Category Archives: olympics

Catalonia and the reign in Spain

A Barcelona waiter told me, “To a lot of people here, there is no Spain.”

That was 25 years ago, during the 1992 Olympics. That was a quarter century before the current confrontation between Spain’s central government and separatists in the country’s autonomous region of Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital.

At the time, and in the midst of the celebratory Olympic festival, declarations of Catalan identity didn’t sound revolutionary. Rather, they seemed expressions of local pride. We visitors quickly learned that, while Spanish was spoken in that technically Spanish city, the preferred language was Catalan. Residents and businesses displayed the flags of Barcelona and of Catalonia, not Spain.

In Barcelona, there was this hint of Catalan superiority which partly manifested itself in the widespread rejection of bullfighting, a sport the locals considered more appropriate for the barbarians in Spain—that other country. Barcelona saw itself as more European than other cities on the Iberian Peninsula, more wealthy and sophisticated.

Catalans were proud to claim surrealist painter Salvador Dali as one of their own, as well as Art Nouveau architect Antonio Gaudi, whose elaborate, vaguely phantasmagorical designs lend such a unique style to Barcelona’s landscape. The city also took ownership of Picasso, though he was born in southern Spain and a resident of France most of his life, because he spent the productive years of his radical painting in Barcelona.

So the 2017 developments, of Catalan referendums for independence and the backlash of Spanish leaders’ no-negotiation stance against them, feel considerably more serious—and dangerous—than during the ’92 Olympics. Back then, the Catalan-Spanish antagonism didn’t appear more threatening than a sports rivalry, which could be summed up in the way Barcelonans treated two local tennis stars during the Games.

One, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, was cheered because she was born in Barcelona. The other, her brother Emilio, was booed because he was born in Madrid, though he lived most of his life in Barcelona. It was an “us against them” posture, but good-natured enough that the old Saturday Night Live news parody, repeating on a weekly basis that “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead,” applied pretty well.

The iron grip of the dictator Franco over Catalonia, his 40-year smothering of Catalan language and culture, in fact had been loosened. It turns out, though, that too much of Franco’s era still lingered. And that century-old resentments, while mostly just below the surface, weren’t so hard to find.

During the Barcelona Olympics’ opening ceremonies, the King of Spain, Juan Carlos, was greeted with the playing of Els Segadors, the official national anthem of Catalonia, which had been written 352 years earlier to celebrate the Catalan victory over the 17th-Century Spanish king Philip IV. And Catalans still celebrate National Day on Sept. 11, recalling Catalonia’s loss of independence to Spain in 1714.

To prepare for covering the ’92 Olympics, I had read George Orwell’s 1938 book, “Homage to Catalonia,” a personal account of Orwell’s experiences and observations during the Spanish Civil War. (When, by the way, Els Segadors surged in popularity among Catalans.) Franco, of course, rose to power at the conclusion of that war.

Now I read that, to many in Catalonia, the crackdown by Spain’s central government evokes memories of the dark days of post-civil war dictatorship. As if Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still not dead.

Olympic Tomorrowland

 

Coming (not so) soon: The Los Angeles Olympics.

In 2028!

There could be a robot uprising against humans by then, according to flamboyant inventor Elon Musk. There could be people settling a colony on Mars. There could be genetic doping in elite sports, Six Million Dollar Man stuff. A book and movie predict curtains for the whole world in 2028.

The time gap is so disorienting—the first Games to be awarded to a host city more than seven years in advance—that the typically sluggish buildup in Olympic interest is even more conspicuous, with an occasional drift into fantasy.

The New York Times reacted to the news by having its Los Angeles-based reporters imagine new Olympic events tailored to La-La Land culture, and came up with “most rides on ‘It’s a Small World’ without a nervous breakdown,” “least original movie idea” and “fastest out of Dodger Stadium to beat the crowds (and traffic),” among other snarky proposals.

Me? I think of a more logical L.A. cliché which has been around since the first Games in that city in 1932: Let the auditions begin for another Hollywood cattle call.

Tarzan movies long ago fell out of favor, but a 2030s action-film star very well could emerge from among the ’28 Games’ competitors, discovered by the people in dark glasses and canvas chairs. With all those hunks on the Olympic playing fields, ready to make a muscle; all those female gymnasts flying around in leotards like Superwoman, someone is bound to catch the eye of movie talent scouts.

Such gold medal-to-silver screen possibilities certainly were a topic of discussion going into the most recent Los Angeles Olympics, in 1984, when American boxer Tyrell Biggs predicted he would win the super heavyweight gold medal (he did), “and they’ll cut to my commercial right after the National Anthem….that’s good American stuff.”

It had happened something like that in 1932 to one Clarence Linden Crabbe, whose gold medal in the 400-meter swimming freestyle served as a screen test, leading Crabbe to ditch his law studies, change his name to Buster and put on a loin cloth for the cameras.

Based on that formula, Biggs was asked in ’84 if he could swim. “I can dance,” he assured. And while he never starred in a musical, turning immediately to a 14-year professional boxing career that included three world-title bouts (all losses), Biggs did appear on the small screen in television’s American Gladiator series in the 1990s. And a documentary of his life reportedly is currently in production.

