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31 July 2021

The Non-Olympics

Tag(s): Sport, History, Foreign Affairs, Politics & Economics
As regular readers of these blogs will know I am very much a lover of sport. I have enjoyed many Olympic Games, never in person but always on television. The first Olympics I remember was the 1960 Olympics in Rome when the extraordinary Don Thompson was the only British male athlete to win a gold medal. His event was the 50 km walk. He was only 5 foot five but was mad keen on running and after suffering an injury he began to rehabilitate by walking. He entered a 5-mile race and won easily and realised that was his vocation.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were memorable for many achievements but particularly that of Lynn Davies who won a very competitive long jump competition. The Japanese proved excellent hosts and wanted to show the world that they were fully rehabilitated after the Second World War. They not only built new stadia but also introduced high speed rail with the Bullet train.

The 1968 Olympics took place in the autumn because of the heat of Mexico City and so I watched them on television with my fellow undergraduates in my first term at New College. There was another memorable long jump competition, this time won by the extraordinary Bob Beamon, setting a record that would not be beaten for decades. The 1968 Games were also the first Olympic Games in my lifetime that had a highly political aspect to it with the black power demonstrations.

The 1972 Olympics in Munich had an even worse political aspect because of the massacre by Palestinian terrorists of nine Israeli athletes. After taking a day off in honour of the Israeli athletes they were quite correctly resumed to show that the terrorists had not won and there were some remarkable athletic performances led by Mark Spitz with his seven gold medals in the swimming pool and the wonderfully charismatic teenage Russian gymnast Olga Korbut who won two gold medals. This was the closest that I have ever been to the Olympic Games physically because I attended a conference in Austria in September that year and we flew first of all to Munich where we met up with a group and then drove down to Birgitz. We actually visited the stadium and were outside while the Kenyan athlete Kip Keino was winning the 1500m inside.

The 1976 Olympics saw the first of four consecutive boycotts. Twenty-nine countries, mostly African, boycotted the Montreal Games when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) refused to ban New Zealand, after the New Zealand national rugby union team had toured South Africa earlier in 1976 in defiance of the United Nations' calls for a sporting embargo of the country. In the competition the highlight was undoubtedly another gymnast, this time the Romanian Nadia Comaneci who got the first perfect 10 and on the track the Finn, Lasse Viren with his double gold medals in the 10,000m and 5,000m.
 
65 countries boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games which were held in Moscow. The boycott was led by President Carter's administration in the USA but included China, West Germany and countries all over the world. It was based on the Soviet Union's involvement in Afghanistan which now seems pretty ironic. I was then living in Los Angeles and saw very little of the Games on US television which was scaled right back and so I missed the gold medal runs of Allan Wells, Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe.

The 1984 Olympic Games were held in Los Angeles and so predictably the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries boycotted them in retaliation. Carl Lewis won the same four gold medals that Jesse Owen had won in Berlin in 1936 and for Britain Sebastian Coe and Daley Thompson repeated their gold medal success in 1980. But the 1984 Olympic Games were most memorable because it was the first time that a profit had been made by the Games since 1932.  This was because they were run on a much more commercial basis. Corporate sponsors, principally U.S.-based multinationals, were allowed for the first time to put the Olympic logo on their products and advertise them as the “official” such products of the Olympic Games. At the time this produced a more optimistic outlook about the Olympic Games but looking back we can now see this is when the rot really set in.

The 1988 Olympic Games were held in Seoul, South Korea and so predictably North Korea along with five other communist countries including Cuba boycotted the Games. This was the last Olympic Games of the Cold War era, as well as for the Soviet Union and East Germany, as both ceased to exist before the next Olympic Games in 1992. The Soviet Union dominated the medal count, winning 55 gold and 132 total medals. No nation has repeated this result since 1988. East Germany was second with 37 golds and 102 total medals. We now know that many of these were tainted with drug abuse. The Canadian Ben Johnson won the 100m final with a world record time of 9.79 seconds but was disqualified after he tested positive for stanozolol. But the outstanding athlete in the Games was sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner who set an Olympic record (10.6) in the 100m – and a still-standing world record (21.34) in the 200m dash to catch gold medals in both events and she added a gold in the 4 x 100m relay and a silver in the 4 x 400m.

In 1992 the Olympic Games were held in Barcelona. The Games were notable for the invitation to South Africa to compete for the first time in 32 years. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, 12 of the 15 new states chose to form a unified team, while the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania each sent their own teams for the first time since 1936. Also, for the first time, Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia–Herzegovina competed as independent nations after their separation from Socialist Yugoslavia. The Games also marked Germany competing as a unified team for the first time since 1964. Jennifer Capriati won the women’s tennis gold medal at the age of 16. Sony has its Spanish Headquarters in Barcelona and so a group of us visited the stadium before the Games were opened.  I actually ran on the hundred metre track.

A record 197 National Olympic Committees were represented at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. In athletics Donovan Bailey of Canada won the men’s 100m, setting a new world record of 9.84 seconds. He also earned his second gold in the 4 x 100m relay. Michael Johnson won gold in both the 200m and 400m setting a new world record of 19.32 seconds in the 200m.  Carl Lewis won his fourth long jump gold medal aged 35. In tennis, Andre Agassi won the gold medal, which would eventually make him the first man, and the second singles player overall (after his eventual wife, Steffi Graf), to win the career Golden Slam which consists of an Olympic gold medal and victories in the singles tournaments held at the four major events: Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open.

The 2000 Sydney Olympic Games were generally held to be the best ever in terms of organisation and presentation. Some commentators even said that the International Olympic Committee should now quit while it was ahead. Perhaps in later years it would regret that it didn’t. The local hero was Cathy Freeman who won the 400m in front of over 112,000 excited spectators, and thus became the first competitor to both light the Olympic flame and win an individual gold medal. But the British hero was undoubtedly Steve Redgrave who by winning the coxless four, became one of a select group of people who have won gold medals in five consecutive Olympics.

The 2000 Olympics were also marked by the fact that these were the first where British competitors benefited from lottery funding which had been extended to British sportsmen and women by a decision of Prime Minister John Major.  By now I was working for Pentland whose Australian headquarters were in Sydney. I was taken to visit the Olympic swimming pool as supplying swimming costumes to Olympic competitors was a major part of Speedo’s marketing campaign. However, unlike in Barcelona, I did not get a chance to swim in the pool.

In 2004 the Olympic Games were held in Athens for the first time since the modern Olympic Games were first held there in 1896. The shot-put event was held in ancient Olympia, site of the ancient Olympic Games, while the archery competition and the men’s and women’s marathon finish were held in the Panathenaic Stadium, in which the 1896 games were held. The world record holder and strong favourite Paula Radcliffe crashed out of the women’s marathon in spectacular fashion, but Kelly Holmes won gold in the 800m and 1500m. The United States lost for the first time in Olympic men’s basketball since the introduction of professional players in 1992. This defeat came at the hands of Puerto Rico. The US then lost to Argentina in the semi-final and Argentina went on to beat Italy in the final. Chilean tennis players Nicholás Massu and Fernando Gonzalez won the gold medal in the doubles competition while Massu won the gold in the singles competition. These were Chile’s first ever gold medals.

In 2008 the Olympic Games were held in Beijing, only the second time that they have been held in a communist country after the Soviet Union in 1980. Many concerns over China’s hosting of the games had been expressed including claims that China violated its pledge to allow open media access, human rights violations, its alleged continuous support  for repressive regimes (such as Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Sudan, North Korea), air pollution in both the city of Beijing and its environs, warnings of the possibility that the Beijing Olympics could be targeted by terrorist groups, disruption from Tibetan separatist protesters, and religious persecutions. In order to deal with the terrible air quality China had made several manufacturing operations close down for a period and suspended a great deal of traffic in the city. There were also a number of doping scandals both before and after the Games had commenced affecting Russian athletes, Greek weightlifters and the entire Bulgarian weightlifting team which had to withdraw after 11 of their weightlifters failed tests.

Great Britain was now benefiting hugely from lottery funding and came fourth in the medal table with 19 gold medals and a total of 51, its best performance for a century. China led the table with 48 golds and a total of 100 medals. The United States was second with 36 goals but 112 medals overall and Russia was third with 24 golds and 60 medals in total. The outstanding Individual achievement for British athletes at the games was when cyclist Chris Hoy became the first British athlete in 100 years to win three gold medals in a single Olympic Games.

In next week’s blog I will bring the story up to date with recollections of the 2012 Games in London and the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. I will then explain why I have titled these blogs The Non-Olympics.



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