|Politics and the Olympic Dream:
Reflections Of A Sports
And Political Junkie
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
Regular readers of my column know my love
of politics. They are probably aware of much about me from my stories or advocacy
positions taken. Youve met my family, some friends, but some personal stuff never
seems to come up.
Im somewhat of a sports nut at
least I used to be. Leave me alone with a big TV and a Sunday afternoon Giants football
game especially when theyre good (like this year?) and Im happy. I
enjoy watching all types of sporting events almost anything but golf.
I no longer have the time to indulge myself
in just sitting and watching so I sit in my home office, at my computer, working while
perfectly positioned to watch the big screen in the den. I dont get to see all that
I like, but sports certainly dominate my TV watching time.
Ive moved from fanatic to casual
watcher but Im a serious casual watcher.
Except, every four years the Summer
Olympics gets to turn me back from serious casual to fanatic viewer. To me, the Olympics
are clearly the worlds premiere sporting events deserving of every minute I can
steal away from whatever else is in my life for those few weeks of Olympic pleasure.
Its here, its now and I
havent prepared. Ive checked no schedules; done no advanced preparation.
Ive only warned Lil... this is my time.
I remember that I first watched the
Olympics with my dad when I was a kid in 1960.
I remember Avery Brundage the American who
took over as the head of the Olympic governing body (IOC). Brundage was from the old
school back then I didnt know there was anything else he advocated
strict amateurism in international sports, and the absolute separation of politics and
sports. And that was my introduction to the Olympics.
I grew up across the street from Queens
College and my fourth floor bedroom window overlooked the track which disappeared long
ago. Back then, dad and I would watch the QC track meets and track and field became one of
We watched the 1960 Rome games and I
remember little about it but marvelous athletic competition and some national pride. I was
introduced to the decathlon by a wonder named Rafer Johnson. I marveled at the fastest
woman in the world, Wilma Rudolph. And had my first encounter with amateur boxing when a
young American named Cassius Clay captured my imagination.
No politics; no incidents; just sport.
It was my first recollection of Western
involvement in the Far East. Although the Olympics werent political, it seemed to me
to be one giant political statement that this western power the United States
and its allies were traveling to post-war Japan for sport.
Queens greatest Olympic moment: 1968 Bob Beamon smashes
the world Long Jump record by more than 21 inches.
photo courtesy of olympics.com
My assumption is that due to the time
difference, this Olympics got less TV play than the others. Or perhaps, I just remember
American discus thrower Al Oerter shocked
the world in Tokyo in 1964. Injured, he had to remove his neck brace to hurl an Olympic
record and capture his third consecutive gold in the event. Swimmer Donald Schollander
introduced me to his sport, capturing four Golds in freestyle swimming. Jesse Owens, in
1936, was the previous American to win that many.
1968 Mexico City
I was in college in 1968 involved in
the civil rights movement with the campus chapters of C.O.R.E. and S.N.C.C. The movement
had infiltrated sports in the US and black athletes were considering a boycott of the
Olympic Games. The boycott never occurred but the most profound American political
statement made at the Olympics was made on the victory platform of the 200 meter
championship as American Gold medallist Tommie Smith and Bronze medallist John Carlos
raised their fists before the world in the black power salute as the National Anthem
Avery Brundages dream of an Olympics
without politics was dead. The worlds greatest sports event had become the focus of
The other unforgettable event was the
greatest moment in Olympic history for a person from Queens. Jamaica High Schools Bob
Beamon, the owner of one of the most memorable singular moments in Olympic history,
uncorked an Olympic long jump of 29 feet, 2 1/2 inches almost 22 inches longer than
any human had ever jumped. His Olympic record which still stands today is
the longest standing Olympic record in history.
Yes, there was Olga Kobut the delightful
little Russian who turned me onto gymnastics. And there was Mark Spitz, the American
swimming sensation who won seven Golds in seven races. But the young Russian and the
American swimming phenomenons triumphs were lost in the most tragic moments of
BLACK POWER SALUTE: Medalists John Carlos and Tommie Smith
raise their fists in protest in 1968 in Mexico City.
photo courtesy of johncarlos.com
The kidnapping and murder of 11
Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists had overshadowed all else at the Munich games.
