By Rob Ficiur
Last week I wrote about my worst Summer Olympic Memories; this week my focus is on the positive stories I remember. The word remember can mean different things. About half of my best Olympic memories occurred long before I was born. Olympic lore and modern technology make stories, such as the Boys on the Boat, as available as the stories of this week’s games.
1. 1976 – Nadia Comaneci of Romania was the first Gymnast to score a perfect 10 on the uneven bars. The fourteen-year old got seven perfect scores. Researching this article I found out that in 1989 Nadia escaped out of Romania over land through Austria in 1989. In 1994, after communism collapsed, she returned to Romania with her fiancé. Her wedding that year was broadcast live on Romania television and her reception was held at the former presidential palace. Eighteen years after her perfect scores in Montreal she was still a Gold Medal citizen in her country.
2. In 1960 an eighteen year old Cassius Clay was the boxing Gold Medal. 1996, now known as Mohamed Ali, ailing from the effects of Parkinson’s disease, lit the Olympic Flame.
3. 1936 Berlin – Jesse Owens (an African American) won when Hitler proclaimed the Aryan superior. Did Hitler ever know that tips from German athlete Luz Long helped Owens win the gold in long jump?
4. 1992 Barcelona Spain – Derek Redmond has set the British record of 44 seconds for the 400-meter dash in 1987. He missed the 1988 Seoul Olympics because of a pulled hamstring. Halfway through a preliminary heat Redmond collapsed on the track. He had once again pulled his hamstring. When security guard came to his aid he pushed them away. Hobbling on one foot he kept running the race. The crowd stood to cheer him on as he continued his painful hobble around the track. With about 100 meters to go someone from the stands ran on to the track towards Redmond. It was his father, Jim, who had sacrificed to see his son live an Olympic dream. Derek put his arm around his dad and cried out of physical pain and a dream shattered. Together they hobbled o the finish line and finished last. 5:00 after the race began. Father Jim later said he was more proud of his son for having the determination to finish the race than if he had finished first.
5. 1936 Berlin – “Boys from the Boat” is a book I borrowed from the Bow Island Library. It shares the unlikely Olympic story of Joe Rantz. When Joe was four years old his mother died and he was sent to live with a distant aunt. A few years later he moved back with his father and new step mother. By the time Joe was twelve, his father and step mother moved away, leaving Joe to fend for himself. For two years he survived by hunting, fishing, logging and selling (stealing) alcohol. During this time Joe kept attending school.
When Joe was entering high school years, his brother asked him to move in with his family in Seattle. The head of the University of Washington rowing team scouted Joe at a High School sporting event. The coach thought Joe could be a rower.
Rowing for the University of Washington had one huge perk for Joe. The school made sure he had regular meals. The hard work, the practices in the cold were endurable because he knew there would be food.
Despite huge obstacles, Joe’s team made it over to Berlin for the games. Their challenges had just begun. They were competing in the men’s Eight rowing competition the more prestigious rowing event of those Olympics. Germany would win all the rowing gold medals, but the eight man race was the one Hitler wanted the most.
Don Hume, one of the eight team members, got a lung infection on the voyage across the Atlantic. After being in bed for days he was still not ready to compete the day of the finals. With no choice, Coach Al Ulbrickson had to replace Hume with an alternate for the Gold Medal race. The rest of the team refused to row if Don was not with them.
The Gold Medal race was stacked against the Americans and the British. These two teams, who had had the best times in the warm up heats, were in lanes five and six. These two outer lanes were exposed to the wind and chopping waves of the restless sea that day. Lanes one and two (Germany and Italy) were sheltered from the elements. (Rowing historians said no explanation was ever given why the best lanes were reserved for those two teams).
Joe and his team got off to a slow start. The crowd was so loud they could not hear the starting gun. As the race began Don Hume was more ill than before, a replacement would have been a better choice. Part way through the race, Hume sparked to life. As he began to row, the team’s energy and speed accelerated. They passed the Germans and Italians to claim the Gold Medal.
These boys were lumber men, farmers and fishermen. Germany had prepared its athletes for the games by having them quit their jobs and focusing on their training. Today we would call them professionals. The Boys in the Boat were what Olympic athletes were meant to be – amateurs who did beat the odds and won.
New heroes and memories are being made this week at the Rio Brazil Olympics.