HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR/OLYMPIC CHAMPION

With all the sad, dispiriting stories that have been dominating the news recently, we could all appreciate a “feel good” story.   Well, the following is such a story.  It is a story about courage, endurance, will, survival, and the determination to never give up, never surrender one’s dream.  It is the story of a Hungarian woman who survived the Holocaust and went on to become the most successful Jewish female athlete in Olympic history as well as a positive influence on others.

Agnes Keleti was born Agnes Klein on January 9, 1921 in Budapest, Hungary.  She commenced gymnastics at the tender age of four.  Through a combination of hard work, dedication and natural talent, by sixteen she was the Hungarian national champion.  She was a “shoo-in” for the 1940 Olympics and, possibly, an Olympic medal or two.  But, as we know, WWII intervened, and there were no Olympics contested in either 1940 or 1944.  It appeared as though Agnes’ gymnastics Olympic career was over before it started.

Moreover, early in the War the Nazis invaded Hungary, and Anna’s focus shifted from gymnastics to survival.  Anna managed to avoid being sent to a concentration camp.  (Her mother and sister survived by going into hiding and, eventually, were saved by Swedish diplomat,  Raoul Wallenberg, whose exploits saving Jews were legendary.  Her father was not so fortunate.  He was killed at Auschwitz.)   Anna’s survival involved some luck, but also skill.  First of all, having heard that married women were not being sent to concentration camps, she married Istvan Sarkany, a Hungarian national champion gymnast who had competed in the 1936 Olympics.  (They divorced in 1950.)  In addition, she managed to purchase documents that identified her as a Christian and was able to find work at various low profile jobs, such as a furrier and as a maid in a small village off the beaten track.  Towards the end of the War she had the gruesome job of going around Budapest every morning collecting the bodies of those who had died in the streets the previous night.

After the War Anna was on track to compete in the 1948 Olympics and made the Hungarian team, but was unable to do so due to injury.  Nevertheless, she was awarded a silver medal when the team finished second in the team all-around.  Since she would be 31 at the next Olympics, which is old for a gymnast, it appeared her Olympic career was over.  However, she did not give up.  She made the 1952 Olympic team and won four medals in Helsinki, including gold on the floor exercise.  She continued to train, and in 1956 in Melbourne at the age of 35 she became the oldest female gymnast to win a gold medal.  She won gold medals in three of the four events and silver in the all-around.  Overall, she won ten medals in her Olympic career – six gold, three silver, and one bronze, plus three additional medals at the 1954 World Championships.

In a final twist of fate, while she was competing in Melbourne, the Soviets invaded Hungary.   Being in Australia already, Anna was able to gain political asylum.  She remained in Australia until 1957 when she emigrated to Israel.  Eventually, her mother and sister were able to join her there.

CONCLUSION

In Israel, Anna coached the national Israeli gymnastics team, and she taught physical education at the Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sport for many years.  During this time she not only imparted her knowledge, skills and training methods to generations of athletes, but she also upgraded the training equipment considerably.  Her strong influence on gymnastics is exemplified by one former student who is now a colleague who characterized Anna as “the foundation stone of gymnastics in Israel.”

Anna was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1981, the Hungarian Sports HOF in 1991 and the International Gymnastics HOF in 2002.

Anna has remarried and lives in Israel with her husband and two sons.

Advertisements

OLYMPICS HIGHLIGHTS

The 2016 Summer Olympics have concluded.  I realize that some of you had little, if any, interest in the Games, but I, for one, enjoyed them immensely.  Although the Olympics are always replete with outstanding athletic performances, one of my favorite aspects is the human interest stories.

This year, my favorite such story was “The Girl From Ipanema.”  Most of us are familiar with the tune and lyrics.  It was a huge hit in the 1960s, winning a Grammy as Record of the Year in 1965.  It still can be heard occasionally on the radio.  In fact, it is one of the most recorded “pop” songs ever.

NBC managed to locate the actual girl from Ipanema about whom the song was written.  Her name is Helo Pinheiro, and her interview with Mary Carillo was a real highlight.  Apparently, the Brazilian songwriters spotted her on Ipanema beach, and she was so phenomenally beautiful that they were inspired to write the famous song.  Pinheiro is now in her early 70s and still very attractive.

These games featured many performance highlights.  In some instances the winners were  favorites, but they won in an overwhelming fashion; in other cases, they came out of nowhere to shock and surprise us.  Below, in no particular order, please find my favorites:

  1.  Usain Bolt –  Bolt, the world record holder in both the 100 and 200 meter dashes,  won both as well as anchoring the 4X100 relay.  Normally, these races are very close, but what set his performances apart was that he won by convincing margins.  In addition, he completed the so-called “triple-triple” by earning a Gold medal in all three events for an unprecedented third straight Olympiad.  Furthermore, after he wins he entertains us further by striking his famous “lightening bolt” pose.
  2. Allyson Felix – Her specialties are the 200 and 400 meter dashes.  She won gold in both.  Combined with her gold medals from 2012 and various relays in both Olympiads she has now won the most gold medals of any female track and field athlete (6) and shares the record for the most medals overall (9).
  3. Michael Phelps – What else can I say?  His five gold medals ran his total to 23 over four Olympiads, 28 overall, (not counting 2000 when he went “medal-less”).   The medal count plus his versatility in both distance and strokes re-affirm that he is the best swimmer not only currently, but ever.
  4. Katie Ladecky –  She is the current world record holder in the 400, 800 and 1500 freestyle.  She won four golds and one silver, which made her the most decorated female swimmer in any single Olympics.  Furthermore, she became the first swimmer to win the 200, 400 and 800 meter freestyle events in the same Games since 1968.
  5. Matthew Centrowitz, Jr. – Matt is the son of a two-time Olympian, who also trains him.  He had suffered heartbreak in the 2012 Games, finishing fourth in the 1500 by .04 seconds.  Many athletes will tell you that fourth is the worst place, because of the frustration of just missing a medal.  Nevertheless, Matt continued to train for four more years to attain his goal, and this time he won the gold.  In doing so, he became the first American to win this event since 1908.
  6. Biles, Raisman and the Final Five – Simone Biles is the best female gymnast in the world and, arguably, the best ever, but in order to validate that status she had to win multiple gold medals, and she did.  She won five medals, including four gold. Moreover, she did so by huge margins.  Raisman won three medals, including one gold, and was clearly the second best gymnast at the Games.  Her combined total of six medals in 2012 and 2016 makes her the second most decorated American female gymnast.  Furthermore, as the team captain and leader, she was the glue that held the team together.  The Final Five won the team all-around by a wide margin.  They were so deep that the  team’s third best gymnast, Gabby Douglas, might very well have won an individual medal in the all-around had she been allowed to compete under the rules.  With its outstanding performances both individually and as a team, the Final Five gave their all-time coach, Marta Karolyi, a perfect retirement present.
  7. Women’s Water Polo – Few Americans follow this sport, but this team’s outstanding performance deserves a mention.  Not only did they win gold, but they won their six matches by a combined score of 73-32, and they have now won 22 consecutive matches.
  8. Men’s and Women’s Basketball – Both teams were widely expected to win gold.  After all, they had the best players, by far.  Both went undefeated and won their final matches by 30 points or so.  The women were more dominant than the men, who had to survive a couple of close games.  Carmelo Anthony became the first man to win four medals, including three gold.  Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings, and Diana Taurasi became the first women to win four.
  9. Claressa Shields (Boxing) –  Undoubtedly, most of you have not heard of her, since amateur boxing flies way under the radar in the US.   But, not only has she been the best in the world in her weight class for the last several years, she also won her second consecutive gold medal, the first American ever to do so.  In addition she won the Val Barker trophy awarded to the outstanding boxer in the tournament.
  10. Kyle Snyder (Wrestling) – Amateur wrestling is real wrestling, not the phony stuff many Americans watch on tv.  Snyder, who in 2015 became, at 19, the youngest wrestling world champion in US history, became, at 20, the youngest Olympic champion in US history.  What is his secret to success?   Snyder says “I listen to my coaches.  I train as hard as I possibly can.”  Such modesty is rare in an athlete so outstanding at such a young age.
  11. Brazilian Men’s Soccer and Volleyball – These are Brazil’s two biggest sports, and the two teams were under significant pressure to win gold.  Playing before the hometown fans provided strong support, but, at the same time, it increased expectations and the pressure.  Both teams came through in dramatic fashion.  The volleyball games were close and tense, and the soccer final was decided by penalty kicks.

CONCLUSION

Well, those are my choices.  What are yours?  Please let me know.

SUMMER OLYMPICS QUIZ

The Games are nearly over.  It’s time to test your Olympic knowledge.  Some of you may have had little or no interest in them.  Fair enough.  But, if you have been following the proceedings and reading my previous Olympics blogs, this quiz should not be difficult.

  1.  The first Olympic Games contested in the Southern Hemisphere were held in:   a.  Rio, b) Melbourne, c) Sydney, d) Cape Town

2.  Which Olympiad is this?  a) 29, b) 30, c) 31, d) 32

3.  The 2020 Games will be contested in:  a) Chicago, b) Tokyo, c) Paris, d) London

4.  Summer Olympics have been held in each of the following cities, EXCEPT: a) Chicago, b) St. Louis, c) Atlanta, d) LA.

5.  Name the only country to have won at least one gold medal in every Summer Olympics. a) US, b) Greece, c) Russia, d) Great Britain

6.  The first “modern” Olympic Games were  contested in Athens in:  a) 1892, b) 1896, c) 1900, d) 1916

7.  The only city to have hosted three Summer Olympics is:  a)  Athens, b)  Paris, c) London, d) LA

8.  Usain Bolt is from:  a)  Brazil, b)  Jamaica, c)  Cuba, d)  US

9.  Michael Phelps has won medals in how many Olympiads?  a)  two, b) three, c)  four, d)  five

10.  Each of the following sports has been contested in every Summer Olympics Games, EXCEPT:  a)  cycling,  b)  fencing,  c)   swimming,  d) track

ANSWERS:  1. b,  2. c,  3. b,  4.  a,  5. d,  6. b,  7.  c,  8.  b,  9.  c,  10. d

Good luck!  As always, no peeking at the internet.  Let me know how you did.

