Monday, August 22, 2016

"That Bolt guy" and other Olympics stories

       My Olympics observations ...
     I have always been an Olympics fan -- as I wrote in a blog piece before the 2012 Summer Games in London began -- so I again reveled in Rio and Brazil these past two weeks. 
    Didn't spend as much time watching on TV as others did, but I watched enough. Could not turn away from track and field -- still love it after all these years -- and the best part was this was a wonderful diversion from the gawd-awful, never-ending political and social media discussions (and I use "discussions" loosely).
Matt Centrowitz's golden 1,500-meter run finish
(The Washington Post photo)

    Before I go any further, here is my favorite story of these Olympics: Matthew Centrowitz Jr.'s gold-medal glory in the men's 1,500-meter run. 
    Oh, hallelujah. What a story. Son of an Olympic-runner father, son of a track/cross country coach. The first United States winner of this event in 108 years.
     Jim Ryun, somewhere in Kansas, had to be overjoyed. Those of us who loved Jim Ryun -- our favorite runner in 1964 through 1972 -- had to love it. 
     This one was long, long overdue -- at least 48 years overdue. (More on this below.)  
      We were on Facetime last week and asked our 8-year-old granddaughter, Josie -- who has been taking gymnastics lessons for a few years -- if she was watching the Olympics.
    "Yes, the gymnastics," she answered, "and that Bolt guy."
    Yes, even our precocious children know of Mr. Bolt, the fastest runner in history, a forever legend, a charismatic (and kind of crazy) character.
    I think Josie liked his lightning-bolt victory pose. We all got to see it nine times in nine races ... over three Summer Olympics. He is awesome.
     But so were Michael Phelps (again and again -- dang, 28 Olympic medals, 23 gold), Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles, and so many others ... and the beautiful, joyful country of Brazil.
    Despite all the pre-Olympics concerns, and some tacky Olympic stories (unfortunately, American-made), Rio did it right.
    Those of us who love the pageantry and the traditions of the Olympics opening and closing ceremonies had to be satisfied. Maybe other cities/countries have spent many more dollars, but they did not put on any better, more colorful shows, than Rio de Janeiro and Brazil.
      There is, for me, a lot of pride in seeing the United States athletes dominate the competition, especially in track/field and swimming and basketball. But, gosh, shouldn't we expect that -- as much money and time as we invest in pro, college and even at the high school/amateur levels?
       It's good to be an American.
       It is also good -- and I think you'll understand this -- to be a native Dutchman.
       I still feel emotional when I see The Netherlands flag being carried in or -- better yet -- on the gold-medal flag pole. And in the closing ceremony Sunday night, it was great to see the athletes at one moment dressed in a sea of orange; no question what country that represented.
       Had a friend send me a text early in the Olympics -- when the U.S. faced Holland in, I think, women's volleyball -- asking me who I rooted for in U.S.-Holland games.
       My answer: It depends. If it's men's soccer, no question -- the Dutch team was/is my first love. If it's speed skating or bicycling, probably Holland, but not always. Anything else, let the best team win ... I'm rooting for both. (Think Louisiana Tech vs. LSU.)
       But, honestly, I do think there is a bit too much nationality involved in the Olympics, too much flag-waving. Just my view. I enjoy seeing any superior performance by any athlete from any country.
       Some of the great moments, for instance, were Mo Farah's double golds-- repeated from four years ago -- in the men's 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs, and the amazing 400-meter world record by the runner from South Africa.
       It is also nice, U.S./Dutch partisanship aside, to see the host country take some significant gold medals. Brazil deserved that, just for its Olympic host efforts. So good for its men's volleyball team, and its men's beach volleyball pair ... and, yes, men's soccer.
       For Brazil, that final men's soccer victory-- on the hallowed turf of Maracana Stadium -- was the one it wanted. Brazil thinks of itself as the king of soccer.
        But, but, but ...
        Look, it was all the drama you wanted -- a tie game with Germany, a penalty-kick shootout after extra time (have I told you lately how much I detest PK shootouts to settle world-level soccer games?), and superstar Neymar's final golden PK.
        Let me remind you, these are basically under-23 national teams. These are not THE national teams.
        Make what you want that this was an equalizer for what happened in the Brazil-Germany semifinal of the World Cup -- in Brazil -- two years ago. No, it wasn't. That 7-1 Germany victory, a Brazil embarrassment, was achieved by the best players in the world, not under-23 teams. So there.
      Now about women's soccer. Those are the national teams, and so it was tough for the U.S. world champions to lose a PK shootout to Sweden after a 0-0 tie. It was tougher to hear U.S. goalie Hope Solo -- who made her team spokesman? -- carp about Sweden's team being "cowards."
      Shut up, Hope, and tell you teammates to score and keep you from being the victim in the PK shootout.
      Speaking of shutting up. Ryan Lochte, what the hell? This was the most overblown, overrated story of these Olympics. I guess NBC -- carrying the games on TV here -- felt that it had to be the news lead/interview subject, repeatedly. Too much, just a punked-out story.
       And then there was the overblown public reaction to gymnast Gabby Douglas not showing what many felt was the lack of respect during the U.S. national anthem. C'mon, people, give her a break; she's represented this country well for two Olympics.
       Now, Matt Centrowitz Jr. -- "like father, like son," as the tattoo on his chest says, and he proudly showed it off.
       Like Dad, who ran in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, he also followed him to run at the University of Oregon. He wanted the Olympic medal Dad didn't get, and four years ago in London he missed out by a split second of a podium finish in the 1,500.
       Watching Matt Jr., I could not help but think of Jim Ryun in the prelims and then the final Saturday night. 
Jim Ryun: 1972 Summer Olympics
(Getty Images)
       Because for three Olympics (1964, 1968, 1972), I rooted for no athlete more than Jim Ryun. He was 1 1/2 months older than me, and he was the first high school athlete to break 4 minutes in the mile run (in our junior-year spring, 1964). The next year, he set a national high school mile-run record (3:55.3) that stood for 36 years. He was in the Olympics at age 17.
        A year later, running for Kansas University (his hometown was Wichita), he set world records in the mile (3:51.3) and 880 yards (1:44.9). He was one of America's greatest athletes then.
         We thought he'd win the 1,500-meter gold for sure in the 1968 Olympics. But running in the mile-high altitude of Mexico City, even though he ran a career-best 3:37.8, he finished almost three seconds behind Kip Keino of Kenya, who was accustomed to running at heights. 
         Ryun had beaten Keino several times on flat land, and I am convinced he would have done so if the Olympics had been on flat land.
         But what we also didn't know then was that Keino was the first of what would become decades-long distance-running domination by Kenyans.                     
        And that only the first of two Olympics heartbreaks for Ryun (and us). Even worse was four years later in Munich's Summer Games when Jim was tripped up and fell during a qualifying heat. He was out; the U.S. protest was denied by Olympic officials.
        Ryun always remained one of our heroes. I wasn't a political fan (he was a very conservative 10-year House of Representatives member from Kansas), but some things can be forgiven.
        Matt Centrowitz, on Saturday, led almost the entire race, and set a very slow pace, much to his liking. When it came time for the sprint -- and the field included the past two Olympic champions in the event -- he held them all off in a gutsy, determined, golden effort.
        So what if it was the slowest men's 1,500-meter final (3:50) in 84 years? It was pure gold.
        Made my Olympics. For Josie, it was "that Bolt guy."



