Let the Games Begin
In the summer of 1972, when I was 12 years old, I developed a serious crush on Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut.
Yes, she stole my heart during the Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany, with her flipping and spinning and gold medal winning. She also had the cutest smile ever to emerge from behind the Iron Curtain.
I wasn’t actually in Munich at the time, but I watched her on the balance beam from afar, on the television set in our living room in New Baltimore, Mich., some 2,000 miles and seven time zones west of Olga.
So, you see, our love was doomed from the get-go. The Atlantic Ocean, the Cold War and a slight yet significant age difference conspired to keep us apart.
It was during those summer games in 1972 that I fell in love with the Olympics, and not just because of my infatuation with the cutest Communist ever.
No, those Olympics had something for everyone. It had a bona fide American hero with a Burt Reynolds mustache in Mark Spitz, a swimmer who won seven gold medals in Munich. It had drama unmatched at the end of the gold medal basketball game, with the Americans getting hosed by the officials and losing to the Soviets 51-50.
And it had incredible tragedy, with the senseless murder of members of the Israeli Olympic team at the hands of terrorists.
The good, the bad and the ugly of those Olympics in 1972 made it one of the pivotal events for my generation. It was filled with those “I remember where I was when…” moments.
1996 Games in Atlanta
In 1996, I had an opportunity to attend some of the events when the Games of the XXVI Olympiad were held in Atlanta. A big bunch of us with Boone ties traveled to Atlanta and camped out in the small apartment of my friend, Dean Simmons. There were something like 12 of us (including three really annoying young ladies from England, but that’s another story) in a two-bedroom apartment, sacrificing comfort and a good deal of privacy for a chance to be part of the Olympics.
We traveled north to Athens, Ga., for both the men’s and women’s gold medal soccer games. The American women faced the team from China in the first gold medal game, held in Sanford Stadium at the University of Georgia. I remember Tiffeny Milbrett scoring the goal that put the U.S. team up 2-1 late in the game. At that time, the 75,000 people in Sanford Stadium marked the largest crowd to see a strictly women’s sporting event ever.
In soccer, unlike most sports, officials tack on some extra time to make up for stoppages of play, so you never know exactly when the game is going to end. The excitement of those moments leading up to the end of that game was shared by the entire stadium, a unique thrill that’s never been duplicated for me.
When it was finally over, all of the women on the U.S. team ran onto the field and dove on their bellies in jubilation. Then, of course it was gold medal time; the one and only time I’ve been present to sing the national anthem while athletes from my country were being honored.
I don’t know if you have a “bucket list” of things you’d like to accomplish and experience before you die, but if you do, you should definitely put being present to sing the “Star Spangled Banner” while a U.S. athlete is receiving his or her gold medal on that list. It’s like nothing else.
The next day, we returned to Sanford Stadium to watch the men’s gold medal soccer game between Nigeria and Argentina. Our seats happened to be in the middle of a big contingent of Nigerian-Americans and their guests from Nigeria. They gave us little green and white Nigerian flags to wave during the game.
Now, I don’t know how many gold medals athletes from Nigeria have won in the history of the Olympics, but I’m sure it is far fewer than the U.S., Russia or Germany. That fact must have made that day’s victory even sweeter for our Nigerian friends in the stands. When they all stood up and sang their national anthem, I got chills just like I did the night before when the U.S. women were honored.
Forty years after those iconic games in Munich, I still get excited every four years when the Summer Olympics roll around. The Winter Olympics are fun, but there’s too much snow, ice and having to wear gloves for my taste. And a lot of the events, such as snowboarding and slalom skiing, depend a bit too much on gravity, in my opinion.
No, for good old-fashioned athletic prowess, the summer games are the way to go.
There are a lot of great storylines with the upcoming Olympics in London: swimmer Michael Phelps going for a record number of career medals, Coach K’s last time leading the U.S. basketball team, and the U.S. women’s soccer team’s attempt to erase the memory of losing in the final game of last year’s World Cup.
But be sure to catch some of the other sports that don’t get as much attention as they should. Archery, pole vaulting and table tennis should be a lot of fun to watch this year. And be on the lookout for Mariel Zagunis, a U.S. fencer who is going for her third gold medal this year in London.
When you’ve dedicated your career to being the best female swordfighter on the planet, heck, you deserve an audience.