete in Tae-Kwon-Do. Prior to the Sydney games, Esther Kim and Kay Poe trained and competed against each other in Houston. In the semi-finals, Kay Poe tore up a knee in the match against Mandy Meloon, but still won. Now she faced her friend, Esther Kim in the finals, with the winner going on to compete in Sydney. Kim told Poe: "Kay, just stop arguing and listen to me. You can't even stand up. If I won, it wouldn't be fair. I want you to let me bow out to you." Poe said no. Kim insisted. Ken Poe, Kay's father, brought Jin Kim over so everyone involved would know what happened and why. Both women were in tears as the Kim helped Poe limp to the competition mat. When the decision was announced, everyone at the Olympic Training Center stood and applauded as the two tearful women went to the mat, bowed and fell into each others arms sobbing.

Champions aren't always the ones with the medals hanging around their necks.

When International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Juan Antonio Samaranch heard of Kim's selfless act, he paid for her travel expenses to Sydney so she can see Poe try to win Olympic gold with the second-chance gift from her friend.


Other moments that I have read about and find special:

In 1912, American Jim Thorpe won the five-event pentathlon the ten-event decathlon. Nobody else has ever accomplished that feat.

In 1928 Australian rower Henry Pearce stops halfway through his quarterfinal race to let a family of ducks pass in front of his boat. Pearce still managed to win the race and the gold medal. In events that are measured by times down to 100ths of a second, that is just crazy to think someone could pull that off.

In 1960, Ethiopian Abebe Bikila won the marathon barefoot, he also broke the world record.

In the following games in1964, Bikila wins the marathon again after having his appendix removed a couple of weeks earlier!

Everyone knows about Jesse Owens winning 4 gold medals in 1936 in Berlin. But he faulted twice on the long jump and would be disqualified if he faulted a third time. It was the German long jumper he was competing against that told him to lay a towel down on the runway just before the jump line to use as his mark. Owens then won the gold and credited his rival for helping him win.


But my all time favorite athlete is Picabo Street.

Picabo was a tomboy growing up in Idaho to a couple of self-professed "hippies". The Streets' grew their own food and chopped their own wood for heat and cooking. Their was no television in their home until Picabo was 14. She grew up in a tiny village (population: 50) with only eight kids. Seven of them were boys. So she grew up tough, lost teeth as she raced BMX bikes against the boys, and found her passion in skiing. She won her first silver at Lillihammer in the downhill, and followed that up with the first ever world cup championship by an American. She had her first serious knee injury prior to the Nagano games. She rehabbed and came back. Then, in her last pre-Olympic competition on January 31, she crashed into a fence going 75 mph at the end of the race in Are, Sweden. Knocked unconscious, Street was able to walk away under her own power. Although she suffered a concussion, Street remained upbeat going into Nagano.
A few weeks later, Street became a hero when, ignoring headaches and neck pain, she captured her life-long dream: a gold medal at the Olympics. What makes the accomplishment even more remarkable is that she did it in the super giant slalom (Super G), an event in which she had never won a World Cup race -- even if it was by the slimmest of margins (.01 of a second).
Later that season, Picabo once again was faced with adversity, and this time it nearly ended her career. During a World Cup downhill race in Switzerland, she misread a bump and slammed into a fence at 70 mph. "I was lying there, and I could feel this bone trying to protrude out of my quad," she said.
It was a devastating injury. Her left femur was broken in nine places. To make matters worse, she also tore the ACL in her right knee. Nearly 28 at the time, Picabo's return to competitive world class skiing did not appear bright. "The damage was so total that the first order of business was just to try and get the knee to work again, let alone go skiing," said a team coach.
There was a Nike commercial at the time that ran on TV that I have tried hard to find out on YouTube, but to no avail. It showed Picabo in the hospital in bed, getting out into a wheelchair. She peeks out the door into the hall, and positions herself looking down the end of this long hall. The background sound is of the start of a ski race, with the countdown we have all heard, the 5 beeps with the last one being higher pitched signifying the start. She tears down the hall in her chair, to the sound of a downhill race, reaches the end of the hall and pulls the brake o the chair in a sliding turn to the next hall. Again the ski race sound matches perfectly. At the end of the hall is a set of stairs going down. She hits the end of the hall and flies down the stairwell. The sound is a perfect match of a skier who is now airborne, and you loose the chatter of the skis on the icy snow. She hits the bottom of the stairs to a hard landing in the chair and screams out through the automatic doors of the hospital.
Outside is the clock showing her time, just like in a real race. She give it a fist pump, turns and heads back inside.
To me, this is the perfect commercial showing exactly what she is made of.

She came back to ski, but never was able to climb back into the top ranks of the field. In Salt Lake she finished 16th in the downhill, and then retired from competitive skiing. But I will always remember the interview prior to that race when they spoke to a German racer who was the favorite (damn is I can remember her name now). She said she felt good about her cahnces, and mentioned a couple of other women to worry about. Then she leaned in toward the camera, kind conspiratorial, and said in a lower voice full of a great German accent like it was a secret:

"You always have to worry about Picabo, she is quite crazy you know!"

Thanks for reading this far, I apologize for the length.

10 comments:

  1. I absolutely read every word of this post and loved every minute.

    I, like you, love the Olympic games, for the very same reasons you do -- most of all for the personal stories of the athletes. And, like you said, especially those of the underdog..

    I didn't know of many of these Olympic moments -- I was so touched by all of them. More so than any other the story of Eric Moussambini from Equatorial Guinea. I'm gonna watch that video when I'm at home. Wow.

    Thanks for this post. I'm so excited for Beijing!

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  2. well sprach! Bugger the politics: Olympics are about human ability. And sometimes craziness-- skeleton? Who the hell thought of THAT?!

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  3. I too love the Olympics and especially the stories! When we were younger and watched Nadia get the first "10" in the sport - we played olympics in the street.

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  4. i remember Bolero. It was amazing!

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  5. Great post, S.D.! I, too, am a sucker for the Olympics.

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  6. Great post! I love seeing true passion in any field -- music, art, sports. I cry when I see it. I cried the first time I heard "Walk Don't Run." I cried the first time I saw an old clip of Jim Brown running with the ball. The Olympics do that to me, too.

    Maybe I should just admit that I'm a wuss...

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  7. Oh, I'm right with you. I love the Olympics too, and I love your post. I'm such a sap (like you) watching all those teary stories they show during breaks in the action. The best ones are from no-name people like you said. All of a sudden, you're totally rooting for someone you just learned about fifteen seconds ago.

    Picabo is my idol, as in Kwan. I favor the winter Olympics a little over the summer, especially now since there's women's hockey!

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  8. I'm a sucker for the Olympics, too. The best thing about flying Frontier Airlines next week is that I will be able to watch 3 hours of the Olympics without hearing any heavy sighs from wife and grandson.

    My favorite Olympic memory is Keri Struggs. Every time I see a replay of her vault with that badly sprained ankle, it brings tears to my eyes. She knew how much it would hurt and did it anyway. That's guts.

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  9. I'm sad to say I'm bored by the Olympics for the most part, but that Jesse Ownes story always is great. Anything to stick it to the Nazis is good times.

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  10. The Olympics are great. Especially the off beat sports like curling and biathalon. Ski and shoot very cool. My DVRs will be going nonstop for the next 2 weeks. I'm really rooting for Dara Torres. She gives all us oldsters some hope

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