Soundings: Olympic ideals

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

Kerry Temple

The maddest I’ve ever gotten in reaction to an athletic event was in September 1972. I was in Farley Hall, watching the conclusion of the U.S.-USSR. Olympic basketball game — the game for the gold.

This was back when college players — amateurs, not the all-NBA Dream Team — competed for the United States. They were matched against older, professional-level players from foreign countries. Still, the U.S. stood 63-0 in Olympic basketball games, having won every gold medal since the sport was introduced to the games in 1936.

But the international competition was catching up and the Soviets led 49-48 in the waning moments when Doug Collins stole a pass in the backcourt, got fouled hard driving to the hoop, then hit both free throws to give the U.S. a one-point lead with three seconds remaining.

What transpired next was a chaotic, maddening, logic-defying, Communist-collusion finish that allowed the Soviets not one, not two, but three tries to score the winning basket — which they eventually did.

In protest, the U.S. team refused to accept the silver medal. The medals are still in a vault in Switzerland.

These were the same Munich Olympics during which 11 members of the Israeli team were taken hostage and killed by a Palestinian group.

And it was four years after U.S. medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised fists on the podium — either championing Black Power in America or human rights around the world — in one of the most overt political statements in Olympic history (unless you count Jesse Owens’ performance in the 1936 games in Hitler’s Berlin).

In 1980, the U.S. boycotted the summer Olympics hosted by the USSR in Moscow because of the Soviet invasion of . . . Afghanistan.

That made the U.S. hockey triumph over the Russians in the 1980 winter games all the sweeter.

The feel and demeanor of the Olympics was far different in those days. I much preferred the atmosphere surrounding Sochi (despite threats of a terrorist attack prior to the games’ opening ceremony).

I grew up under the cloud of Cold War hostility. The Olympics became a staging ground for international rivalries, with U.S. athletes doing their patriotic best to beat Soviet bloc countries and show which political and economic system was superior. Athletes, whether they liked it or not, bore the weight of global power posturing.

Here was the perception:
The United States was represented by amateurs, kids really, who devoted their spare hours to Wheaties-box achievements in athletic contests, sports and games. There was a purity and innocence and good ol’ gung-ho American spirit inspiring our golden athletes.

Our greatest competition — the Soviet Union, East Germany and other nation states under Communist rule (including China) — had military-style training camps for their state-supported Olympic athletes and, I am sure, took the most promising toddlers from their parents at an early age to mold, manufacture and drill them into robotic chattel for athletic conquest.

The grim demeanor of those athletes did not refute the storyline.

Which made that 1980 hockey win over the Soviet Union all the sweeter — vindication for truth, justice and the American way of life. Probably an omen of — if not better than — the fall of the Berlin Wall nine years later.

Despite today’s lingering tensions in U.S.-Soviet relations and the threat of a terrorist bomb and the gay rights side-story and the embattled Ukraine, these Olympics were refreshingly apolitical — at least in my viewing. And it was nice to not hope the Soviet figure skaters would fall, to not be looking for snafus in the games as brought to you by Russians, to not hurt too deeply when the U.S. athlete didn’t get the gold — or any medal at all.

In fact, I’ve been OK with Dutch speed skaters, Latvian bobsledders and Norwegian downhill skiers. It’s really all right with me that the Russians won the most medals. Good for them, those folks. Mostly, they looked happy winning, not relieved.

Much of that goodwill has come from the athletes themselves. I have been moved by the smiles and hugs, the good-natured camaraderie, the number of times athletes have said they’re just happy and honored to be there. Winners and losers seem — at least on camera — genuinely gracious.

What this signals is a coming together, I think, a recognition that it’s the games and the sports and competition, doing one’s best, putting it all out there . . . and then living with the consequences. And realizing all the other athletes are in it together with you.

That creates bonds, not divisions.

It has looked and felt to me — via NBC — that the athletes had found common ground (even when basking in national pride) in their shared endeavors and in the athletic adventures that transcend those national boundaries.

I suppose, in terms of Olympic ideals, that would be a noble aim. And that ideal would be a nice goal for the human race. We’re all in this together. We come from different places, but that can be overridden by what we have in common.

This may be part of another awareness emerging these days as well — the idea that the people are not their governments.

We’re seeing this time and again across the globe. In many places the people and their governments are at odds. There is a human spirit restless against regimentation and restrictions and injustice. And these Olympic games, too, despite the athletes’ healthy pride of place, showcased the humanity and spirit that we share.

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.