Reflections on the London Olympics – Part I AUGUST, 2012

Reflections on the London Olympics – Part I  AUGUST, 2012

This is the one of many columns to be written by UMBC Director of Athletics Dr. Charles Brown. Dr. Brown is believed to be the longest-tenured AD in the state, with over 20 years at the helm of the Retrievers. He has been an athletic director since 1981 and has served two terms as president of the Maryland Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics and one term on the NCAA Division I Championships/Competition Cabinet.

London, a world class city, just played host to the thirtieth Summer Olympic Games. The Brits put on a glorious “show” and now Olympic “nuts” like me have four years to gear up for the Rio de Janeiro games. It will be the first Olympic Games, winter or summer, to be held on the South American continent.

I’ve always been enamored of what many consider to be the world’s largest sporting event. I’m glad it only takes place once every four years and is rotated around the globe. It means so much to those trying to make their national teams and, despite the costs and work involved in preparing and running the games, it is sought out by nations and cities from every continent.

I was exhausted by the end of the two-week event. Because of a five hour time zone difference, many of the events were actually broadcast very early in the morning. Showcase sports were in the evening broadcasts so I was following and watching events constantly on my iPhone, network TV, cable TV, computer and the print media. The Olympic Games dominated the sports world, actually got mixed up with presidential politics (the Romneys’ visit to Great Britain), and were featured in all types of commercial advertising, TV and media talk shows. Names like Phelps, Bolt, Misty May, Serena, Lolo, and the Fab 5 will forever be engraved in the fabric of our sports jargon.

Winston Churchill, legendary British Prime Minster, talked about “Great Britain’s Finest Hour” 70 years ago when they stopped the Nazi juggernaut after it destroyed Western Europe. This Olympic Games can, of course, not compare to that accomplishment, but it certainly, in my eyes, was one of the premier Games I’ve ever enjoyed following. Opening and closing ceremonies in recent Olympiads made concerted efforts to reflect the culture and history of the host nation. The Sydney Olympics spotlighted their Aboriginal roots; the Beijing games displayed amazing precision with a cast of thousands; and the London Olympics featured Paul McCartney, Mr. Bean, the Spice Girls, James Bond and, of course, the Queen! However, I thought it was a shame that the terrorist attack of 40 years ago was not acknowledged with a moment of silence in respect for the 11 fallen Israeli athletes from the Munich Olympics. Bob Costas of NBC did his best to help us remember.

My first recollection of the Olympic Games was in the summer of 1960 watching the USA’s Wilma Rudolph’s amazing triple gold medal performance in the sprints (100 & 200) and relay and Abebe Bikila’s winning of the marathon. The Ethiopian palace guard ran barefoot throughout the 26 mile course and won in the shadow of the Roman Coliseum. It was my first exposure to wrestling and made a lasting impression on me which changed my life. I wrestled in college and coached the sport for 15 seasons.

Tokyo, in 1964, hosted the games after having its 1940 games canceled due to World War II and “used” the ’64 games as a way of re-acceptance into the world community. Japan showed off its technology with the use of computers; Billy Mills of the USA recorded one of the biggest upsets ever, as the unheralded Native American won the 10,000 meter run beating Australian world record holder Ron Clarke with an unforgettable Dick Bank NBC broadcast—“Look at Mills, Look at Mills”—last lap come from behind victory.

Mexico City, in 1968, was the scene of the Black Power Fist protest on the medal stand by American sprinters John Carlos, Tony Smith and Lee Evans! New York City’s Bob Beamon jumped more than 29 feet to win the gold in the long jump and break the world record by an astonishing two feet!

Munich in ’72 produced the legendary Dan Gable of wrestling lore, and records fell in many sports for the next two decades along with accusations that the East Germans and Communist Block athletes were using drugs to enhance performances. Russia’s controversial upset of USA men’s basketball, with the five seconds being replayed several times, stunned everyone. Mark Spitz’s 6 gold medals and Frank Shorter’s marathon win were big for the USA. The Olympic Terrorism Tragedy hung heavy over those games.

Montreal in ’76 nearly bankrupted the city and the Olympic Stadium was never completed. I attended the games and actually watched Pat Summit, Nancy Lieberman and Ann Myers lose to the Russians for the gold medal in women’s basketball. The Montreal Olympics debt was finally paid off in 2005.

Moscow was the first big boycotted Olympics—as President Jimmy Carter refused to let our athletes compete as a protest for the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1980. In 1984, the Russians paid us back by not coming to our games in Los Angeles. We won our most medals ever; gymnast Mary Lou Retton put on an amazing show; Joan Benoit won the first women’s marathon; and the “USA, USA” chant originated at these games.