But, back to the future.

By 2028, might the choking traffic on L.A.’s infamous freeways consist entirely of driverless cars? How much sunnier might perpetually sunny Los Angeles be amid advancing climate change? What about the U.S. Geological Survey’s recent study that southern California already is overdue for a major earthquake? (During the ’84 Olympics, there was “earthquake repellent” aerosol spray on sale around L.A. It seemed to work.)

It isn’t clear just how much sweating of the details should be held in abeyance until, say, 2027. It has been duly reported that International Olympic Committee officials chose to nail down a 2028 site so far in advance out of concern that the pool of host cities continues to dry up. (L.A.’s bid technically was for 2024, against favored Paris, but the IOC reasoned that it had better lock up both candidates now, while they were willing.)

Polls repeatedly have indicated Angelenos’ substantial public support for staging the Games, although—in the grand Olympic tradition of NIMBY dissent—there also is a NOlympics group agitating to scuttle the 2028 plans. Given L.A.’s abundance of competition-ready facilities and college dorms available to house the world’s athletes, there is a Bloomberg News suggestion that the IOC should consider placing all future Summer Games in Los Angeles. Or that L.A. at least be incorporated forever in a rotation of three or four permanent Olympic sites.

Such a reasonable approach would be far more cost-effective and rational than the current system, which makes every subsequent Games organizing team a collection of Olympic rookies. But when a similar idea was floated more than 20 years ago for the Winter Olympics, then-IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch dismissed it out of hand, declaring that “the Games belong to the entire world”—and therefore should continue to foster the exorbitant cost, daunting organizational challenges and political trap doors of competitive bidding.

At this point, it’s sounds like we have a winner for that least original idea for a movie.

 

Korean Olympic choreography

I just read the news today (oh, boy): South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, has publicly proposed forming a unified Olympic team with North Korea for February’s Winter Games in PyeongChang in the South. Even wilder: South Korean Cultural, Sports and Tourism Minister, Do Jong-hwan, has floated the idea of the North co-hosting the Olympics, with a yet-to-be determined number of ski events at the North’s new Masikryong ski resort.

“Pipe dream” is too mild a description. Any heartfelt longing to advance dialogue and reconciliation between the two Koreas, and the idea of doing so through the world’s most visible athletic festival, is certainly welcome. But the Korean War, after 64 years, technically is still on. The two sides agreed to a ceasefire in 1953 but never signed a peace treaty, and just last month, Moon cited the “high possibility” of renewed military conflict over the North’s recent nuclear and missile tests.

The sports reality, furthermore, is that no North Korean athlete has yet qualified to compete in PyeongChang and, beyond that, officials in the North have not stated a willingness to participate in the Games. Choi Moon-soon, governor of PyeongChang’s Gangwon Province, told CNN this week that having the North host events is impossible, while Reuters reported that North Korea’s International Olympic Committee member, Chang Ung, confirmed that assembling a North-South team is unrealistic given the present political climate.

But the shadow boxing goes on—just as it did leading up to the 1988 Summer Olympics in the South’s capital, Seoul. Back then, North Korea spent more than a year angling for a role as co-host, demanding that it stage eight sports, which was then one-third of the Summer Olympic program. The IOC, keen to be the globe’s fence-mender, bent its charter—which stipulates that the Games are given to a single city—by offering to place three sports in the North.

As the point man in those IOC negotiations, then-IOC vice president Dick Pound experienced “something almost ritualistic” about the North’s bargaining tactics that was unrelated to real possibilities. “The North Koreans never seemed to hear what they were being told,” he said then.

A year before the Seoul Games, Pound reported that, when the IOC declared its final tender was three sports in the North, “North Korea said, ‘The latest offer is very encouraging progress toward putting eight sports in North Korea.’” The IOC nevertheless persisted with the talks because, “if you could get anyone across that border into North Korea to compete, into such an acknowledged trouble spot, it would really be special,” Pound said.

That still applies. But so does this: “South Korea,” he said, “could go up there and win a gold medal. That means that the South Korean flag goes up the pole in North Korea, and the South Korean anthem plays. And that’s unthinkable in the North.”

In 1988 as now, there were pockets of sentiment for North-South rapprochement, especially among student radicals. At the time, that passion manifested itself in regular, orchestrated demonstrations in which some students would hurl bricks and rocks at riot police, who answered with tear-gas guns and parcel-post-like trucks firing volleys of tear gas.

I witnessed one of those set-piece demonstrations on the steps of Yonsei University in Seoul with my friend Jay Weiner, then a reporter for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. And, while there was nothing pleasant about being caught in a tear-gas storm, the whole scene—contained within a couple of blocks—produced more a sense of choreographed fervor than of real danger.

A quarter-mile from the most intense action, folks from the neighborhood sat under umbrellas at small sidewalk cafes and drank ginseng tea, and little children bounced on a mattress under a street overpass. Coughing, weeping women streamed out of the university gates, eyeballs and skin burning from the tear gas and their mouths covered with handkerchiefs. But a middle-aged fellow strolling along in his Hawaiian shirt shrugged off the fuss.

