The 2008 Olympics reminds us of the good old days

Wednesday, August 27, 2008 | 8:51 a.m. CDT; updated 2:42 p.m. CST, Monday, February 2, 2009

For the first time in several Olympiads, I find myself enjoying the Olympic Games with nearly the passion of years gone by. Perhaps the rebirth in interest stems from the ennui induced by an overlong campaign process, or maybe even the belated and unreasonable uproar over China's being awarded the games, or the equally silly second-guessing of the President's decision to attend the opening ceremonies.

All of these were probably factors; however, the greatest allure of this 29th Olympic Games is the return of the games to the individual athletes and eschewing, for the most part, the political excesses and the "I am the greatest" chest-thumping antics of countries and individual performers. Yes, the medal counts continue to be reported in the sports media but as a matter of fact rather than a matter of national honor.

The amazing performance of swimming phenomenon Michael Phelps, who amassed eight individual and team medals while establishing himself as just one of the regular guys, is reminiscent of some past achievements I still remember. Those of my vintage may compare Phelps to Bob Mathias, the 1948 Decathlon champion.

Mathias, a high school senior from Tulare, Calif., was and remains the youngest decathlon winner, managing that feat with but four months of practice. The hero of the very next Olympics, held in Helsinki, Finland, was Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia who won the 5,000 and 10,000-meter races as well as the marathon. Zatopek's performance was particularly noteworthy - he had never run a marathon before. Other highlights of the 1952 games included the return of Germany and Japan to the competition, and the lighting of the Olympic Flame by Paavo Nurmi.

The most celebrated participant in Rome in 1960 was Wilma Rudolph, a sprinter from Tennessee State who became the first woman to win three gold medals - for the 100 and 200-yard dashes and as a member of the 4-by-100 relay team. Ms. Rudolph's feat is all the more impressive when one realizes that until the age of 12 she was in leg braces from a bout with polio.

The highlight of the 1964 Tokyo Games was the shocking first and only victory for the United States in the 10,000-meter race, won by a little-known distance runner named Billy Mills. Mills' instant celebrity was natural - not only was he a United States Marine but he also was a Sioux Indian from North Dakota. Other memorable Tokyo competitions were the final performances of Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina, who retired with a record 18 Olympic medals, Bob Hayes' world record in the 100-yard dash and Joe Frazier's heavyweight championship.

I suppose I have provided more history than many of you wish, but nostalgia is one of the spheres in which we septuagenarians excel - we often have difficulty remembering what we had for breakfast but have virtual instant recall of the time we could move without pain. And, while on the subject of age, the two silver medals won by 41-year-old Dara Torres while competing against swimmers half her age is phenomenal. Swimming in her fifth Olympics (she sat out 1996 and 2004), she set an American record in the 50-meter and missed the gold by one-hundredth of a second.

Chief among the best attributes of the 2008 Olympics has been the unexpected, precise and professional organization by the host country and the sportsmanship of the competitors - individually and nationally. The enthusiasm and decorum of the athletes have made the games a joy to watch. It appears we have learned from the past boorish actions of our hockey and basketball teams since all are on their best behavior.

Two of our local entrants fell somewhat short of their Olympic goals. Christian Cantwell, former MU shot putter, brought home the silver instead of the coveted gold, while Ben Askren, MU's two-time NCAA wrestling champion, failed to place in freestyle wrestling. Both will return in 2012.

For those purists who continue to decry the daily posting of the medal count as too nationalistic, if winning is not important, why do we keep score?

Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at


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