Thursday, August 9, 2012

Stories from the Olympics

The August 6, 2012, issue of The New Yorker featured a piece by critic Louis Menand: Glory Days: What we watch when we watch the Olympics.  The article was ostensibly a review of several books and videos focused on the Olympics.  But the review also gave Menand the opportunity to share with us some of the more incredible Olympic stories over the years.

For example, we all now know about Oscar Pistorius, a.k.a. the Blade Runner, the South African sprinter who runs on two carbon-fibre lower legs.  But how many of us know of the American gymnast George Eyser who won six medals in one day in the 1904 Games, including a gold in the vault, with a wooden leg.

Perhaps more familiar is Jim Thorpe, who, in the 1912 Stockholm Games, won, by huge margins, both the pentathlon and the decathlon, even though it was the first decathlon he had ever competed in.

Babe Didrikson was allowed to compete in only three events in the 1932 Games, in Los Angeles.  She finished first in two, the javelin throw and the eighty-meter hurdles (a world record), and tied for first in the high jump (another world record).  As if this wasn't enough to demonstrate her wide-ranging talent, she also gained all-American status in basketball, played organized baseball and softball and was an expert diver, roller-skater and bowler.  And, by the way, she happened to become one of the greatest professional golfers in history.

The Bulgarian-born Turkish weight lifter Naim Süleymanoğlu won gold medals in three Olympics, from 1988 to 1996. In Atlanta in 1996, Süleymanoğlu achieved his crowning glory by defeating the Greek lifter Valerios Leonidis for the gold medal in an intense final round, in which both athletes broke the world record.  The drama of the competition was further heightened by the crazed frenzy of the spectators fueled by the long history of hatred between Greece and Turkey. Süleymanoğlu was said to be, pound for pound, the strongest man in the world. To win the medal, he had to clean-and-jerk four hundred and thirteen pounds, almost three times his body weight.

The oldest medalist, Oscar Swahn of Sweden, was seventy-two when he won the silver in team double-shot running deer shooting in the 1920 Olympics.   Who knows what this event involved, but to be second best in the world in anything at age 72 is pretty impressive.   As Menand said, "whatever that is, I’ll have what he’s having."

And then, we have the Czech runner Emil Zátopek, in Helsinki, who in 1952 won the men’s five thousand and ten thousand meters, and then entered the marathon, which he had never competed in before.  He broke the Olympic marathon record.

The Ethiopian runner, Abebe Bikila, won the marathon in 1960 running barefoot through the streets of Rome. 

And who remembers Billy Mills, an American runner and a member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe who, in the last twenty meters of the 10,000 meters in Tokyo 1964, broke out of the pack and sprinted past Mohamed Gammoudi and Ron Clarke, the world-record holder at the time, as though they were standing still, winning the gold?

The article also recounts how Dave Wottle passed seven runners with less than a lap to go to win the eight hundred meters by three one-hundredths of a second in Munich in 1972.

We might also recall Kerri Strug, who, despite a sprained ankle, stuck her landing in the vault in Atlanta, in 1996, where the United States won the team gold medal.  But even more amazing was the Japanese gymnast Shun Fujimoto, who, in the 1976 Games, in Montreal, stuck his dismount from the rings on a broken leg and helped his team win the all-around gold medal. The post-script is that Strug and Fujimoto never fully recovered from their injuries and, as it turns out, the U.S. team did not even need Strug’s score. It would have won gold without it.

Perhaps there's not much more to draw from these stories beyond that, given enough events in enough Olympics, some incredible things are bound to happen.  I'm more inclined to think, however, something more can be found here:  we humans are pretty phenomenal creatures who will constantly surprise and amaze you.

No comments: