Saturday, July 28, 2012

Olympics Time Again

I love the Olympics. Even after all of the tragedies, the cheating judges, the doping scandals, the ridiculous upheld or denied appeals, the politics, the billion-dollar losses by the host nations, even after all of that the Olympic Games still manage to enthrall me each and every time they are staged, winter or summer. My memories of past Olympic Games go back as far as Mexico City in 1968, although I really only saw the events that were staged on the two weekends that summer. Television coverage back then, as I recall, was pretty much restricted to prime time during the week and that was past the bedtime of my 7-year-old self. I don't recall a lot of what I watched that year, simply that I did watch some of the events and probably on American television for the most part. After the Olympics I began to watch ABC's Wide World of Sports every weekend, hoping to see some of the strange and new (to me) sports that had captivated me during the Games. Before Mexico City it is very likely that I had never seen gymnastics, diving, judo, fencing, or most track and field events; after that I was excited to try almost every new sport I saw that summer.

Olga Korbut in Munich
As the 1972 Olympics in Munich approached, I became more and more excited. Because of the time difference and the increased television coverage in Canada (we were hosting in 1976 so all of a sudden the Olympics were a huge deal here), not to mention my "advanced" age of 11, I was able to watch a great deal of the preview shows of the Olympics as well as the first week of the Games themselves. I have vivid memories of watching the pixie-cute Olga Korbut dazzle everyone in gymnastics; I saw several of Mark Spitz' record-breaking seven gold medal wins. I loved the newly-reinstated sport of European handball and became quite a fan of water polo as well. The Games were held quite late that year, running well into the month of September, which posed a problem for me: the Canada-USSR Summit Series began exactly halfway through the Olympics. This would have created some tough channel-flipping decisions, except for the fact that my family also drove down to Disney World in Florida the day after the Summit Series began, effectively causing us to miss the final three hockey games played in Canada and all of the second week of the Olympics.

It also caused us to miss the horrific events of September the 5th, as they unfolded live on ABC television.

A Black September terrorist on the balcony of the Athletes' Village
The 1972 Olympics, therefore, are locked in my mind forever as an impossible dichotomy; the first half, before we left for Florida, was glorious and uplifting while the second half, which I had to follow through newspaper and magazine accounts, was simply mind-numbing tragedy the likes of which I had not been exposed to in my young life. Because we had left Toronto with the sporting events fresh in my mind and saw no further live coverage of the remainder of the Games or the slaughter of the Israeli athletes, it's never been possible for me to completely reconcile one set of events with the other. It's as if, truly, they were completely unrelated in any way. I knew what was happening in Munich from radio accounts and newspaper headlines, but because - for me - the Games effectively ended on September 3rd when we got in the car and began our long drive, it's as if the second week of the Olympics never happened and the massacre was on an island unto itself. I think, selfishly, that might be the only reason why I was able to continue being excited by the Olympics for years after Munich; having always been a very sensitive soul I feel pretty confident in believing that, had I been home while the drama unfolded on my television and then the Games continued to their scheduled conclusion as I watched, something would have been lost for me forever.

As an aside: with respect to the Munich Massacre, to this day I am dismayed that the IOC has refused to ever acknowledge the tragedy in any Opening or Closing Ceremony or, indeed, at any other time during subsequent Games. I find this to be unconscionable and indefensible on their part and they should truly be ashamed of themselves.

Because the events of 1972 remained separated in my mind, I once again looked forward to the 1976 Olympics as they approached, but of course this time the excitement was exponentially greater than previous years because 1) they were going to be held in the city where I was born; and 2) we bought our first colour television in the fall of 1975! (I should mention at this point that, although I did watch the Winter Olympics in Sapporo (1972) and Innsbruck (1976) I considered them to be a "poor cousin" to the Summer Games, as Canada didn't even send a team to the one sport I'd have been the most interested in: hockey. This changed in later years.) I was very excited as summer arrived and the start of the Games became closer and closer. While visiting family in previous years we saw the construction of the Olympic Stadium, Velodrome, Pool and Athlete's Village at various stages of completion and I couldn't wait to see the events on our television - in full colour! - being brought to me live from streets and venues that I recognized very well. Then in early July, with the Opening Ceremonies just days away, my Dad came home one day with a surprise. He handed me two tickets to an Olympic basketball game (the bronze-medal game, in fact) that he had obtained through his work. I was not able to process this information right away; there's a chance that I thought it was some kind of joke or, more likely, that Dad was showing me that he and my Mom were going to be heading to Montreal to see this one particular game. But he then dropped the bombshell: my parents thought it would be a good idea for me to go to Montreal (with whichever of my friends I thought would be able to go with me), stay at my grandmother's in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, and see the Olympics for myself. I was absolutely floored. Typical of me, though: one of the first things I thought of was that it sucked that I would not be able to watch any of the Games in colour, as my grandmother only had a black & white television. It hadn't sunk in yet that not only was I still going to see some of the Games in colour, I was going to see them in person.

