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Faster, higher stronger: Not always the case at the Olympics

Saturday January 25 2020

Medallists in the Mexico City Olympics 200m final Peter Norman (silver, left), Tommie Smith (gold, centre) and John Carlos (bronze) during the medal ceremony. PHOTO | FILE |

Medallists in the Mexico City Olympics 200m final Peter Norman (silver, left), Tommie Smith (gold, centre) and John Carlos (bronze) during the medal ceremony. PHOTO | FILE |  NATION MEDIA GROUP

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The Olympic experience is personal, national and universal. The athlete wears the shoe, the country raises its flag and the Olympic flame burns in the sky for all the world to see.

In the end the athlete, the country and the Olympic movement all remember, but they remember differently.

We are six months away from Tokyo 2020 where we will be participating in our 15th out of a possible 17 Games. We sat out Montreal 1976 and Moscow 1980.

Kenya’s Olympic journey, from 1956 to 2020, all of which is within living memory, has been a largely happy one.

The country has been spared tragedies that have befallen many other nations. Save for the two boycotts and the financial scandals especially of the last Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Kenya has steadily made itself an Olympic notable, thanks mainly to the exploits of its distance runners.

Now team sports are making their way into the delegation. To have three teams, men’s and women’s rugby and the women’s volleyball team in Tokyo is a feat worth celebration whatever the outcome of the competition. This is what progress looks like. I am doing research on Kenya’s 64-year Olympic journey and will share some stories from time to time with readers of this column as the countdown to Tokyo 2020 continues.


For this week, though, I decided to look beyond our borders. Some of the stories that comprise the experiences of other people are uplifting, some are sad and some are horrifying but all of them are always interesting for a journalist. Here is a selection of stories that have drawn my interest in the Olympic Games. It is a shortlist, determined largely by the space available. Nevertheless, it is a shop window into an area very rich into the good, the bad and the ugly of the human race:

Paris, 1900 and London, 2012: Before the Games of Paris 120 years ago, women were not allowed to compete in the Olympics. Paris did away with that and women participated in lawn tennis and golf. It has been steady progress since then and in London in 2012, for the first in history, all 205 countries in the Games had female competitors.

London, 1948: Wars come with large numbers of casualties and a long running one like World War II even more so. The largest number of the victims of these conflicts are young men and women in the prime of their lives. Using sports therapy to give these people a new lease of life, British doctor Ludwig Guttmann founded the International Wheelchair Games. He invited wheelchair athletes to compete in the London 1948 Olympics and thus was born the modern Paralympic Games. Guttmann’s efforts represented a giant step in mainstreaming the lives of people living with disabilities.

Mexico City, 1968: The civil rights movement in the United States was at its height when the Mexico City Olympics of 1968 came by. In the countdown to the Games, an intense campaign to get black Americans to boycott them took place. Some athletes heeded the call but sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith decided to use the platform of the Games to stage their own unique protest. Before the victory ceremony for the 200 metres race, they frantically searched but could find only one pair of black gloves.

So they shared it — gold medallist Smith wearing the right glove and bronze medallist Carlos the left one. As the US national anthem was played, both raised their gloved fists in a Black Power salute. Australian silver medallist Peter Norman wore a human-rights badge on his jacket in sympathy. Smith and Carlos were suspended from the Olympic Village and Norman practically became a non-person in his homeland. But today all three are icons of the human rights movement.

Barcelona, 1992: The problem with clichés is that they are clichés. Today, whenever a group of people, including some with doubtful ability, come together for any purpose, they are promptly dubbed the “Dream Team” by desperate supporters or sycophants. But the US men’s basketball team to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics was the real deal. It is the original “Dream Team.”

Never before had so much concentration of talent been brought to one basketball side, if not to any sport. This was the team: Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Christian Laettner, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, and John Stockton. It lived up to its billing, sweeping all competitors away, and giving us an automatic name by which to call newly-elected members of our village cattle dip committee: Dream Team.

Atlanta, 1996: Atlanta hosted the centennial Olympics and selected Muhammad Ali, the greatest athlete of the 20th century and gold medallist in Rome 1960, to light the torch. By that time, Ali was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease and his hands shook uncontrollably. The gut wrenching struggles of the man who, by his own account, once “handcuffed lighting and threw thunder in jail” were too much for his adoring fans.

In his eulogy to Ali 20 years later, former US President Bill Clinton, who was in office at that time, recalled “that unforgettable moment. I was weeping like a baby seeing his hands shake. No matter what it took, the flame would be lit. The fight would be won. I knew it would happen." Mercifully, it did.

Beijing, 2008: Every coach will tell you that in sport, talent alone is not enough. Character matters. Surprisingly, even at the Olympics, though quite rare, you sometimes see behaviour that leaves your jaw on the floor. When Cuba’s Angel Matos was disqualified for taking too much injury time during a bronze medal tae-kwon-do match, he reacted by kicking Swedish referee Chakir Chelbat in the face. The World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) immediately slapped him with a lifetime ban — the maximum they could do with such an ill-mannered fellow.

Seoul, 1988: The dove is the universal symbol of peace. During the first Olympics of the modern era in 1896 in their Athens birthplace, doves were released during the opening ceremony to underline the peaceful intent of Olympic competition. It established a tradition that is followed to this day.

However, in Seoul, things went badly wrong. Dozens of doves were perched atop the Olympic torch cauldron, having been released just moments before. When it was lit, they were instantly burnt alive, causing widespread anguish and not just from animal lovers. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) altered the sequence of future opening ceremonies to ensure that that never happened again.

Rome, 1960: The Rome Olympics were the first to be broadcast live across Europe, making instant celebrities of the outstanding competitors. This gave impetus to the dark side of wanting to be a winner: cheating. In Olympic history, Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen has the dubious reputation of being the first confirmed doping cheat. He collapsed during the 100km team time trial race amidst a blazing 40-degree Celsius heat. He fractured his skull and the same day, he died while undergoing medical treatment. Jensen was found to have Roniacol in his system. It took his death for anti-doping campaigns to get going but it wouldn’t be until the 1968 Olympics that testing for drugs became mandatory.

Tokyo, 1964: Kokichi Tsuburaya was a lieutenant in the Japan Self-Defence Forces. It was his privilege to represent his proud and obsessively self-reliant people in the men’s marathon race — an event they cherished dearly. He looked like he would do his nation proud and led the race until the last 100 metres when the following two competitors overtook him, forcing him to settle for bronze. Any other competitor would have savoured the accomplishment but Tsuburaya was devastated.

As far as he was concerned, he had brought shame upon himself, his family, and his fellow countrymen. He said: “I committed an inexcusable blunder in front of the Japanese people. I have to make amends by running and hoisting the Hinomaru — the Japanese flag — in the next Olympics, in Mexico.”

Tragedy stalked him. He developed a lower back problem that became increasingly worse during the Olympic year. Unable to bear the prospect of not keeping his promise to win the marathon gold in Mexico, Tsuburaya committed suicide by slashing his wrist with a razor. In his suicide note, he gave as his reason to die his inability to compete in the Games.

Seoul, 1988: When Seoul was announced as host to the 1988 Games, bitter rival North Korea embarked on a campaign to sabotage the event. In fact, it was determined to get the Games taken away altogether. What the world did not know was the diabolical lengths to which the North would go to achieve that end. On 29 November 1987, Korean Air Flight 858 from Baghdad to Seoul disappeared above the Andaman Sea with 115 passengers and crew on board. All of them were killed. Later, it emerged that agents acting on orders from the North Korean government had planted the device that destroyed the aircraft.

The bombers were a man and a woman both of whom had disembarked from the aircraft in Abu Dhabi during a stopover. They were traced to Bahrain.

They both took cyanide tablets as they were being taken into custody. The man died, but the woman, Kim Hyon-hui, survived. Later, she confessed to the bombing. Sentenced to death, she was pardoned by South Korean President Roh Tae-woo on the grounds that she had been brainwashed by the North. She eventually wrote a book, The Tears of My Soul, in which she poured out the daily misery of living with her crime.

Tokyo, 1964: Stampedes in football stadiums are not uncommon but the one that occurred in Lima, Peru, in May 1964 was in a category of its own.

Peru and Argentina were competing for a place in the Tokyo Games at Lima’s Estadio Nacional when the fervent home crowd became enraged after an equalising goal for their team was disallowed. Within seconds of the referee’s call, trouble erupted. Tear gas rained down on more than 50,000 spectators most of whom found themselves barricaded behind closed gates. The official death toll, a harrowing 328, was thought conservative. It remains one of football’s worst tragedies.

File | nation
American athlete Tommie Smith leaves the 1968 Mexico Olympics Game Village after his suspension from the US team for making a “Black Power” demonstration on the victory stand. Smith won the men’s 200m gold medal.

File | nation
Athletes John Carlos (right) and Tommie Smith (centre) make a “Black Power” demonstration at the presentation of their 200 meters gold and bronze medals in New Mexico Olympic Games. The duo made the demonstration in protest of racial discrimination in the USA.