 

MICHAEL PHELPS – BEST EVER?

The swimming portion of the 2016 Olympics has barely ended, and already many people are calling Michael Phelps the best swimmer, best Olympian and/or best athlete ever.  Is he?  In my opinion, he is far and away the best swimmer and best Olympian ever, but not the best athlete.  On what do I base my opinion?  Well, let’s examine the record as objectively as possible and see how he stacks up.

I hesitate to use his many world records as a basis for assessing him, because, as astounding as they may be, at some point they will be broken by other swimmers, and probably sooner than one might think.  World records in swimming do not last long.  For example, most any decent contemporary high school varsity swimmer has clocked faster times than Olympic champions of generations past.  But, there are other measurements of more significance, for example:

  1. How does he compare to the contemporary competition?   As Casey Stengel was fond of saying: “You could look it up.”  Although Phelps qualified for the 2000 Olympics at the age of 15 (becoming the youngest American male to do so), he was not yet ready for prime time.  He did not win any medals, but he did serve notice that he was “on the come.”  In 2001 he became the youngest male to set a world record (200 butterfly).  Since then, he has won many world championships and set and re-set world records in the butterfly, freestyle and individual medley with great frequency.  But, his true dominance has come on the biggest stage in his sport – the Olympics.  He has won 28 Olympic medals, 23 of them gold.  Lest you think he has benefited unduly from being part of relays, 16 of the medals, including 13 golds, have been earned as an individual.  Those are far and away the most by any Olympic athlete.
  2. Versatility.    Phelps has dominated in not one but FIVE eventsthe 100 and 200 freestyle, the 100 and 200 butterfly and the 400 individual medley.  Thus, he is not only fast, he is versatile.
  3. Longevity.  We judge our athletes not only by how outstanding they were in their prime, but also by their longevity.  In many Olympics-dominated sports, such as swimming and track and field, there have been many athletes who were brilliant in one, or perhaps two, Olympiads.   For example, Mark Spitz won seven gold medals in the 1972 Games in Munich; Jesse Owens captured four in Munich in 1936; and Carl Lewis garnered a total of ten in 1984 and 1988.  Phelps has won his medals over five Olympiads, in four of which he exhibited complete domination over a succession of outstanding swimmers in three disciplines at different distances.
  4. Leadership/Mentoring – I believe that these traits have enabled Phelps, through his example, to inspire some of the younger athletes on the swim team to perform better.  For instance,  they respect what he has accomplished (or, perhaps, look upon it with awe) and feel that if they emulate his work ethic, dedication, and single-minded determination and focus, they might achieve the same success.  It should be noted that a couple of the younger swimmers on the team disclosed in interviews that, as kids, they had “worshipped” Phelps and kept posters of him on their bedroom walls.  To be sure, measurements of leadership and mentoring are somewhat subjective, and many leaders and mentors are not outstanding athletes in their own right.  But, in Phelps’ case, for me, the leadership and mentoring he has exhibited in this Olympics has added to his standing as an outstanding athlete.  If further evidence of his leadership is needed, note that he was voted captain of the swim as well as flag-bearer in the Opening Ceremonies, a singular honor.

Michael Fred Phelps II was born on June 30, 1985 in Baltimore.   He is the youngest of three children.  His mother is a middle school principal.  His father is a retired Maryland state trooper who was a good enough football player to receive a tryout with the Washington Redskins. They divorced when Michael was nine, and Michael was raised by his mother.

As a child, Phelps was diagnosed with hyperactivity.  He was exposed to swimming, in part, in the hope that it would provide an outlet for his excess energy.  He took to the sport “like a fish to water,” so to speak.  By ten years old he was setting national records.  At 11, he began training with Bob Bowman, with whom he has been associated ever since.  Phelps has said that Bowman reminds him of a “drill sergeant” because of his regimented and uncompromising manner, but is quick to add that “training with Bob is the smartest thing I’ve ever done.  I’m not going to swim for anyone else.”

Experts have denoted that Phelps’ physique has some highly unusual characteristics that are ideal for a swimmer.  For example, his long, thin torso and short legs reduce drag, his 6′ 7″ arm span, which is abnormally long for his 6′ 4″ height, acts like long, propulsive paddles, and his abnormally large feet provide an effect like flippers.   In other words, he is a physical freak of nature perfectly suited to swimming fast.

Phelps’ life has not been all roses.  There have been some bumps along the way.  In 2004 he was arrested for DUI.  In 2009 he was photographed using a bong at a party.  That cost him a sponsorship with Kellogg.  During the 2008 Games, Phelps came under suspicion of PED use, not because he failed any tests, but because some thought his success was too good to be true naturally.  In response, Phelps volunteered for “Project Believe,” which is under the auspices of the US Anti-Doping Agency.  As a result, Phelps agreed to be subject to more stringent dope testing than normal World Anti-Doping Agency guidelines.    During the Games Phelps passed all nine tests to which he was subjected.  The PED whispers went away.