Avery Brundages final games bore witness to the vilest of world political statements
and his dream and Germanys attempt to make a post-war statement of Olympic ideals
died forever along with the Israeli athletes.
The Peoples Republic of China
leveraged their size and growing strength and was able to deny Taiwan the name
"Republic of China" at the 1976 games, forcing the smaller China not to
A young Romanian, Nadia Comaneci, forever
changed the face of womens gymnastics with her stunning perfect-10 performances
a score no gymnast had ever before received.
Didnt see them.
1972: Terror struck the Munich
Olympics. Palestinian terrorist at the Olympic dormitory holding the Israeli athletes
photo courtesy of olympics.com
In December 1979, the Soviet Union
marched into Afghanistan. US President Jimmy Carter announced that if the Soviet forces
were not out of Afghanistan the United States would not send an Olympic team to Moscow.
Other Western allies followed Carters lead.
The Olympics were held without the US or
many other Western countries. They werent televised here.
I was given a souvenir tie from the 1980
Moscow Olympics. That and international politics is all I can recall.
1984 Los Angeles
Payback! Im not sure of the stated
reason, but the Russians boycotted the Los Angeles 1984 Games. Peter Ueberroth, the head
of the LA Organizing Committee took center stage introducing the concept of spectacular
showmanship to the games.
American gymnast Mary Lou Retton, won five
medals, including gold in the all-around competition and Carl Lewis matched Jesse
Owens 1936 feat of winning gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, the
4x100-meter relay and the long jump.
The politics of performance enhancing drugs
took center stage in the Seoul Games.
Two Koreas under one flag of unity marching in the opening
ceremonies of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.
photo courtesy of olympics.com
Failing a drug test, Canadian Ben
Johnson was sent home, stripped of his gold medal and world record in the 100 meters.
American diver Greg Louganis hit his head
on the board and fell bleeding into the water. After receiving stitches, Louganis returned
and went on to dominate the event, making 11 perfect dives and capturing the gold.
American sprinter Florence Griffith brought
fashion and flair to the track capturing three Golds and one Silver.
My memory of the 1992 Games is of the Dream
Team. The American professional basketball superstars went to Barcelona to dazzle the
world and bring home the gold.
Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Larry
Bird, Magic Johnson, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, Scottie
Pippen, David Robinson, John Stockton and college star Christian Laettner ended Avery
Brundages dream of Olympic amateurism.
The games henceforth would be open to the
Random bombing, terrorism the
deadly, destructive force in international politics stands as the most significant
issue of the last Olympic Games held in 1996 in Atlanta.
The tragic bombing in Centennial Olympic
Park, which left one dead and many injured, struck with no clear target and brought the
struggle with anonymous violence before the world. The crime is still unsolved.
The athletic performance, which stands out
from the Atlanta Games, was womens gymnast Kerry Strugs injured vault to
secure the team Gold Medal.
Although the games have just started, to me
the outstanding event has already occurred. We witnessed the opening ceremonies
parade of athletes highlighted by the arrival of the two Koreas North and South
marching under one united flag.
This political hope of reunification of
families divided by war almost 50 years ago is perhaps truly what the Olympics is all
Brundage was wrong in denying politics a
role in the Olympics. Politics, it seems, has dominated the Olympics since Ive been
a devotee. It is the positive political forces that can come out of future games
statements of reunification, peace and efforts for humanity. The Olympics can serve as the
focal point and springboard for world good where the spirit of athletic competition may
succeed in uniting where international political bodies like the United Nations have
As far as outstanding performances, we can
root for the two Queens athletes competing in the Sydney Games. Cyclist George Hincapie
who was born in Queens in 1973 and moved at age 4 to Long Island. Sprinter Ato Bolden
moved with his family from Trinidad to Jamaica, Queens in 1988 and ran track for Jamaica
I love sports. I love politics. Sometimes
you cant tell them apart.
Michael Schenkler can be reached at: MSchenkler@QueensTribune.com
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