“You learn to live with this,” he said. “We Koreans love clashes, although I must say, I don’t think these students understand much.” One student at a neighboring university told us that the “joke on campuses is that these kids don’t want to take tests, so they demonstrate. And the joke off campus is that the radicals are ‘spring mushrooms’ who pop up each year and then get a job working for Hyundai after graduation.”

Those spring mushrooms continue to appear, and the Olympics has been a venue for the hope, however dim, of a reunified Korea. Though the North wound up skipping the ’88 Seoul Games altogether, there subsequently were two occasions at the Summer Olympics, in Sidney in 2000 and Athens in 2004, when teams from the North and South marched together in Opening Ceremonies under a flag with the generic map of the Korean peninsula.

In both cases, though, the North and South competed separately. And to read the news these days (oh, boy) is to be reminded that neither side has won the Korean War.

Los Angeles as the Olympic savior (again?)

(Newsday, March 1, 1979)

What if we updated that headline by 40 years? Will the 2024 Olympics Be the Last?

Los Angeles wound up staging the 1984 Summer Games because no other city wanted them. Now, a decision by the International Olympic Committee executive board, proposing that both the 2024 and 2028 Games be awarded simultaneously later this year, essentially has acknowledged that L.A. likely is the only possible host for ’28.

The IOC should have seen around this corner a long time ago, as Olympic candidates are increasingly shying away from the financial demands and public doubts of staging an elaborate 17-day festival that leaves behind far more debt and white elephants than global goodwill. Only L.A. and Paris remain in the exhaustive, expensive campaign for ’24 after Boston, Hamburg, Rome and Budapest withdrew prematurely, just as Oslo and Stockholm changed their minds about trying for the 2022 Winter Games.

So, rather than be stuck without a 2028 suitor, the IOC proclaimed both L.A. and Paris will get the next two Summer Games after Tokyo hosts in 2020. The loser in ’24—widely assumed to be Los Angeles, because Paris is “due” after losing bids in 1992, 2008 and 2012 and would be celebrating the centennial of its last Olympics in 1924—will be left with the ’28 consolation prize.

If, in fact, it can be considered a prize to operate an event that fills the IOC coffers while having to assume all cost overruns, as per IOC custom. To accept the 2028 Games, instead of the preferred 2024 event, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti suggested there should be a multi-million dollar IOC investment into his city’s youth sports programs. To which IOC president Thomas Bach haughtily replied, “You don’t need to reward somebody if you give them a present.”

Maybe that is what Los Angeles gets for having declared itself “an eternal Olympic city,” always ready with a solvent plan of existing venues and “unwavering public support.” But Bach has been around long enough—he was part of West Germany’s gold-medal Olympic fencing team in 1976—to know it was L.A. that gave the IOC the ultimate present in 1984. By keeping the Olympics alive.

It was on March 1, 1979 that the IOC formally signed the contract to put the ’84 Games in L.A., long after the only other bid city—Tehran, Iran—dropped out of the race. Days earlier, I had been in the office of 37-year-old Los Angeles lawyer John Argue, the man who had finally succeeded in pitching L.A.’s Olympic candidacy after years of trying. Though by default. The financial disaster of 1976, when Montreal left a $1.5 million debt that took 30 years to pay off, came “really close” to killing the Olympics, Argue said then.

“I honestly believe the Games are very much in jeopardy,” he said. “Three cities bid for the ’76 Games. Two bid for the ’80 Games. And only us for ’84. There truly were no other bid cities. We heard the Games were not welcome in Munich, Montreal, Mexico City”—the previous three summer hosts.

Attention had to be paid to the disasters in each of those cities—the Mexican government killing at least 250 unarmed demonstrators days before the ’68 Mexico City Games; Palestinian terrorists murdering 11 members of the Israeli Olympic delegation in Munich in ’72; the wasteful spending and corrupt leadership of Montreal organizers in ’76.

Still, the IOC stubbornly insisted that Los Angeles abide by its “Rule No. 4,” which required host cities to bear all financial responsibility for the operation of the Games. And the U.S. Olympic Committee originally dismissed Argue’s massive money-saving plan to use USC and UCLA dorms to house the world’s competitors, rather than spend more than $100 million on the traditional athletes village. “The first reaction of the USOC,” Argue said, “was, ‘impossible. The IOC will want a village.’

“We were eyeball-to-eyeball,” Argue said. “And [the IOC] blinked. In a way, they were playing brinksmanship with the Olympics—which they really didn’t have to do.”

Argue, after all, was about to save their bacon. He was a passionate Olympic patriot. He was born in 1932, the year L.A. staged its first Olympics, the son of a 1924 Olympic pentathlete, and followed his father as chairman of the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games, which was formed in 1939 and had been agitating to return the Games to L.A. ever since.

Argue’s group hired as L.A.’s Olympic organizing chief an unknown travel executive named Peter Ueberroth, whose deft guidance of the Games got him named Time magazine’s Man of the Year and led to a turn as Major League Baseball commissioner. Under Ueberroth, Los Angeles established the gold standard for Olympic efficiency, marketing and fiscal sanity.

