I watched the opening ceremonies for the Tokyo Olympics last night and enjoyed every minute of it. I love the splendor of all the athletes marching in, showing off their country’s flag and wearing outfits celebrating their culture. The gathering of so many very fit young people who have trained, sometimes under conditions that belie their smiles, evoked not just admiration, but deep respect. Yet, it was impossible to avoid the lurking presence of Covid between the (mostly) masked athletes and the empty seats in the stadium.
The first Olympics I remember was 1960. Coverage of those games was unlike anything it is today. Track and field was the premier event back then, and the US had two extraordinary athletes who would bring home medals in these events: Rafer Johnson and Wilma Rudolph. I had the privilege of meeting both these amazing athletes long after their track and field days were over.
Rudolph coached track, became a writer and a philanthropist. She inspired untold numbers of young people with her life story. Johnson also coached, but established himself as an actor early on and enjoyed a long career making movies. Both these athletes provided commentary during subsequent Olympic Games.
Unfortunately, Rudolph died a relatively-young 54. Johnson, on the other hand, just passed away in December 2020, at the age of 86. They made names for themselves as Black athletes and established their reputations as role models in an era of incredible social change.
Jim McKay was not an athlete, but he came to define sports coverage for television. McKay was anything but photogenic. And the equipment used back in these early days, made the commentators look as if they were aliens from outer space. What he did have was the ability to weave an amazing amount of extraneous fact into a storyline that held the viewer’s interest and then share his own authentic excitement when the finish line was crossed, giving the viewer the chance to experience it along with him.
McKay was a broadcast pioneer, starting out in Baltimore, and is forever remembered for his work on ABC’s Wide World of Sports (“The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat!”). He provided color commentary in 12 Olympic games, including switching from sports commentary to hard reporting at the Munich games in 1972, where members of Black September, a Palestinian terrorist organization, took the Israeli team hostage and killed them all.
McKay had a long and splendid career covering all kinds of sporting events. He died at the age of 86.
In 1960, the Olympic Games were held in Rome. The challenge of broadcasting an event as multi-faceted as the Olympics was taken on by CBS. There were no satellites to transfer events live. Instead, using cutting edge technology of VHS, CBS used tape made by Italian TV, flew it daily to New York, where Jim McKay recorded his voice over for the evening news.
These games saw Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) win gold, Wilma Rudolph win three gold medals, Rafer Johnson be named the fittest man in the world after winning gold in the Decathalon. These games also saw the invention of the “photo finish”, where video tape was first used to determine the winner.
The last time the summer Games were held in Tokyo was 1964. Subsequent summer Games have been held in Mexico City (1968), Munich (1972), Montreal (1976), Moscow (1980), Los Angeles (1984), Seoul (1988), Barcelona (1992), Atlanta (1996), Sydney (2000), Athens (2004), Beijing (2008), London (2012), and Rio (2016).
Some of these Games were more memorable than others. I remember Mexico City for the Black Fist protest of track and field stars, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, both of whom paid a high price for making a political statement at an event that was supposed to transcend politics.
Of course, the reality of the Olympics is that is has always been a political tool in the hands of the International Olympic Committee and the country that hosts. Munich will be forever remembered in recent history for the violent deaths of the Israeli athletes at the hands of Palestinian terrorists, as well as for Hitler’s failed attempt to demonstrate Aryan supremacy back in 1936.
The US has not been immune to problems when we’ve hosted. The Atlanta games were disrupted by Eric Rudolph, a self-styled survivalist who had a history of planting bombs. His bomb killed one and injured many others. The LA Olympics was notable not for violence, but for selling out to corporate America as well as being boycotted by communist nations in retaliation for our having boycotted the Moscow games. The games in Rio highlighted backroom deals, bribery, pay-offs, and athletes who purchased illegal substances.
Ageism and Athletics
While Track and Field continues to represent the bulk of athletic events at the Olympics, gymnastics is now the darling of TV coverage. Possibly because of the incredible demonstration of balance and strength, or possibly because of other, more prurient motives, watching children go through their routines has become big time TV!
A personal favorite of mine are the swimming and diving events. I find myself holding my breath when the horn goes off and shouting encouragement as the competitors near the finish. And, honestly, it is eye-candy for me to look at these incredibly fit people flex their muscles in the starting blocks and on the diving board.
But what happens to these athletes when they age out? The youngest athlete competing this year is 12-year-old, Hend Zaza, who is competing in table tennis for Syria. The oldest is 66-year-old, Mary Hana who is competing in the equestrian events for Australia. In truth, the hard work, dedication, and discipline needed to perform at this level pays dividends throughout life.
These Olympics will be remembered for Covid. They were delayed a year because of the pandemic, the stands last night were empty because of the uptick due to the Delta variant. Athletes, in peak condition are testing positive for the virus, demonstrating the supremacy of viral replication over years of training and sacrifice.
Knowing all of that, I watched in awe last night as humanity suspended our collective grief. Tears came as the camera panned the faces of hopeful youth, who in spite of Covid, war, climate change, prejudice, hatred, lack of money and resources, have found a way to gather in Tokyo, to march together into a stadium, and, on cue, watch as Naomi Osaka took the eternal flame and climbed to light the cauldron.
“Faster, higher, stronger”
I am busy watching the Olympics for the next two weeks. I am not interested in the medal counts. I just want to enjoy this temporary vacation from catastrophe and submerge myself in the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.