In 2014 he took a break from swimming.  Without that outlet for his time and energy he became lost.  In September of that year he was arrested for another DUI.  This time, USA Swimming suspended him for six months.  Eventually, he re-dedicated himself to swimming and the 2016 Olympics.  Some say he is now better than ever.

CONCLUSION

So, what now for Phelps.  For now, he says he will take a break from swimming.  He wants to spend time with his fiancé (a former Miss California) and baby son.  In addition, he wants to focus more on The Michael Phelps Foundation, which he founded and funded in 2008.  The foundation, which focuses on “growing” the sport of swimming and promoting healthier lifestyles, is an example of Phelps’ desire to “give back” to the sport that has been so good to him.

So, I think I have established that Phelps is the best swimmer and best Olympian ever.  But, as for best athlete, I would support Jim Thorpe.  No only did he win the Pentathlon and Decathlon at the 1912 Olympics, which require proficiency in a considerable variety of events, but also he played baseball, football, and basketball professionally.    Some of you may present convincing cases for Wilt Chamberlain, Jim Brown, Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth or others.  I believe Phelps belongs on the upper echelon of athletes, but I would not anoint him the best.

As far as 2020 is concerned, Phelps is non-committal.  But, like any successful athlete, he is super-competitive.  I wouldn’t bet against a return.

OLYMPIC UPDATE -WOMEN’S GYNASTICS

Meet the “Final Five”:  Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez, Madison Kocian, and Aly  Raisman.   As those of you who have been following the Summer Olympics in Rio know, the US women’s gymnastics team has dubbed itself the “Final Five.”  They have provided two reasons for choosing this moniker: (1) They are the final team to be coached by, Marta Karolyi, arguably the best gymnastics coach in the world at the present time, who has announced she will be retiring following the Olympics; and (2) this is the final Olympics that will have five gymnasts on a team.  Commencing in 2020 there will only be four.

Earlier this week, they won the team gold medal, and it wasn’t even close.  According to Olympic gymnastics tv analysts Tim Daggett and Nastia Liukin, the final margin of ten points over China (185.238 – 175.279) is extremely dominant in gymnastics.  They struggled to find a valid comparison to other sports and finally settled on a 50 or maybe 100 point margin in a football or basketball game.  That would compare their dominance to that exhibited by the men’s basketball “Dream Team” in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.  Hyperbole?  Perhaps, but you get the idea.

Many observers are calling them the best team ever.  Shannon Miller, a member of the gold medal winning “Magnificent Seven” team in 1996 has labeled them “the best team we’ve ever had” based upon their “incredible talent, nerves of steel, amazing consistency,” and the “level of difficulty” of their routines.  Adds Daggett, “they never fall!”  But, beyond these expert testimonials, by merely using the “eye test,” even the most casual observer can readily see how much better they are than anyone else.

In addition to their extraordinary talent it is a pleasure to see how they relate to one another.   When competing they are deadly serious.  But, in between routines, they are continuously giggling, holding hands, joking with one another, and openly rooting for each other.   During the changeovers for individual all-around completion Biles and Raisman were actually holding hands in mutual support as if to say, “I’m with you.  I’ve got your back.”  Daggett and Liukin pointed this out and both stressed its importance in helping one to relax.

Another measurement of their dominance is that in the qualifying round they had the three highest scorers.  Since the rules only permit a maximum of two gymnasts per team to compete in the all-around competition finals, the team’s third best performer, Gabby Douglas, who was also the third best in the entire field and the defending gold medalist, no less, was unable to defend her title.

Below please find a brief profile of each:

  1. Simone Biles – Quite simply, Simone is not merely the best gymnast in the world at this time, she is the best in many years, and many observers consider her to be the best ever.  She has completely dominated the sport for three years.  She has not lost an all-around competition since mid-2013, winning 15 total medals, including ten gold.  Her victory in the individual all-around competition has extended the US’s dominance in the sport.  It has produced four women’s all-around gold medalists in a row and five all-time (Mary Lou Retton – 1984, Carly Patterson – 2002, Nastia Liukin – 2008, and Gabby Douglas – 2012).
  2.  Gabby Douglas –  In a sport where sacrifice and single-minded dedication are commonplace and even necessary for success, Gabby went even further than most.  In order to maximize her development as a gymnast, from the age of 14 she left her family in Virginia to move to Iowa to train with a particular coach, Liang Chow, at Chow’s gym.  She lived with a surrogate family.  Now, that is going the extra mile.  It has paid off.  She made the 2012 team, which became known as the “Fierce Five.”  Moreover, she won the all-around competition. As I said, as an illustration of the considerable depth of this team, Gabby did not even qualify to compete in the all-around competition despite having the third best qualifying total in the entire field.  In most years she would have been a strong contender for an all-around medal.
  3. Laurie Hernandez –  She is from Old Bridge, NJ.  It all began for her when her parents signed her up for dance instruction at the age of five.  She spied the gymnastics equipment and was hooked.  Her best event may be the floor exercise, but she is very proficient in all events.  She has a very outgoing personality.  Her long-time coach calls her “naturally sassy” and a “human emoji,” based upon her tendency to make various facial expressions.
  4. Madison Kocian – Basically, she is a specialist in the uneven bars.  Daggett denoted that that was the main reason Karolyi added her to the team.  She did her job, hitting her routine, which helped the team win, and she qualified for the individual competition finals in the event.
  5. Aly Raisman – Alexandra Rose Raisman is from Needham, MA.  She is the captain of the team, as she was of the “Fierce Five” in 2012.  At 22, she is the “elder statesman.”  Appropriately, the others affectionately call her “grandma.”  It’s easy to see that in addition to being one of the best gymnasts in the world she is a natural leader.  She is essentially the “glue” that holds the team together.  In 2012 she tied for the bronze medal in the all-around but was beaten out by an arcane tiebreaker.  After licking her wounds for a while she re-dedicated herself to the sport resolving to win a medal.  She even had to convince her coach that she still had the “fire in the belly” before he agreed to train her for 2016.  This time, she won the silver, and in a “normal” year, i.e. when she was not competing against an unbeatable superstar named Simone, she would likely have won gold.  Ally’s selflessness is best illustrated by the fact that before the finals she told Simone “I want you to win, and I want second.”  And, sure enough, that’s what happened.
  6. Marta Karolyi – Marta was born in Hungary in 1942 in an area that is now part of Romania.  She and her husband, Bela, developed a very successful gymnastics training program in Romania.  Their most famous protege was Nadia Comaneci, who won a total of five gold medals in the 1976 and 1980 Olympics and famously scored a perfect ten in Montreal in 1976.  The Karolyis defected to the US in 1981 and established their own training facility in Houston.  Bela was the more highly visible of the two, and Marta preferred to work behind the scenes focusing on the technical aspects, such as training, choreography and instruction.  Soon, they had established themselves as the “go to” coaches in the country and trained many national and Olympic champions.   Eventually, Bela’s abrasive personality resulted in too many complaints by the gymnasts’ personal coaches, and in 1996 he was forced to retire as national coordinator.  In 2001 Marta became the national coordinator of the sport.  Since then, the success of the program has been unparalleled.  She has trained champion after champion.  Among her various responsibilities are selecting the team members and recommending programs and routines.  She works them hard and pays strict attention to detail.  The athletes say the practices and internal competitions are more challenging than the actual meets.  The proof can be readily seen not only in the gymnasts’ talent in the gym, but, just as importantly, in their poise, demeanor and team camaraderie.  As I said, it’s obvious the young women have a genuine love and respect for each other and they excel under the extreme pressure of the competition.

CONCLUSION

The “Final Five” have been a joy to watch.  The individual competitions are next, and they will all be competing in at least one of them.  I highly recommend you watch them.  We may never again be privileged to see a team like this one.

JOHN SAUNDERS

Unless you are a sports fan, you probably never heard of John Saunders.  And that was fine with him.  He was that rarity among celebrities; he had no ego, and he liked to fly under the radar.  And, most significantly, he had the undying love and respect of his colleagues and bosses.  Listen to some of the tributes that have come pouring in so far from friends, colleagues and ESPN executives:

  1. Dick Vitale – “John Saunders represented everything that was good in a human being.”
  2. Chris Mortensen – “We all loved him dearly.  …  Can’t replace the man.”
  3. Jemele Hill (Co-host with Saunders of “His and Hers”) – “John Saunders was a better person than a host.”
  4. John Skipper (president of ESPN) – “John was an extraordinary talent. …He was one of the most significant and influential members of the ESPN family as a colleague and mentor…”
  5. John Feinstein, noted sports commentator and author, summed it up best: “John Saunders showed how good he was by not telling anyone about it.”

John Peterson Saunders was born in Ajax, Ontario, Canada on February 2, 1955.  Naturally, as a Canadian, he grew up playing hockey, and, throughout his life as a sportscaster, commentator and journalist, it remained his first love.  John excelled enough at the sport to play varsity hockey at Western Michigan University from 1974-1976.

After graduation, he worked in news and sports at various local tv stations in Ontario and New Brunswick.  Then, in 1980 he became the primary sports anchor for CITY-TV in Toronto.  From there, he moved to the US.  First, he worked for WMAR-TV in Baltimore, and then, came the big move to ESPN in 1986.

During his tenure at ESPN John proved to be among the most versatile sports announcers, anchors, hosts, commentators, and personalities in the business.  He excelled at various jobs in various sports.  For example, he did NBA play-by-play, studio hosting for the NHL and MLB, and he anchored the 1995 World Series.  Most significantly, he replaced the late Dick Schaap, another long-time sports icon, as host of The Sports Reporters,  a popular weekly sports talk show on ESPN.  He made it a seamless transition.  His main task was to moderate among four renowned and somewhat egotistical and contentious sports journalists who appeared as guests on the show.  He did it superbly.

However, perhaps, his most significant contribution was his work for the “V Foundation,” named after Jim Valvano, famed coach and sports commentator, who had died from bone cancer in 1993.  John had become a close friend of Valvano’s, and in the 23 years since Jim’s death he had worked tirelessly on behalf of the Foundation (below the radar, of course).