L.A. created the first “official sponsorships” of the Games, the first “unified look” of branding, and used 40 percent of its record $223 million surplus to fund the LA84Foundation, which doled out more than $185 million in donations to more than 1,000 southern California sports organizations over the next 25 years—including to a youth program that nurtured the likes of tennis superstars Serena and Venus Williams.

John Argue died in 2002, at 70. And what he prioritized in 1979 for the ’84 L.A. Games—that “we must demonstrate to the world that you don’t have to go broke staging the Olympics”—was so successful that it not only saved the Games but, through its ability to raise big money, also released the beasts of profligate spending at future Olympics. So that now we may be coming full cycle, back to the Montreal problem.

Neither the 2014 Sochi Winter Games nor last summer’s Rio Olympics did anything to restore economic sense. Television ratings, already slipping, won’t be helped by the next three Olympics being played out in Far East time zones—2018 Winter in Pyeongchang, South Korea; 2020 Summer in Tokyo, 2022 Winter in Beijing.

Just this week, the Olympics’ major sponsor, McDonald’s, ended its 41-year sponsorship of the Games—three years early—a high-profile departure that Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Cathal Kelly cited as “just the latest signal that the Olympic operation is in decline, along with the benefit of being linked to it.”

Another signal is the IOC’s 2024-2028 host-city packaging, clearly uneasy about future efforts to bring this bloated, unbalanced monster in for a landing. Really: Might the 2024 Olympics be the last?

NHL’s Olympic disappearing act

By banning their players from next year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea, NHL owners basically are going to spite their noses right off of their faces. They will not participate on international sport’s biggest stage, bypassing the added bonus of furthering the league’s desire to spread the NHL gospel to Asia, because—commissioner Gary Bettman somehow reasoned—the Olympics will cause the NHL to “disappear” for more than two weeks.

In fact, the Olympics has been a boon to NHL visibility since the league first signed onto the Winter Games 19 years ago, even in the face of shameful conduct by U.S. players at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. (More on that in a minute.)

The 2010 Olympic gold-medal final was the most-watched hockey game in North American television history—the NHL’s primary turf—seen by 27.6 million Americans and 22 million Canadians. Compare that to the measly 7.9 million who tuned in for Game Seven of the previous season’s Stanley Cup final on U.S. TV, or even the all-time largest Stanley Cup single-game TV audience of 13-plus million in 1972.

Prior to the 2010 Games, the highest rated hockey game featuring NHL players also was at the Olympics, in the 2002 gold-medal final. Donnie Kwak, writing for The Ringer web site, sensibly argued last week that “even the worst Olympic hockey game is more compelling than a regular-season NHL matchup in February.”

Especially, I contend, because the skating and puck-handling skills of he NHL’s best are magnified by Olympic rules that do not tolerate the NHL’s counterproductive acceptance of fighting. No other major professional sport puts up with—in fact, markets—such side-shows.

Yet Bettman brings an odd logic to that as well, accepting fighting as a pre-existing condition in his league. “It’s been there from the start,” he has said, “and what is done at other levels isn’t necessarily what’s appropriate at the professional level.”

Bettman has concluded that fighting “is part of the game” because NHL hockey is “intense and emotional.” A similarly timid reluctance to enforce good behavior is what gave the NHL a figurative black eye in its 1998 Olympic debut, when some (still unidentified) members of the U.S. team destroyed $3,000 worth of property in their rooms at the Nagano Games athletes’ village, then made matters worse by dismissing the incident as “blown out of proportion.”

Supposedly there were only three troublemakers who caused that damage, spitting in the face of overwhelming Japanese courtesy to the world’s visiting athletes, yet all 23 members of the team banded together to steadfastly refuse cooperation in the U.S. Olympic Committee’s subsequent investigation. The excuse was “team solidarity”—not ratting on the perpetrators of embarrassment to them and the entire U.S. Olympic delegation.

Not until a month later, under pressure from the U.S. Hockey Federation and the NHL Players Association, did the 1988 U.S. team captain, Chris Chelios, at last write a letter of apology to the Japanese people and the Olympic organizers, with a check of $3,000 included.

Somehow, Chelios and 13 of the disgraced Nagano veterans were allowed to represent the United States again at the 2002 Winter Games, possibly because a repeat of the Yanks’ roguish actions wouldn’t cause a similar international incident for Salt Lake City’s hosts. “We kept [the 1998 culprits] to ourselves for a reason,” Chelios claimed, without giving a reason. “People who needed to know what happened, they knew what happened.” He included Bettman among those people.

So the NHL establishment simply moved on with a boys-will-be-boys shrug, just as Bettman and league owners justify occasional, though persistent, goonery on the ice. But if a tradition of fisticuffs is OK in NHL games, what’s the common-sense argument by Bettman and the league owners that player injury is a major reason for skipping the 2018 Olympics?

