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.