CONCLUSION

I was a big fan of John’s work in general, and The Sports Reporters, in particular.  In my opinion, he was one of the best at being the “glue” of the show.

Being without ego, he would be content to stay in the background and let his co-commentators and analysts be the stars.  He would lob “softball” questions at them and make their jobs easier, sort of like a point guard who sets up the scorer for an easy shot.  That was a main reason why his numerous friends and colleagues loved him and loved working with him.

Rest in peace John.  You will be sorely missed.

 

OLYMPIC LOWLIGHTS

Throughout its history, the Olympic games have produced many heroes and provided a great deal of enjoyment and excitement, for example, the US hockey teams of 1960 and 1980, Mark Spitz’s seven gold medals in 1972, and Michael Phelps’ 19 gold medals over the last five Olympiads, to name a few.  But, unfortunately there have been many lowlights as well.  There have been instances of violence (1972 and 1996), prejudice (1936), boycotts, and cancellations (1916, 1940, 1944, 1980 and 1984).  I am sure you can think of other instances, but, in the interests of time and space, I will only profile the aforementioned.

1936 Berlin

These Games were held in the shadow of Nazism and the threat of war.  Berlin had won the bid to host them in 1931 before Hitler’s rise to power, but as the date approached and the violence and prejudices of the Nazis became increasingly apparent, a movement to boycott the Games or move them to another venue arose.  But, the Nazis went “all out”to remain the host.  They viewed the Games as an opportunity to show off their country’s progress and promote their concept of Aryan supremacy.  They gave assurances that they would permit German Jews to compete; they toned down their anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence in an effort to hide their true colors; and, most of all, they wooed international and US Olympic officials – hard.  One of Germany’s chief advocates was none other than Avery Brundage, the USOC president, who opined famously that “politics has no place in sport.”  He insisted that Jewish athletes were being treated fairly in Germany and blamed the boycott sentiment on a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy.”  Once the US formally accepted its invitation, all talk of a change of venue or boycott vanished.

Prejudice reared its ugly head in the track competition.  First, Nazi officials were embarrassed and none too pleased when Jesse Owens, an African American, won gold in the 100 meter, 200 meter and broad jump.  Hitler appeared to snub Owens after the award ceremonies, by not making himself available to congratulate him as he did other winners, although some accounts dispute that.  (As a footnote, the silver medalist in the 200 was Mack Robinson, brother of Jackie.)

More significantly, the US men’s track coaches removed two Jewish sprinters, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, from the 4X100 relay, replacing them with Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, at the last minute.  They had earned their slots on merit and their replacement was a huge shock.  The US relay team was a virtual “lock” to win gold.  Coincidentally, they were the only two Jews on the Olympic team.  Many, if not most, observers concluded the obvious –  that the coaches had replaced them, perhaps, under the influence of Brundage, to placate Hitler so he would not be further “embarrassed” by the presence of two Jews on the medal stand, although this has never been proven.  In any event,  Glickman and Stoller did not compete, and the US did win gold.

Glickman and Stoller went on to live productive lives.  Glickman became a hall-of-fame broadcaster.  He mentored many younger sportscasters, such as Marv Albert and Bob Costas.  He is best known in the NY area for his long-time broadcasting of NY Giants Jets and Knicks games.  As Knicks announcer he coined the terms “swish” to describe a shot that would go in without touching the rim or backboard, and “good like Nedicks,” in recognition of a Knicks’ sponsor.  Stoller returned to college where he became an All-American track star.  Later, he acted and sang in films.  Both men adamantly insisted their removal from the relay was due to anti-Semitism on the part of Brundage and other US Olympic officials.  Stoller called the incident “the most humiliating episode” [of his life.]  In 1998 the USOC presented Glickman with a plaque in lieu of the gold medal.  Stoller had died in 1983.

These were the first games to employ a torch relay to transport the Olympic Torch from Olympia, Greece to the host site.   In addition, it was the first to be televised.  Also, Hitler commissioned a filmmaker to record the action for posterity.

Unfortunately, these games have been and will be forever stained by the Owens-Glickman-Stoller incidents.  Three years later, the world was at war.

1972 Munich

The terrorism in this Olympics marked the end of innocence with respect to these Games.  Up until this time, the Games had always been mostly characterized by friendship and sportsmanship.   Sure, there had been isolated instances of conflict, prejudice, and cold war intrigue, but after all was said and done, the games had always proceeded in an orderly and peaceful manner.  Many people even believed the myth that all athletes were amateurs competing for the love of the sport.

The Games were held from August 26 – September 11, 1972 in Munich.  In the pre-Olympic bidding,  Munich had prevailed over Montreal, Madrid and Detroit despite the concern in some quarters over a return to German soil.

Over 7,000 athletes from 121 nations were competing in 21 sports.  These were the second Games held in Germany, the other one being the 1936 Olympics in Berlin which had been held in the shadow of Nazism and the threat of war.  The West German organizers wanted to show off the “new” Germany – peaceful, democratic and progressive.  Accordingly, the motto of the Games was “the cheerful Games,” and the logo was a blue solar logo, christened “the Bright Sun.”