With NHL rosters becoming more and more geographically diversified—more than one quarter of active NHL players come from outside North America—there is overwhelming sentiment among players to participate in the South Korea Games. Russians, Finns, Swedes, Czechs not only like the idea of wearing their national colors but also understand that their past presence in the Olympics has cultivated new fans for the NHL.

Even the American players, unlike those few ingrates in Nagano, have come to appreciate that the global exposure and competitive buzz of the Olympics far outpace the mucking in the corners of NHL rinks in mid-February. Without them in South Korea, the TV-ratings winners will be figure skating and snowboarding. And the NHL indeed will disappear for a couple of weeks.

 

Far worse than Darwinism

We have known for some time that elite women’s gymnastics—really, little girl gymnastics—somehow is even more Darwinian than other sports. It truly is survival of the fittest. No room for fear. No time for procrastination, no place to stand still. Puberty is coming. Weight gain is coming. Younger tumbling, flying daredevils are coming.

Those children train so hard in pursuit of Olympic glory that it is impossible for them to gain enough weight to reach puberty. The competition is so fierce that they dare not surrender to pain.

In 1995, San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter Joan Ryan published a book, “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes,” that touched on the frightening extremes to which so many gymnasts (and figure skaters) went to succeed. Based on interviews with more than 100 former athletes—as well as trainers, sports psychologists, physiologists and other experts—Ryan documented the physical and emotional hardships endured, the eating disorders, weakened bones, stunted growth, debilitating injuries and psychological problems. In 1996, the New England Journal of Medicine issued a report describing emotional and physical harm suffered by elite female gymnasts.

And the question now is whether that harsh, no-questions-asked environment facilitated far more disturbing damage to those kids. Over the past year, reports have surfaced of 360 cases of female gymnasts accusing coaches of sexual transgressions since the mid-1990s, and more than 80 gymnasts have alleged sexual abuse during that time by former Michigan State University and national team physician Larry Nassar, who in November was arrested on child pornography charges.

Were those ghastly crimes enabled by the gymnasts’ insecurity about their Olympic possibilities? About their athletic survival? Nassar’s abuse reportedly was perpetrated under the guise of medical treatment for injuries, and young gymnasts learn as mere toddlers that injuries are to be expected and must be dealt with.

Leading up to the 2004 Athens Olympics, I asked candidates for the women’s U.S. gymnastics team for a listing of their afflictions and found them to be a sawbones’ workshop. One 16-year-old had been through two fractures and a damaged ligament in her elbow. A 17-year-old, just off major Achilles surgery, remembered a stress fracture in her back at 5, a broken arm, a fractured wrist. Another teenager was coming off knee surgery and another returning from elbow reconstruction. Taken as a whole, elite gymnasts are either injured, were injured or about to be injured.

Was the celebrated husband/wife coaching team of Bela and Martha Karolyi, whose Texas ranch has served as the national team’s training center for decades, somehow complicit in creating an unreasonable cut-throat atmosphere? And could that have provided cover for Nassar, whom the Michigan attorney general branded a “monster” in announcing the most recent sexual assault charges against Nassar.

Bela Karolyi, who coached Olympic superstars Nadia Comaneci (in his native Romania) and Mary Lou Retton (after he set up shop in the United States), seemed to me a caring if demanding taskmaster, but he did always openly endorse the Darwinian model.

“They cannot slow down,” he insisted, “or the little ones coming behind them will swallow them up like they’ve never been there.” After two mothers of former Karolyi gymnasts told the Baltimore Sun in 1992 that his system was physically and mentally abusive—one blaming him for her daughter’s bulimia—Karolyi insisted, “I never interfere with their diet. I’m teaching gymnastics. The other things are for people around them—parents, teachers in school.”

I covered Olympic-level gymnastics for 25 years and found that, while the compelling performances and athletes’ dedication to excellence were to be much appreciated, I would not have wanted my daughter to be faced with that sort of survival test. And that was when I thought the worst thing for those kids was to avoid being swallowed up by the little ones coming behind them.

Another good Johann Koss deed

Once again, Johann Olav Koss has reassured me that a career in sports journalism is not an entirely trivial exercise. Once again, Koss’ commitment to the ideal of a level playing field, of respect for rules and opponents, of the universality of games has affirmed the worth of having toiled in what hard-news reporters often dismiss as the “toy department.”

At 48, Koss, the former Olympic speedskating champion, has created Fair Sport, a nonprofit foundation offering financial and legal assistance to whistle-blowers with information about cheating in international competition. As the New York Times reported, Fair Sport will draw on private donations and commitments from global law firms to provide housing, criminal defense, immigration applications and psychological counseling to whistle-blowers.

This is just the latest good deed of a sportsman whose path I happily crossed a few times, beginning at the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics. He was 25 then, when he won three gold medals and set three world records in his native Norway and immediately donated his $100,000 bonus check to Olympic Aid, which had been formed the previous year to raise funds for children in war-torn nations.

Koss signed on as an Olympic Aid ambassador and recruited fellow athletes to donate 12 tons of sports equipment—which he personally delivered to children amid civil strife in Eastern Africa. Over lunch in New York City shortly after the Lillehammer Games, he told me about seeing “with my own eyes” how “the martyrs of their wars are the ideal of children in places like that. I don’t think that’s good for children to have people who die in wars as their ideals. If they could have sport, to be healthy, to have a social connection, that would be good.”

