J. KARL MILLER: The Olympic Games, a quadrennial celebration for good

Wednesday, August 8, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:52 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 8, 2012

As a multi-sport athlete of mediocre-to-average ability, a coach in several sports and one who has officiated virtually every sporting event save soccer, I can't get enough of the Summer Olympics. As an opinion writer whose reader approval ranges from "walks on water" to somewhere beneath that of a used car salesmen, on occasion, I afford myself a break from politics.

One of the attributes of these, the "Games of the XXX Olympiad," has been the absence of much of the complaints alleging that, among other things, the posting of a running medal score was too nationalistic. The notion that the games should exist only for the individual performance of the athletes and that flag waving and other demonstrations of national pride detract from the Games' "purity" was an easy topic for journalists.

That image has always reeked of nonsense — it is as natural as motherhood and apple pie that the U.S. and every other nation take pride in the feats of their respective athletes. As for keeping score, it records the accomplishments of the Nauru's, the Liechtenstein's and the Lesotho's as well as those of the U.S., China and Russia.

Among my favorite images of the Olympics is the nations' march into the Olympic Stadium — the national dress of the Olympians, the obvious enthusiasm of the athletes (even the Russians smiled) and the former and present Olympians selected to carry the participating nation's colors. Anyone who doesn't feel the electricity of excitement of a ceremonial event that does more to bridge cultural gaps than all of the diversity programs combined is missing something — in my opinion of course.

Before departing the "Parade of Nations," I have an observation. Regardless of where the uniforms may have been manufactured, the blazers and white trousers/skirts were both attractive and appropriate.  However, that beret has got to go — cowboy hats, baseball caps, even beanies with propellers are American — berets are not.

As a youth, my introduction to the Olympics consisted of studying the Greeks' contribution — the marathon as the most significant. The 1912 feats of the then "world's greatest athlete" Carlisle Indian School's Jim Thorpe; Paavo Nurmi, the "Flying Finn," and his 12-medal (nine gold) Olympic performance from 1920 to 1928; Jesse Owens' four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics; Czechoslovakia's Emil Zatopek, who won the 5,000 and 10,000 meters and the marathon in 1952; the U.S. and Tennessee State's sprinter, Wilma Rudolph who overcame polio and poverty to win 3 gold medals in 1960; and the Rev. Bob Richards,, the "Vaulting Vicar," who won the pole vault in the 1952 and 1956 Olympics are the stuff of legends.

Those feats noted above are but a few of the many scintillating performances. I purposely omitted the more recent athletes with whom most readers are familiar. The greatest U.S. Olympic teams include, but are not limited to, the 1992 men's basketball "Dream Team," the 1996 women's soccer winners, the 1996 women's gymnastics team, which repeated that win in 2012, and the U.S. men's and women's track teams long dominance of relay races.

I have been privileged to meet but one Olympic champion. In 1964, I resided in the same Camp Pendleton, Calif., housing development with Marine 1st Lt. Billy Mills, the Lakota Sioux and University of Kansas cross country runner. A virtual unknown, Mills surprised the field by winning the 10,000-meter race, becoming the first and only American to win at that distance.

Thus far, my highlight of this Olympics has been the gold medal performance in the 100 meter backstroke by Colorado high school senior Missy Franklin. Her unabashed happy glow and humility in victory, along with her enthusiastic cheering for other swimmers, is refreshing, particularly when compared to the egoist poses of many of today's athletes.

Franklin's performance was reminiscent of an earlier high school senior, Bob Mathias of Tulare (California) High School. Despite having never competed in the decathlon, at the behest of his track coach, he entered and won the event at the Southern Pacific AAU Games and also the National AAU championship in Bloomfield, N.J.

Three weeks later, in the 1948 summer Olympics, Mathias won the Decathlon, the youngest ever, at 17, to win Olympic gold. He went on to play in the Rose Bowl, won the Olympic Decathlon again in 1952 and later was elected to Congress where he served four terms.

My only grief with the U.S. Olympic Committee would have to be the decision to use professional athletes in that international competition arena. The amateur-only distinction gave it a more competitive and honest flavor. However, as other nations unashamedly subsidized their athletes as "wards of the state," keeping to the amateur standard became a losing proposition.