  1. Nico, since you were 12 years old (when I first met you)I have loved your passion. You are passionate about your teams, your professional, your homeland, your adopted homeland, your family, and, of course, the Olympics. You made the Olympics almost fun for me again. I confess to be old school about most things and the Olympic concept is no exception. As the athletes became more and more professional I became less and less interested. Reading this blog was the most Olympic enjoyment I have had in years. I could feel your passion and I could envision a 12 year old junior high student who became a great adult. I need to adjust my orientation toward the Olympics. The Olympics as amateur competition was ingrained in me as a youth. If I can accept it as competition between the best 23 and under professionals, I can agree that it is great competition. Thank you for an excellent blog.

  2. From Herschel Richard: This was a really good one. I liked Jim Ryun, but not as much as Al Oerter (discus) and Randy Matson (shot put).
    My roommate at Tulane was Bill Brown from Byrd (High). He was in town for his 50-year reunion several years ago and I went to one of the functions with him. Jack Pyburn (also a Byrd High graduate and state champion discus thrower) was there and he was at A&M with Matson.
    Pyburn told about being at a meet where there were several shot putters who were world-class and they were pitted against Matson. Jack was there for the discus, but the Aggies coach did not have a second shot putter and told Jack to put the shot in case they might get a few additional points for the team. Jack said he never put the shot and it would be a waste of time. The coach said do it anyway.
    Jack said his turn came right after Matson, who went over 60 feet. Jack took his turn and the crowd was eagerly awaiting his performance. His throw was 39'2". The crowd gasped and Jack said he got away as fast as he could.

  3. From Joe Reding: You and I share a lot of the same memories and passions ...
    I am and have been a track and field nut for over 50 years, and an Olympic nut for the same period.
    I agree the 1,500 meters win by Centrowitz was one of my favorites. I even teared up a little. I didn't realize it had been that long since our last one.

  4. From Frank Bright: My one regret about no TV here at our camp in Canada is missing the Olympics. So, I really enjoyed your piece. Most of it was "news" to me.
    I saw all of the track and field in Mexico City (1968 Olympics). Two buddies and I drove there. The big memory was Bob Beamon's world record in the long jump. Our seats were near the pit. They had a "high tech" sight glass, which slid along a pipe parallel to the pit. One problem, the pipe topped way short of Beamon's 29-foot-plus jump, about two feet better than maybe Ralph Boston's world record. Beamon never jumped close to that jump before or after. I guess altitude and "jumping without a board" explained it. Good memories.