So, yes, it’s just sports. But to Koss, it not only was a vehicle of self-fulfillment but also something valuable enough to be shared with those disadvantaged kids, something to be protected from the skullduggery of doping. In 2000, he reshaped Olympic Aid into Right to Play, zeroing in on sports as a tool for the development of children in more than 20 countries. He joined the International Olympic Committee’s athletes advisory commission and worked against the use of performance-enhancing substances.

Over and over, Koss demonstrated that just because sports events themselves don’t mean a lot in the greater scheme of things, that hardly disqualifies them from deserving our attention on several levels. He was proud of his speedskating accomplishments and insistent, as he told a couple of us ink-stained wretches while working for Olympic Aid at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, that athletes “are very good role models. When you’ve dedicated yourself to play fair—that is very important—then it’s totally enough to be a hero in sport.”

President Obama struck a similar tone during his White House reception for the World Series champion Chicago Cubs last year, declaring it to be “worth remembering—because sometimes people wonder, ‘Well, why are you spending time on sports? There’s other stuff going on’—that throughout our history, sports has had this power to bring us together….Sports has changed attitudes and cultures in ways that seem subtle but that ultimately make us think differently about ourselves and who we were.

“Sports has a way, sometimes, of changing hearts in a way that politics or business doesn’t. And sometimes it’s just a matter of us being able to escape and relax from the difficulties of our days, but sometimes it also speaks to something better in us.”

This latest Koss project, Fair Sport, is the result of a recently exposed Russian doping scandal so pervasive that some of us sports patriots could feel ourselves sliding into cynicism. But, once again, Koss’ focus on our right to play, and play fairly, has spoken to something better in us. Sports, he said during a chat at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, “is for peace. It’s for education. It’s for health. It’s to reach absolutely everybody in the world, to understand how to win, but also how to lose, and how to respect everyone.”

He has convinced me, again, that it is totally enough to be here in the toy department, where I write this missive while wearing my 1994 Lillehammer Olympics sweater.

Closing the door on an L.A. Olympics

 

This is just a guess, but I’d say that any prospect Los Angeles had of staging the 2024 Olympics already has been stopped at the border by Donald Trump’s blindly intolerant (and thoroughly un-American) attempt at a Muslim travel ban. I base this, to some extent, on New York City’s failed bid for the 2012 Games, rolled out during the Bush administration’s war in Iraq when at least some International Olympic Committee voters couldn’t get past the idea of “giving the festival of peace to a nation of pre-emptive strikes.”

Post 9/11 and leading up to the 2005 vote to award the 2012 Olympics, President Bush—unlike Trump now—had declared that he was imposing no religious test with his foreign policy. But there already was an anti-diversity elephant in the room. And this time, it is much worse.

So, while there is no divining some IOC members’ allegiances and prejudices, others’ downright partisan governmental considerations and even others’ well-meaning conviction that they are the United Nations in Sneakers, it’s a safe bet that smuggling this grand embodiment of international respect and goodwill past Trump’s wall of xenophobic scorn simply does not compute.

On Feb. 3, L.A. officials met the International Olympic Committee’s formal bid deadline, throwing their hat into the ring with Paris and Budapest. The vote to determine the 2024 host city won’t come until the IOC’s September meeting in Lima, Peru. But already, in response to Trump targeting of seven Muslim-majority countries, Iran has uninvited American athletes to a world wrestling competition it is hosting this month. That is a dramatic reversal in U.S.-Iran relations in that sport, which have been exceptionally warm for years in spite of the lack of diplomatic ties between the countries. The U.S. Olympic Committee, furthermore, is bracing for disruptions in other international competitions as a result of Trump’s executive order.

Naturally, LA2024 bid chairman Casey Wasserman is trotting out the old argument that sports and politics don’t mix, that the “power of the [Olympic] movement…[is]…to unite the world through sport, not politics,” and that his group will be “judged on the merits of our bid, not on politics” by the IOC.

The L.A. proposal makes a point of highlighting that it is “a city full of creative energy and extraordinarily united—not separated—by its breathtaking cultural diversity.” But neither that, nor Trump’s recent radio appearance claiming he “would love to see the Olympics go to Los Angeles,” plays nearly as well as French prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve’s words, during a Paris bid press conference shortly after a man was caught wielding machetes at the Louvre, that his country prefers to “build bridges, not walls.”

L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti had warned last summer that if Trump were elected president, it could have a disastrous effect on his city’s Olympic chances. And, in a statement issued after Trump’s Jan. 27 announcement of his travel ban, Garcetti said such an action “only fans the flames of hatred that those who wish us harm seek to spread.”

Having covered the Games 11 times, I consider myself an Olympic patriot, with a belief in the possibilities of fellowship through global sport. The Games really do (at least temporarily) put small dents into nationalistic and cultural differences, even though so much about the event is thoroughly political, with all the flags and medal counts.