The Games of the Olympiad are not perfect, but they trump any other international cooperation effort. Let the games begin and continue forever or until Johnny Mathis' "Twelfth of Never" — whichever comes later.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via email at Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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Michael Williams August 8, 2012 | 9:29 a.m.

" is as natural as motherhood and apple pie that the U.S. and every other nation take pride in the feats of their respective athletes."

Keep in mind, tho, that a whole bunch of those athletes attended US universities and were trained by US coaches, especially in track and field. In the rare times NBC mentions where an athlete trained, it's usually something like LSU, Florida, Ohio, UCLA, etc.

I, too, have been pleased with this Olympics. I've especially enjoyed women's gymnastics and track/field. The games are unique in having many sports not well known in the US, and I've enjoyed tuning in on a few of them....water polo, fencing, and rowing not so much, but I'm still amazed at in the world a guy can row with that kind of power in a narrow boat for 1000 meters IN A STRAIGHT LINE!!! is beyond me; I tend to visit both river banks on a rather frequent basis and disdain those wussies who float the middle.

Methinks the scoring in gymnastics is still screwed up and possessive of a bit of lingering politics. I saw decisions that went for some athletes and against others that left me scratching my novice head. As much as I wanted the US woman to get the bronze in balance beam, I thought the protest was churlish and embarrassing.

I've really enjoyed the reactions of many athletes to their success. Who cannot be in love with Gabby or, for that matter, most of the various countries' women gymnasts? Who cannot smile at the Aussie reaction to winning the women's 100mH even tho I was rooting for Lolo? Go Allyson Felix!!!!!!!!!!!

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hank ottinger August 8, 2012 | 5:25 p.m.

A reasonable appreciation by Mr. Miiller, most of which I agree with. In the spirit of "internationalism," however, it would be nice to have NBC interview a non-American winner, or even a runner-up. The nearly entire focus on US competitors, with the rare semi-nod to a non-American, wears thin after a while.
And yes, Mr. Williams, Gabby is lovable, but there's something, dare I say, creepy about these ever-tinier, elfin competitors that remind me of the "Little Miss Sunshine" category of beauty queens. Guess it's just the nature of the sport.

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Ellis Smith August 8, 2012 | 6:37 p.m.

...but there's something, dare I say, creepy about these ever-thinner, elfin competitors...

One afternoon a few years ago on a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Des Moines my older granddaughter met and talked with Shawn Johnson. At the time both girls were in high school in the suburb of West Des Moines, but in different high schools. Julia was born a year before Shawn and is almost 6 ft. tall. Shawn is a tad bit shorter. :) Julia fences (epee). Shawn didn't graduate from high school but has since completed high school via private tutoring. Now that she's done so, she may be able to take advantage of offers from West Coast universities that she can go to work as a coach and then be eligible to take college courses as a university employee (she isn't allowed to compete in NCAA gymnastics).

When Shawn traveled and was unable to be accompanied by at least one parent she had a paid companion (female) who traveled with her and was never far from her side.

Shawn has retired (June 2012) as a contestant in gymnastics. She has a bad left knee and has been fighting weight problems. She has accepted an offer to re-appear on "Dancing With the Stars" in the new TV season.

The problem when you are "elfin" is that putting on a few pounds quickly alters your appearance. Julia could gain or lose 5 pounds and no one would be the wiser.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking August 8, 2012 | 7:15 p.m.

hank ottinger wrote:

"Guess it's just the nature of the sport."

It's also physics. Shorter, lighter competitors can perform more violent, faster moves gracefully because they have less bone mass and lever to move and control.

If I were an orthopedic physician, I'd cringe at some of the moves these athletes do.


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Michael Williams August 8, 2012 | 7:28 p.m.

"...there's something, dare I say, creepy about these ever-tinier, elfin competitors that remind me of the "Little Miss Sunshine" category of beauty queens."



What would be creepy is if you or I tried to do what they do.

In public.

I am, however, glad they have a lower age limit. In regard to what you wrote, it indeed was getting to the point of ridiculousness way-back-when.

It's interesting to me that guys of the same size certainly don't look elfin. Rather, to me they look a bit grotesque and out-of-proportion with that upper body strength.

The differences in what the males and females do highlight a dramatic distinction between masculinity and femininity.

Thank goodness.