The Seoul Olympics held in the fall of 1988, the last for East Germany and the Soviet Union, two of the dominant Olympic countries, was the scene of one of the most controversial events in Olympic history--the showdown of the two fastest sprinters in the world, Carl Lewis, multiple gold medalist and Ben Johnson of Canada. Johnson won the race handily, but was disqualified for testing positive for performance enhancing drugs.

Barcelona, in 1992, was the coming out party for the Dream Team of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic and Sir Charles, et al. The Atlanta Centennial Olympics in “Hotlanta” was attended in its entirety by yours truly and was a huge financial success. Sydney, Australia produced the “Thorpedo” who set the bar high for the Yanks. Athens, the birthplace of the Olympics, was, in 2004, a country racked with political and economic strife. But it was able to produce what was described by Jacques Rogge of the IOC as a “dream game.” And it produced a new airport and subway system, and a new Olympic medal depicting the ancient Greek stadium, not the mistaken Roman Coliseum of previous Olympiads. Beijing, in 2008, was a “coming out” party for Chinese Olympic success and the emergence of Michael Phelps, the biggest of all Olympic superstars.

Through the years, since the revival of the Olympics in 1896 in Greece, the games have evolved from a relatively small event with partial world participation to a mega-billion dollar extravaganza with political implications, boycotts, racial overtones, drug infestation, sexism, cheating, controversy over state supported national teams, capitalism versus communism, amateurism versus professionalism arguments, and, of course, excessive nationalism.

Despite all that has happened, the games get bigger and more inclusive of the entire world. Participation in the current games was at an all-time high. The positives, I believe, outweigh the negatives. The enormity of the games, including facility and infrastructure cost, massive media involvement, major security concerns, drug testing, staffing and the like set the host country on its end for years to come, but the list is long for those who want to host in the future. What country will be the first African nation to host? Is it too big for most cities to afford? Have the Olympics lost their original purpose?

I can’t wait until Rio!

Part II

Queen Elizabeth may not have actually parachuted into the Olympic Stadium to start the 30th Games, but Great Britain’s Royal Family was everywhere during the London Games! Here’s the official medal count for the top 10 countries:

    Gold Silver Bronze Total
1 USA 46 29 29 104
2 China 38 27 22 87
3 Russia 24 25 33 82
4 Britain 29 17 19 65
5 Germany 11 19 14 44
6 Japan 7 14 17 38
7 Australia 7 16 12 35
8 France 11 11 12 34
9 South Korea 13 8 7 28
10 Italy 8 9 11 28

For the record, 204 countries that participated, 84 won at least one medal. The USA won the medal count with a total of 104, the most gold with 46, and the most silver with 29. China, had an early lead, but was runner-up again to the USA. Russia closed fast to place third, but to me, the biggest winners were the Brits with 65 medals (29 gold). They had been prepping for the last eight years and it paid big. In Atlanta (1996), they had only one gold and were humiliated. National pride is now near an all-time high on the British Isles. The USA won the medal count for the 16th time (5 in a row 1996-2012). Only the former Soviet Union had won nine medal counts (8 consecutive from 1952-1980) till the “Iron Curtain” fell and the Soviet Union was no longer.

The sports that won the most medals for the USA in order were swimming, track & field, gymnastics, shooting, tennis, wrestling and diving. The USA won or placed in the following team sports: men’s basketball, women’s basketball, women’s volleyball, women’s water polo, women’s soccer and women’s gymnastics, the most by far of any country. In my opinion, team sports cause the medal count, as it’s calculated now, to be inequitable. Why not count five medals for basketball, eleven medals for soccer, etc. After all, soccer, the most played/popular sport in the world, counts for only two medals—one for men and one for women, while weightlifting has 46 medal opportunities in its multiple weight classes for men and women and multiple entrants. I wonder what the media thinks about this idea.

Overall, 18 countries won just one medal, but for most that did so, it was very important. Venezuela’s fencer, Ruben Limardo, and Montenegro’s silver medal handball team, Ugandan men’s marathon winner, Stephen Kiprotich, and Granada’s Kirani James’ gold medal in the 400 meters all brought parades and dancing in the streets in their home towns and elation from the countries’ leaders. The teams and athletes who just missed medals by placing fourth, also brought praise from the USA’s Olympic CEO Scott Blackman among others. Sarah Graff placed fourth in the triathlon; Davis Phinney placed fourth in the bike road race and time trial; Morgan Isaksen placed fourth in the modern pentathlon; and Meb Keflezighi placed fourth in the men’s marathon, all grueling events. Blackman said, “to watch them train for 4-8 years and to come within an inch of a medal and barely miss it, but deal with it so gracefully, is an inspiring thing to watch.”

My list of favorites in these games is long. It’s not in an order of any kind and leaves out many more, but here goes:

  1. Oscar Pistorius, South African 400 meter semi-finalist, who runs with two (2) artificial legs--nicknamed “Blade Runner”—Oscar’s participation took amazing “guts” and was finally supported by the Olympic committee—a victory for the rights of the handicapped.
  2. Michael Phelps—18 gold, 22 overall medals won—most in Olympic history for any sport—‘Nuf said!
  3. Usain Bolt-Jamaican super star sprinter, who back to back won 3 gold medals in 2008 and 2012, established himself as the greatest male sprinter of all time.
  4. Dmitriy Muserskiy-7’2” Russian volleyball player was prime mover behind one of the greatest comeback victories ever in the men’s volleyball final versus Brazil.
  5. Mo Farah-won gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 meter on the track for his adopted nation, Great Britain.
  6. Brad Wiggins of Great Britain, just coming off of the first place finish at the grueling Tour de France, wins gold in cycling.
  7. Misty May and Kerri Walsh-third straight gold medal performance in the increasingly popular beach volleyball championships-interesting post championship victory dance by Misty!
  8. Serena Williams-has now done it all with her smashing victory (6-0, 6-1) over her “Russian” opponent Maria Sharapova. She’s now won everything she can in women’s tennis—how about her post championship celebration dance!
  9. USA Women’s Water Polo Team-come from behind victory. Our first ever, with five goals from rising superstar Kami Craig.
  10. Finally, Andy Murray wins a big one—Olympic gold for Great Britain in men’s tennis over world #1 Roger Federer of Switzerland.
  11. Christine Sinclair almost single handedly led Canada to a semi-final victory over our women’s soccer team. She scored three amazing goals, but USA hangs tough, with a goal from rising super star Alex Morgan with seconds remaining in “stoppage time”. USA went on to win the Gold!
  12. Ali Raisman—sealed the deal for USA gymnastics team gold with a rousing floor exercise routine. Gabby Douglas won the all-around in an amazing display of athleticism. I love the Klezmer music that Ali performed her routine to.
  13. USA Women’s Track & Field—4 x 100 meter relay—WOW!!
  14. Katie Taylor—boxing hero fought to a gold medal in the 130 pound weight class—Ireland was delirious as the crowd sang “Oh Danny Boy”.
  15. After qualifying 18th for platform diving, USA’s David Boudia took home the gold upsetting the defending Olympic champion from diving powerhouse China.
  16. The Brownlee brothers, Alistair and Jonathan, won gold and bronze in the grueling triathlon—they trained together in a small northern town in England and were revered by the locals who made sure of the “boys” preparation for the games.
  17. And how about the USA’s women’s “8” rowers--they “smoked” the field and won the gold going away.
  18. The bravery award for USA athletes should go to Kayla Harrison who won the gold in judo after suffering childhood sexual abuse from a former coach.
  19. Kimberly Rhode, who for the 5th consecutive Olympics, took the gold for USA in women’s skeet shooting, breaking the world record along the way shooting 99 of 100—amazing.

There were some disappointments and concerns along the way. Lots of fourth place finishes, including Lolo Jones. Baseball and softball were eliminated from the Olympic menu--Why? USA men’s boxing was a huge mess—we need to fix it up for Rio. The badminton scandal of “throwing” games to get better seeds in post pool play events was disgraceful. Drug test positives were down, but still there are too many (i.e. gold medalist in women’s shot put disqualified). The USA uniforms were made in China. Never again!

Overall, the games went smoothly and Great Britain was a great host. It was an Olympics of inclusion with spectacular results. Every four years athletes and sports that are rarely seen on American TV get exposure.

NBC coverage, the most extensive, was still frustrating for many Olympic buffs like me. How can the decathlon, one of the centerpieces of the Olympics, be given, at most, fifteen minutes of coverage while competition in rhythmic gymnastics, synchronized swimming, diving preliminaries, and trampoline are given extensive coverage? Wrestling, the first Olympic sport ever, was given virtually no coverage and our highly successful team sports were rarely given primetime exposure. In order to watch Serena, one needed to go to the BRAVO channel.

In spite of all these frustrations, computer access to most competitions was very helpful. Largely, the public embraced the games. I certainly did—how about you? Send your responses to