So I side with Olympic poohbahs who balk at rewarding the politics of exclusion. In the 2005 IOC vote for the 2012 Games, when New York City was one in a murderer’s row of seductive candidates alongside London, Paris, Madrid and Moscow, one of the boosts for eventual winner London was the support it had gotten from the Muslim Council of Britain, representing 400 Muslim organizations.

When that vote was taken in Singapore, British prime minister Tony Blair, French president Jacques Chirac and Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero all attended to schmooze with the IOC, but George W. Bush stayed away. Wisely, I’d say.

Now, the USOC is attempting to dance around the Trump us-against-everybody mindset by proclaiming that, “Like the United States, the Olympic Movement was founded based upon principles of diversity and inclusion, on opportunity and overcoming adversity. As the steward of the Olympic Movement in the United States, we embrace those values. We also acknowledge the difficult task of providing for safety and security of a nation. It is our sincere hope that the executive order as implemented will appropriately recognize the values on which our nation, as well as the Olympic Movement, were founded.”

Fat chance.

Or….

?

Smith-Carlos and Kaepernick: Compare and contrast.

mexico

Long before Colin Kaepernick, there was the Tommie Smith-John Carlos incident. Complete with the same horrified amazement—or amazed horror—over the appropriateness of the gesture. The same rotten-tomato treatment of the medium that mostly blotted out the message.

“We didn’t carry guns,” Smith reminded during a rare reunion with Carlos in 2004, 36 years after the fact. “We didn’t beat anybody up. It was a prayer of solidarity, a cry of freedom. But it was an agonizing hurt for America, because everybody saw it. The whole world saw it.”

What Smith and Carlos did in 1968 was use the stage of the Mexico City Olympics—specifically, the victory podium during the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner” after Smith won the 200-meter gold medal and Carlos the bronze—as a call for social awareness and plea for the disenfranchised. Head down, each silently raised a black-gloved fist.

“It was basically an act of love,” Carlos said at the same low-key 2004 appearance with Smith during the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Sacramento. “Tough love, but love.” He compared it to disciplining a child to keep him from “putting his hand in a socket. We spanked America on the fanny and said, ‘Don’t put your hand in that socket.’”

In ’68, some American cities literally were in flames over civil rights unrest, the Vietnam war was raging months after both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. At San Jose State University, where Smith and Carlos were among the stars on the so-called “Speed City” team, sociology professor Harry Edwards had attempted (but failed) to organize a black boycott of the Mexico City Games.

At the last minute, after setting a world record in the 200, Smith decided to raise a his gloved right hand during the playing of the anthem. He gave his left-hand glove to Carlos with an invitation to follow his lead.

As with this year’s Kaepernick protest, in which the San Francisco 49ers quarterback has been joined by other athletes kneeling during the pre-game anthem to focus attention on police treatment of minorities, the immediate reaction to Smith and Carlos was one of wide condemnation for shattering protocol, for showing disrespect.

The veteran sportscaster Brent Musburger, then a Chicago newspaper columnist who represented the clubby establishment thinking, railed that Smith and Carlos were “black-skinned storm troopers.” International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage, an American, and U.S. Olympic Committee officials were outraged, ordering Smith and Carlos out of the athletes’ village and suspending them from further competition.

Hate mail and death threats followed. Smith never ran another competitive race, and it was decades before more thoughtful and nuanced perceptions of the Smith-Carlos action began to take hold.

In his 1993 memoire “Days of Grace,” tennis champion and activist Arthur Ashe wrote that Smith and Carlos had turned the Mexico City victory stand “into a sacrificial altar as they surrendered their victory to the greater good of downtrodden black people.”

In 1999, HBO aired a documentary, “Fists of Freedom,” in which Smith recounted how he was “scared. I was scared. My father said to me when I got home, ‘Boy’—he’s the only one allowed to call me ‘boy’—‘I don’t know what all this hooprah’—as he called it—‘comes from. But you’re my son, and it must be good because I raised you to do the right thing.’”

In 2005, a 23-foot sculpture of that Smith-Carlos Olympic moment was erected at the heart of the San Jose State campus. (The statue left empty the place on the victory podium that had been occupied by white Australian Peter Norman—who subtly joined the two Americans’ protest by wearing the same Olympic Project for Human Rights button as Smith and Carlos—so that visitors can pose with a raised fist on the silver-medal step.)

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In August, Smith, now 72, and Carlos, 71, were among the old “Speed City” athletes invited to the school’s announcement that it was reviving the storied track and field program they had brought to worldwide prominence. (San Jose State had discontinued track in 1988 for what it said was financial reasons, though it kept vastly more expensive football.)

Three weeks ago, when members of this summer’s U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams were honored at the White House, Smith and Carlos were invited to serve as the teams’ “ambassadors”—finally and officially welcomed back into the USOC family after 48 years as outcasts. “Their powerful silent protest in the 1968 Games was controversial,” President Obama said, “but it woke folks up and created greater opportunity for those that followed.”