PS: What's creepy is the way China keeps their young athletes far from home with no frequent visits from family. In an age of diversity and multiculturalism, I guess I shouldn't criticize, tho.

Sure ain't nuttin' elfin about Lolo and Allyson, is there?

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Michael Williams August 8, 2012 | 7:34 p.m.

Speaking of Lolo.

The NYTimes should be run outa town for their article on Lolo.

I think they're mad she's a 30 y/o virgin, something NY must lack.

What a bunch of knuckleheads whose main hurdle in life is whether to have a hotdog with sauerkraut or pastrami on rye. I'm betting the guy who wrote it (and his editor) has never come close to trying what these women and men do.

I will grant, tho, they may have watched a hurdle race once.

On TV.

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Ellis Smith August 9, 2012 | 2:14 a.m.

@ Michael Williams:

Time magazine, prior to the Olympics, had an article about Lolo Jones. I don't recall the date of the issue, but it would no doubt be available at the Columbia Public Library. Time seemed particularly impressed by the fact that Lolo SURVIVED (virginal or otherwise) to graduate from high school and be given an athletic scholarship to LSU. So am I (impressed): because Des Moines, Iowa has some of the meanest streets of any American city. :)

Mark, as usual, is correct: Both male and female gymnasts have certain physical profiles that allow optimal balance control.

What I find surprising in Shawn Johnson's case is that a city like Des Moines has a gymnastics school run by an internationally known instructor. Lolo's public high school is known for its swim teams; Shawn's and Julia's high schools are perennial state football powers. The "big game" each season is when they play.

(Report Comment)
Bob Brandon August 11, 2012 | 11:38 a.m.

"However, that beret has got to go — cowboy hats, baseball caps, even beanies with propellers are American — berets are not."

The U.S. Army would not agree.

(Report Comment)
Bob Brandon August 11, 2012 | 11:42 a.m.

The Good Colonel opines: "The notion that the games should exist only for the individual performance of the athletes and that flag waving and other demonstrations of national pride detract from the Games' "purity" was an easy topic for journalists... That image has always reeked of nonsense — it is as natural as motherhood and apple pie that the U.S. and every other nation take pride in the feats of their respective athletes."

Baron de Coubertin would not agree: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."

Not the first, nor the last, time the Good Colonel is mistaken.

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mike mentor August 11, 2012 | 4:25 p.m.

I am going to take a wild guess and say most of those that don't understand competition and the purity within have always been on the outside looking in. Either that or you there is something rotten in you. There is no mutual exclusivity with the intense desire to do your best and celebrating respectfully and jubilantly if you triumph. I am going to support my family, my community, my Country, and all competitors in that order and there is nothing wrong with that. I would expect that from every other human being on the planet no matter who their family, community and country are. Any attempt to paint that in any unflattering way is just another of the many examples of pc gone wild.

Speaking of pc. It's not very pc nor respectful to write disparagingly about another's physical appearance. I am sure the girls you are slighting have feelings the same way an exceptionally tall or heavy girl does when one draws attention to their physical appearance instead of their performance!

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Michael Williams August 12, 2012 | 7:42 p.m.

In the spirit of compromise given the good Baron's statement....EVERYONE participating in the Olympics gets a small commemorative statue of the Baron regardless of their performance. We're getting rid of those sissy medals.

Rumor has it, tho, that the good Baron believed female athletics should be excluded from the Olympic program. Such programs were apparently bad for the male athlete although a further rumor has it that male athletes were in mild disagreement. So much for any endorsement of Title IX by the good Baron.

PS: I bemoan the loss of athlete amateurism as anyone else of similar thinking. Unfortunately, not all countries treat competition equally; for example, recall the abuse of performance-enhancing drugs started mainly by the Eastern Bloc, many of whose world records still stand today (see 100mH). And, the biggest difference of all: Without state or market support, how in the world do you survive (i.e., eat, pay rent, pay bills, insurance) when you are spending 6-8 hours each day training for your event??????? I'm not saying I support what is happening; I'm saying I don't like it, but I don't know what to do about it.

The worst Olympic's event for me? Men's basketball: My NBA stars can beat your NBA stars. Yuck.

I wonder if the good Baron would agree that ALL athletes have to train in the country they are representing?

(Report Comment)

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