Opening Ceremonies in Montreal
I was at least able to watch the Opening Ceremonies in colour, as my friend, John Rose, and I didn't leave for Montreal until the next day, Sunday, July 18 (we took the train). We settled in at my grandmother's apartment that night (it was a one-bedroom place so John and I bunked out right on the floor of her living room) and the next morning we met my cousin who lived nearby, took an inter-city bus into downtown Montreal, and lined up for several hours in the Eaton's store to buy tickets to as many events as we could afford. I have all of those stubs somewhere but, of course, I cannot lay my hands on them at this moment; I'd have loved to have scanned some of them for this piece. If I come across them later, I'll upload them in a different post. For now, I have to rely on my ever-decreasing memory as to what events we attended. I know my cousin insisted we go to a soccer (football) match, so that was our first event. We also bought tickets for water polo (just so we could see the pool), field hockey, boxing and track-and-field preliminaries, for sure. I think there were one or two other events as well, but until I find those stubs I won't know what they were. Along the way we were given another set of field hockey tickets by a friend of my aunt's, but we ended up not going to that game for reasons that escape me now. Of course, that means that in my collection of stubs there is one full and complete ticket, which I think is pretty darned cool. If only I can find it again, that is. We really wanted to get into the velodrome but all of the cycling events were sold out before we got there (it was a very small venue). I took a tour a couple of years after the Games just so I could see the inside of that building and the Athletes' Village before it became condos or apartments or whatever it is now. The velodrome has since been converted into the "Biodome" and Sarah and I went there a few years ago. The pool was fabulous, though, as was the stadium (which I revisited many, many times to watch the Expos play in later years). My overriding memory of the "plaza" which included the main venues, though, was that it was surpassingly drab and sparse: just a huge, steamy, concrete wasteland that seemed to go on for miles and miles when you attempted to walk from one part to another.

1976 Canadian men's Olympic basketball team
The highlight of all of the events we did manage to attend live was the basketball game that started it all for me. As I mentioned, it was the bronze medal game and, even though I am from Montreal originally, it was the first time I had ever set foot in that incredible hockey shrine, the Montreal Forum. We had seats in one corner, but just above an exit in the first level, so we were pretty happy with our vantage point. But what made this event an incredibly thrilling one to witness was the matchup: the Soviet Union, who had been heavily favoured to win the gold before they were upset in the semifinals by Yugoslavia, against Canada, who I'm pretty sure were a surprise in the tournament (they only lost once before the bronze medal game). The atmosphere in the Forum was electric: I doubt very much if many people thought they would be watching Canada play for a medal in that game when they purchased their tickets; I am reasonably certain that nobody thought they'd be seeing the Soviets in that same game. Our boys gave it a great effort, but the USSR pulled away in the fourth quarter and took the bronze, relegating Canada to a position that was to become over the years an all-too familiar result: fourth place. (I now call that the "maple" medal since Canada has finished fourth a very disproportionate number of times over the years.)

The inter-city buses went on strike the second day we were there, forcing John and me to find alternate transportation to get into Montreal on event days. We had to take the train into town, which cut into our budgets quite a bit (if memory serves, it cost roughly twice as much as the bus did). It was also a much farther walk: the bus stopped a couple of blocks from my grandmother's apartment in the south part of town while the train ran along next to Highway 20, a couple of miles north of where she lived. But we were 15, fit, resilient and not to be concerned with a long walk; in fact, when we discovered that the stop before Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue (Baie D'Urfe) was in the previous "zone" and it was cheaper to get off there, we did exactly that and added at least a few miles to our trip on foot each day. Even at that age, though, I knew and loved that area of the world and we were never in any danger of getting lost coming back the "long way" from the Morgan Street station. (It's too bad that my love of those two towns never filtered down to my daughter who spent one year in Ste-Anne going to McGill's MacDonald Campus before deciding it wasn't for her; but that's a story for another day.) Besides, that way we walked right past my cousin's house on the way home and that gave us a good excuse to drop in and hang out for a bit.

Vanderlei de Lima entering the stadium in Athens, 2004
There have been nine Summer and nine Winter Olympic Games since those in Montreal. There has been triumph and tragedy; scandal and glory; athletes achieving results that were almost beyond comprehension and others going home in disgrace having cheated and been caught. And above all of the rest of the riveting moments of the Olympics I have watched stands the 2004 men's marathon in Athens. Vanderlei de Lima of Brazil had a very comfortable lead over the field with about four miles still to go when suddenly a crazed protestor leaped out of the stands and dragged him off the course. Some fans nearby sprang to de Lima's rescue and got him back on his way, but he had lost many seconds to the attack itself and his rhythm was completely gone. He was eventually passed by two other runners - one from Italy and one from the USA - and those of us viewing it at home could only watch the end of the race through clenched teeth, urging him to hang on for the final medal. And as this man entered the stadium in Athens, with the gold and silver having been ripped from his grasp and with every right to be furious and bitter, he did an incredible thing: he responded to the enormous roar from the crowd on hand, who had been watching the event on a giant screen in the stadium and knew full well what had transpired, by putting his arms out to both sides and "flying" around the track, a huge grin stuck on his face, blowing kisses to the crowd from time to time, looking every bit like he was the luckiest man on the planet. This remains, for me, one of the most incredible images of sportsmanship I have ever been witness to and I cannot think of it - even as I type this now - without it bringing tears once again to my eyes. For this amazing display of honour and grace de Lima was awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal of honour at the closing ceremonies, only the fifth time it had ever been awarded. This is one of the moments I cling to when I think of all the Games should mean to athletes and spectators alike. This is one of the moments that makes me love the Games, with all of their faults and blemishes. Every event I watch brings the possibility of a renewal of my faith in the human spirit. And that to me is truly priceless.

I have seen quite a bit of "Olympics bashing" in the past couple of days among my online contacts and in my Twitter feed. Maybe people are just becoming jaded, maybe some of them never liked the Olympics to begin with. For me, it's always been a spectacle that captivates me every four years; every two years, actually, now that the Summer and Winter Games have been split up and no longer occur in the same calendar year. For all my cynicism and disillusionment, I imagine this to be true: if the Olympics still have this kind of hold on me at this point in my life, I can't see it ever changing.

And I'm just fine with that.


  1. I enjoy aspects of the Olympics, and always have. The artistry of the opening and closing ceremonies are a draw for me, the idea of the modern Olympics being a world-wide, peaceful event appeals to me, and I'm fascinated by the history of the games and its ties to ancient Greece.


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