That same week, the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African-American History & Culture opened just yards from the White House—with a bronze statue of the Smith-Carlos victory-stand demonstration at its entry to the sports gallery.

museum

It was at a New York screening of the 2004 HBO documentary, days before the film aired, that Smith offered me an ironic update on the fallout from their 1968 public display. He said his son, 11 years old at the time, had just seen a promo of “Fists of Freedom” and “called me at work. He called on my beeper, actually. I called him back and he said, ‘Dad! You’re on TV!’ He said, “You’re famous!’”

Famous. A little like Colin Kaepernick is famous—for choosing a protest setting that even historically progressive Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has called “dumb,” “disrespectful,” and “ridiculous;” a circumstance that so many people can’t comprehend.

That day at the HBO screening, Smith said, “I’m still trying to explain it. I’ll be trying to explain it till the day I die.”

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Centrowitz, reclycled

son

“Are you kidding me?”

It was a good question, one that Matthew Centrowitz said he put to “everyone I know” in the moments after he won the Olympic 1500-meter final, having shocked three-time world champion and 2008 Olympic gold medalist Asbel Kiprop of Kenya as well as the rest of the field. “Everyone” included Matthew’s father, Matt Centrowitz Sr., who was celebrating wildly in the stands of Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium as his son took a victory lap.

“Are you —– kidding me?” Matt Sr. shouted back. Whereupon the two commenced volleying the phrase back and forth.

Kiprop aside, it has been Olympic doctrine that Americans just don’t come through in the so-called “metric mile,” 120 yards shy of a mile, which vies with the 100-meter dash as the most appealing of track and field’s events. The last Yank to prevail at that captivating Olympic distance, in 1908, was Mel Sheppard, a man whose application to become a New York City policeman somehow was rejected on the basis of a “weak heart.”

So it could be said that, in Rio, Centrowitz’s karma ran over Olympic prognosticator’s dogma. A real dent in accepted belief. In 1912 (Abel Kiviat), 1936 (Glenn Cunningham), 1968 and 1972 (Jim Ryun), Americans were pre-race favorites based on the fact that they held the world record in either the mile or 1500—or both—entering the Games, yet repeatedly failed to win gold, until it became normal procedure. Other legitimate U.S. threats at the distance, Marty Liquori in the 1970s and Alan Webb in 2004, also succumbed short of Olympic glory to injury or strategic muddles.

Anyway, for those of us who began reporting on track and field happenings in prehistoric times, there were lots of echoes to young Centrowitz’ breakthrough, beyond repeated Are-you-kidding-me astonishment. It was four decades ago that I covered a handful of Matt Centrowitz Sr.’s elite races, including his runner-up finish in the 1976 U.S. Olympic trials at 1500 meters and his victory in the 1980 trials at 5,000 meters.

(I also interviewed Abel Kiviat, by the way. Not during his 1912 Games in Stockholm. Rather, in 1982, when Kiviat was then the oldest living U.S. Olympian at 90, we chatted about his disappointment in losing the 1912 Olympic 1500 by a tenth of a second, and about his Olympic roommate, a fellow named Jim Thorpe, whom Kiviat remembered fondly.)

EUGENE, OR - JUNE 29: Matt Centrowitz (white jersey) and Dick Buerkle #51 (red jersey) compete in the final of the Men's 5000 meter event of the 1980 USA Track and Field Olympic Trials held on June 29, 1980 at Hayward Field on the campus of the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by David Madison/Getty Images

(Matt Sr., 1980)

The senior Centrowitz is a native of The Bronx who had come to prominence at Power Memorial High School in Manhattan—basketball hall-of-famer Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s school, since closed—and for one year at Manhattan College before transferring to the University of Oregon, then and now a track powerhouse. He was a genuine mile star in his time, having broken the school record of the late Oregon legend Steve Prefontaine, though Centrowitz’ 1976 Olympic experience ended abruptly. He was eliminated in the first round, finishing sixth in his 1500 heat. And, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the Moscow Games left Centrowitz home with the rest of the U.S. team.

But maybe what’s past is prologue. When the storied old Millrose Games downsized from a half-century of annual Madison Square Garden productions to Upper Manhattan’s chaotic Armory building in 2012, a skinny lad named Matthew Centrowitz—recently turned pro after a career at the University of Oregon—brought down the house by winning the featured mile in a hot 3:53.92.

He didn’t look that much like the Matt Centrowitz I remembered. A better tan. No mustache. Shorter hair. Finer features. But the kid could motor and, sure enough, it was—as the tattoo on young Centrowitz’ chest proclaims—“Like father, like son.”

It is unbecoming for a sports journalist to root for a team or individual athlete and, anyway, I didn’t have time for cheering while cranking out a story on deadline that night. But in the Rio final, to watch Matthew Centrowitz’ execution of an apparently risky, yet ultimately brilliant game plan—his dawdling early pace, his insistence on controlling matters from the front of the pack throughout the race, his blistering final lap—was good stuff. And to see his dad, a guy who has been in the arena, come essentially unglued with the result, was—I don’t know—Olympic.

Are you kidding me?

(Statue of the mythological Echo in Seattle)

(Statue of the mythological Echo in Seattle, next to a running path)