The Games, themselves, featured some landmark results:

  1. Mark Spitz qualified for seven events in swimming and won seven gold medals, all in world record time.   He had also won two in Mexico City in 1968, which had been widely considered a disappointment.
  2. The US men’s basketball team lost a shocking and controversial final game to the USSR in the last seconds, 51-50.  This was the first loss in any Olympics, and was especially painful coming at the height of the Cold War.  Moreover, it was in a sport that we had invented and at which we were widely considered to be unbeatable.  The fact that due to mass confusion, the referees had mandated that the last seconds be replayed twice added to the devastation, outrage, and intrigue.  To this day, the players have not accepted their silver medals.
  3. Two American track medalists, Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett, were banned from Olympic competition for life for what US Olympic officials considered unacceptable and disrespectful conduct on the medal stand during the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner.”
  4. The Soviet gymnast, Olga Korbut, captivated viewers with her pixyish style and won two gold medals.
  5. US wrestler Dan Gable went unbeaten, winning the gold medal without having had a single point scored against him.

All of this was overshadowed, however, by the events of September 5.  Eight Palestinian terrorists belonging to a group, aptly name Black September, broke into the Israeli quarters of the Olympic Village.  They took murdered two Israelis and took seven other athletes, coaches and officials hostage.  They held them for 18 hours in the Village.  Later, the German authorities agreed to grant them safe passage to the airport, ostensibly to fly out on a hijacked jet.   But, a botched rescue attempt resulted in a shootout.  The terrorists killed all the hostages, and then three of them were captured with the rest being killed.  Later, in a further indignity, the three were set free in exchange for a hijacked jet (although, eventually, the Mossad took its own brand of revenge on two of them).

In the aftermath of this tragedy many wanted to cancel the Games.  But, IOC President, Avery Brundage, not exactly known for his sympathy toward Jews or for compassion, in general, insisted that “the Games must go on.”  And so, they did after an interruption of one day, but they were forever stained.

The legacy of this act of terrorism is intense security at subsequent Games and the loss of innocence.

1916, 1940 and 1944

These games were forced to be cancelled due to WWI and WWII.  Athletes who had been competing against one another in sport met on the battlefield trying to kill eachother.

1980 and 1984

These are notable for boycotts by the two superpowers – the US and the USSR.  The US boycotted the 1980 Games in Moscow in protest of the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan.  In retaliation, the USSR boycotted the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.  Both Olympics, though watered down, proceeded.   Apparently, Brundage was wrong.  Politics does have a place in sport.

1996

The games in Atlanta were marred by a terrorist attack.  A terrorist set off a bomb in a park near the Olympic stadium, killing two and injuring over 100.

CONCLUSION

Despite a somewhat rocky history the Games continue to flourish.  Thousands of spectators flock to the venues, and millions more watch on tv.  So far, this Olympiad, though marred somewhat by political and health issues, has proceeded without incident.

 

OLYMPIC TORCH

One of the most dramatic events of the Olympics is the ceremony of the lighting of the Olympic Cauldron in the stadium on opening night.   The Olympic flame is the symbol of the games.  Everyone is anxious to see who will get the singular honor of carrying the torch into the stadium and lighting the Olympic Cauldron.

Normally, this individual is a former athlete or famous person of the host country.  For example, Muhammed Ali, former gold medal winner (1960), world heavyweight boxing champion, and worldwide sports icon, had the honor in the 1996 Games in Atlanta.   Other honorees include Paavo Nurmi (Helsinki, 1952), Cathy Freeman (Sydney, 2000), the US 1960 Olympic Hockey Gold Medalists (Salt Lake City, 2002), and Wayne Gretzky (Canada, 2010).  Who will be the honoree this year?  As I write this, it is still a well-kept secret.  Based on the usual criteria, I would guess Pele, but other possibilities would include Oscar Schmidt, long-time international basketball star, and former gold medal winners Cesar Cielo, (swimming), Joaquim Cruz (track), or the women’s or men’s volleyball team as a group.

The concept of an Olympic flame can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, who, like most ancient peoples, worshipped fire as an element of the Gods.  They maintained perpetual fires in their temples to honor their Gods as well as in Olympia the venue of the ancient Olympic Games.  In order to foster the link between those ancient Games and the modern version, the flame is relit every Olympiad well in advance so it can complete its ceremonial journey to the site of that year’s Games.  To maintain the “purity” of the flame it is lit as the ancients did, by using the sun’s rays.

This year it was lit in April and carried by over 12,000 torch bearers for four months over a distance of over 22,000 miles through Greece, Switzerland and Brazil by road and air.  Once the torch arrived in Brazil it was transported through many different regions of the country, including over 300 towns and cities and 90% of the populace.  The goal is to provide an Olympic experience to as many people as possible.

The torch’s route is not merely a straight line from Olympia to the host city’s stadium.  It is a circuitous route that is determined by the overall theme of that year’s Olympics.   First, the Hellenic Olympic Committee supervises the lighting of the flame in Olympia and its transport to Panathinaiko Stadium in Athens, the site of the 1896 Games.  Then, the host city’s Olympic Games Organizing Committee takes over.  It determines the theme and route of the torch relay to its ultimate destination.  Every Olympiad is different.

