Butch Mazzuca: Let the Games begin!
“The important thing is not to win, but to take part.” That’s how Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the International Olympic Committee, defined the “Olympic spirit.” With the Beijing Olympics just hours away, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at some of the more arcane aspects of this quadrennial event.
More than 900 gold, silver and bronze medals will be awarded before the Games of the XXXIX Olympiad conclude. But did you know that first-place finishers didn’t always receive gold medals? During the first two (modern) Olympiads beginning in 1896 in Athens, Greece, first-place winners received a silver medal, a crown of olive branches and a diploma; second-place finishers were given a bronze medal, a crown of laurel, and a diploma.
It wasn’t until the third Olympiad at St. Louis in 1904 that gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded for the first, second and third place. Interestingly, it was also during these games that the United States put on its most dominating performance by winning 236 medals ” the rest of the world combined won 41.
While that medal count was absurdly unbalanced, historically, host nations have always enjoyed a home-country advantage, and this year will be no different in Beijing.
And speaking of home-country advantage, there’s an interesting story about a despotic head of state that really pushed the envelope in trying to obtain his own personal “home-country advantage.”
The event was the Berlin Olympics in 1936. The Germans won the most medals that year with 89 and the big story was Jesse Owens angering Adolph Hitler by winning four gold medals. However, another U.S. athlete may have irked the Fuhrer even more than Owens.
In the process of winning the women’s 100 meters, Helen Stephens, Missouri farm girl, caught Hitler’s eye and was asked to join the despot in his private box. The 47-year old Hitler was so taken with the 18-year old Stephens, that when she arrived he gave her an unusually “long and affectionate” hug and asked her to spend the weekend with him. We’ll never know Helen’s precise words, but we do know that she returned Hitler’s advances with a handshake and a polite declination.
Olympic history is replete with human interest stories and the following are two of my favorites. Perhaps the most forgiving Olympic athlete of all time was a scrawny 105-pound Japanese-American named Tamio Kono. Kono’s family was placed in an internment camp in California’s high desert during World War II. While in the camp, the skinny and asthmatic Kono began lifting weights to pass the time. Then after the war, Kono kept on training (and gaining bulk) and eventually became a member of the U.S. Olympic Team. During his career, Kono lifted in two Olympiads and despite his family’s detention, proudly lifted for the United States winning two golds and one silver medal, setting seven Olympic records in the process.
The second story dates back to the days of the Cold War, when the competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was as much about ideology as prowess on the field of play. During the 1960 Games in Rome, and then again at the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo, two Russian sisters became the first siblings to win gold at the same Olympics ” Tamara and Irina Press were virtually unstoppable, winning five gold and three silver medals in track and field events, while setting 26 world records between them. But when the International Amateur Athletic Federation began gender-testing in 1966, the two sisters withdrew from international competition and were never heard from again. Many have questioned whether these “sisters” were really “brothers,” but we’ll never know because the official Soviet line was that Tamara and Irina retired to take care of their invalid mother.
Thousands of athletes will compete in a variety of events over the next 17 days. But the 2008 Summer Games will have a significantly different tenor from Olympics past. In addition to the usual equipment found at an Olympic venue i.e., javelins, high bars, dumbbells, balance beams, etc, the athletes will find 70 combat aircraft, 50 helicopters, 23 warships, an anti-chemical defense unit, several batteries of surface-to-air missiles and in excess of 100,000 security personnel, including 35,000 from the Chinese military prepared in maintaining security.
We don’t know what we can expect from this Olympiad. But this much is for certain; by the time of the closing ceremonies on August 24, there will be more than a few surprises ” let’s hope they are pleasant ones.
Butch Mazzuca is a business consultant and writes a column for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.