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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Remembering the 1972 Olympics

Everyone has watched and marveled about the events in these 2012 Olympic Games in London. There are cheers for American athletes like the wonderful Gabby Douglas, the sensational Michael Phelps and the heart-warming 15-year-old Katie Ladecky, with the tears rolling down her cheeks as the National Anthem played as she wore her gold medal with pride.

Despite NBC's horrific coverage of these games (I wish the late Jim McKay was still around to bring us to the events instead of Bob Costas), the Olympics have been quite uplifting. Nothing brings out our patriotic pride like the Olympics. We want to wave the flag and stand to sing the Star Spangled Banner right along with the American gold medal winners.

The adorable Ladecky tried to sing, but she was overcome with the emotion of being an Olympic champion before she begins her sophomore year of high school in Maryland. Can you fathom that idea? She's going to be a sophomore!! Imagine being in her geometry class. "Hey, Katie, what did you do this summer?" That idea is beyond mind boggling.

But as we watch the current Olympics, it was reason for me to pause and reflect on the first Olympics that I can fully remember.

I have faint memories of Mexico City in 1968. I remember a little about the controversial maneuver by American sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raising fists in the air as a sign of Black Power on the gold medal stand. But that's about it.

I watched the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, every ounce of it. I was glued to the television. I remember the Olympics were held a little later that year, wrapped around Labor Day and the start of a new school year. I was 11, heading into sixth grade.

I remember being excited about the United States basketball team, watching the games featuring Doug Collins of Illinois State, a player I admired because he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated earlier that year.

I remember being excited about the track and field events, because ABC's Wide World of Sports did a feature on Steve Prefontaine before the Olympics and I found him to be fascinating. Just what was he looking at while he ran?

The 1972 Olympics were a historic event. You have to encapsle everything that took place in Munich to realize just how historic those games were.

There was an American Jewish swimmer named Mark Spitz, who shattered every Olympic record by winning an astounding seven gold medals. Seven gold medals!!! Everyone has to remember the famous posters of the lean and handsome Spitz with the seven shiny gold medals around his neck on his bare chest. It made it very interesting politically that a Jewish man could be so successful in Germany, a country that still had its idiotic prejudices some three decades after World War II.

There was a Russian gymnast named Olga Korbut, who was not even considered to be a top contender for medals, but stole everyone's heart with her impish smile and impeccable style, winning her share of medals and instantly becoming a world superstar.

It was historic because the United States and the Soviet Union were smack in the middle of their Cold War. The two countries were intense enemies in practically every aspect imaginable. But this little pixie jumped and vaulted and danced on the balance beam right into American living rooms and no one even flinched about her wearing the colors of the old USSR.

There was the performance of Australian swimmer Shane Gould, who captured three medals at the age of 15 _ the same age as Katie Ladecky.

There were the embarrassing actions of American track sprinters Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett, who clowned around, laughed and twirled their medals, Matthews the gold, Collett the silver, while on the medal stand. They didn't turn to stand at attention for the National Anthem. Some reported that it was the same sort of protest that Smith and Carlos did in Mexico City. In any case, the actions of Matthews and Collett enfuriated Americans all over and the two were banned from competing in any other Olympics in the future.

There was the performance of American Frank Shorter in the marathon, becoming the first American to capture gold in the event in some 70 years.

And what about Dave Wottle, the gold medal winner in the 800-meter run who wore a golf cap while he ran _ then forgot to take the cap off during his gold medal moment?

We watched Finland's Lasse Viren shock the world by beating Prefontaine in the 1,500-meter run. Prefontaine remained America's best distance runner, holding seven different national records at one point. He was a favorite to win gold in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, but he was tragically killed in a car accident in 1975.

We were first introduced to wrestling superstar Dan Gable at the 1972 Olympics, as he won the gold medal and became an American hero.

As for the American basketball team, who can ever forget the ridiculous ending to their gold medal game against the Soviet Union? It was a closely contested game throughout and the aforementioned Collins calmly sank two free throws with three seconds left that seemed to give the U.S. a 50-49 win.

However, there was confusion at the scoring table and the final three seconds of the game was played twice. Yes, like two do-overs. The USSR scored a basket on the second do-over to escape with a 51-50 win. USA Basketball's website does not even recognize the silver medal in the 1972 Olympics and the entire team refused to show up for the ceremony to receive the silver medals. Forty years later, those silver medals remain in a vault somewhere in Switzerland.

Imagine all those events taking place in one Olympics?

But the biggest story to come out of Munich was the horrific tragedy now known and remembered as the Munich Massacre.

A group of Palestinian terrorists made their way into the Olympic Village and took a group of athletes from Israel as hostages. Two of the Israeli athletes were killed as they initially resisted. It led to a standoff between the heavily armed terrorists and police that lasted more than a day. The images of the armed terrorists outside the Village balcony were shown readily by the ABC cameras.

A day later, the terrorists demanded that they could leave Germany with the hostages. At the airport, there was a bad attempt to storm the helicopter and rescue the athletes. But it backfired and the terrorists killed all 11 Israeli athletes and coaches.

Late that night, sportcaster McKay, who was immediately transformed into a news anchor during the entire crisis ordeal, broke into regular coverage with his sad report of the deaths of the Israeli athletes and coaches.

"They're all gone," McKay said in his now legendary report.

Many thought that the Olympics should have ended immediately. But IOC chairman Avery Brundage stated that "the Games must go on." So they did. There was a memorial service a day later, but the Olympics continued.

It's almost too unbelievable for words that all that happened in a two-week span in Munich in 1972. Next month, it will be 40 years.

There's no question that the 1972 Olympic Games will be forever remembered for all the different events that took place, both the good and the bad, the storied and the tragic. As we watch these Olympics, we should pause and reflect to that time as well. It's a shame that the current IOC didn't do anything to remember those athletes and coaches who perished at an Olympics. Not a moment of silence, a lowering of the Israeli team flag to half mast, even a slight recognition.

But I remember and reflect. I was a very impressionable 11-year-old who soaked up those Olympic Games and experienced every emotion just like those athletes did competing.

And nothing can ever compare to that wide range of emotions experienced during those Olympics.


You can read more of my work at, and The Hudson Reporter this week has a fascinating feature on a man who helped 53 kids from Hudson County go to the University of Vermont on athletic scholarships. Check out the Scoreboard column on Nick "Whizzer" Mastorelli.

1 comment:

  1. Nice article. The basketball (Hank Iba, coach ??) should never have happened. Aside from the double ending, USSR should never have been that close.
    Mark and Olga really are the lasting images of those games alomg with the iconic photo of the hooded terrorist on the Israeli team balcony.Too bad they didn't have Navy Seals at those games. A take out there may have spurred negotiations: but, that's hindsight.