The original routes in 1936 (Berlin) and London (1948) were by foot carried solely by athletes.  Over the years, the routes have become more elaborate, diversified and inclusive, with the general public participating as well.  Some of the modes of transportation have been rather inventive and unique, as follows:

  1.  In 1948 (London) and 2008 (Beijing) the torch was carried part of the way by boat.
  2. In 1952 Norwegian skiers carried the flame throughout the country to celebrate that country’s skiing heritage.
  3. In 1988 (Calgary) the flame made a detour to the Arctic Circle, transported part of the way by snow-bike and snow mobile.
  4. In 1968 (Mexico City), 2000 (Sydney) and 2010 (Vancouver) the torch was carried above and below the water by swimmers, divers and surfers, respectively.
  5. In 1976 (Montreal) the flame was actually transmitted, in part, by satellite utilizing heat sensors and a laser beam to light the cauldron.
  6. On three occasions (1996, 2000 and 2013), astronauts took the torch, but not the flame, into space.

The culmination of the torch relay is the grand and dramatic entrance into the stadium, following by the lighting of the cauldron.  This marks the symbolic commencement of the Games.

Strangely, there is even a procedure to cover situations in which the flame, for whatever reason, is extinguished accidentally.  This has actually happened more than once.  There is actually a backup or spare flame for use in those situations.  Once the flame in the cauldron just went out.  Another time, a rainstorm extinguished the flame.  On the latter occasion, an official merely relit it with a lighter.  Apparently, this was a severe no-no.  Organizers quickly re-extinguished the flame, relit it using a designated backup flame, and all was well in the world once again.

CONCLUSION

Each country designates a flag bearer.  The bearer for the US this year will be Michael Phelps.  Phelps has qualified for five Olympics, a remarkable testament to durability as well as talent.  He is the most decorated athlete in Olympic history with 22 medals, including 18 gold, to his credit.

Congratulations to Michael, and go USA!!

SUMMER OLYMPICS

This is the first installment of a series of blogs I intend to publish about the Summer Olympics.  This installment will include an overview of the SO, a brief history, and a compendium of fun facts with respect to the Games.

  1.  The 2016 SO, aka the XXXI Olympiad, will take place in Rio de Janeiro on August 5-21.  The other finalists were Tokyo, Madrid and Chicago.  Some or all of these cities will likely be chosen to host a SO prospectively.
  2. The SO have been held every four years at rotating sites since the first modern Olympiad in 1896, except for during WWI (1916) and WWII (1940 and 1944).
  3. The 2016 SO will include a record 10,500 athletes from over 200 countries.  They will compete in 28 sports at 38 venues.  Although Rio will host the lion’s share of the events, Sao Paulo, Brasilia, Belo Horizonte, Manaus and Salvador will each host some soccer matches.
  4. Normally, at least one new sport is added each Olympiad.  This time, the new sports will be golf and rugby sevens.
  5. Some of the facilities have not yet been completed.  Hopefully, that will not be an issue during the Games.
  6. Rio is the third city in the Southern Hemisphere (after Melbourne, 1956, and Sydney, Australia, 2000) and the first South American city to host a SO.  In addition, Brazil is the first Portuguese-speaking country to do so.
  7. This is the first time the SO will be held during the host country’s winter.
  8. London has hosted the most SO of any city (3).  The US has hosted the most of any country (4).
  9. The only country to have won at least one gold medal at every SO is…….?  See below.
  10. Previous Games have not been without scandal , controversy, and other problems, but these are the first I can recall where they occurred BEFOREHAND – political instability, corruption, Zika virus, polluted water and Russian athletes’ being banned due to PEDs.  Let’s hope these do not overshadow the Games, themselves.
  11. Primarily in recognition of the considerable number of refugees currently in Europe, for the first time, a limited number of unaffiliated athletes, called “refugee athletes,” will be allowed to compete as individuals, i. e. not under the umbrella of a national Olympic committee.   It remains to be seen if any of them will actually win any medals, but it will make for a powerful human interest story.  As I write this, “clean” Russian athletes will not be permitted to compete under this provision.
  12. The largest delegation of athletes will be the approximately 550 from the US.  The fewest will be one, from a few countries.
  13. The modern Olympics were the brain-child of one Pierre de Coubertin, whose goal was to promote greater international harmony through athletic competition.  Athens was chosen as the initial site because ancient Greece was the birthplace of the original Olympic Games.
  14. Only amateur athletes were eligible, and only men.  They were modest in scope with only 250 competitors in 42 events.  No medals were awarded until 1904.

CONCLUSION

As I said, this is the first of several blogs I will be posting on the SO.  There have been various criticisms of the Games in recent years, such accusations of PEDs, corruption, and “shamamateurism,” but, in my opinion, they remain a very entertaining competition replete with human interest stories and memorable moments.  The only negatives are the results “spoilers” in this day and age of the 24-hour news cycle and the internet and the plethora of commercials on tv.

Quiz answer:  Great Britain.  The US boycotted the 1980 Games in Moscow.

Let the games begin!