press pass _revisedThis was my father’s identity card for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Through his work for NBC News, and NBC’s sustained relationship to the Olympic Games, I was a fan of the greatest sports competition in the world. I was only one years-old at the time of the Tokyo Olympic Games, and of course remember nothing of it. But come 2020, when the Summer Games return to Tokyo, I will be there.

On December 5, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned the Russian National Olympic Committee from the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, taking a significantly bolder stance than they did at the 2016 Rio Olympics when they only delegated that decision to the international sports federations.

As the actual team was not banned, individual Russian athletes will still likely be able to apply for participation on their own if it can be shown they were not involved in the state-doping program for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. If they are allowed to join the PyoengChang Olympics, they will participate under the banner of OAR (Olympic Athlete from Russia), and if they win a gold medal, they will hear the Olympic Anthem, not the Russian anthem.

Several days later, the head of the International Fencing Federation (FIE) and billionaire Russian national, Alisher Usmanov, wrote a letter to the IOC with an appeal. While Usmanov makes no defense of those athletes who have used doping as a systematic part of their training and development, he claims that those Russian athletes who are “clean” should not be treated unfairly.

Even though discrimination in any shape or form contradicts the principles of the Olympic Movement, the IOC’s decision certainly does put clean Russian athletes on an uneven playing field with athletes from other countries. Having gone through the purgatory of the Olympic qualifications, clean Russian athletes will (a) have to wait for months for the final decisions by the special commission of the IOC, (b) be deprived of the customary support of the NOC of Russia, and (c) most importantly, be denied the right to see their national flag and hear their national anthem.

What is interesting, and perhaps ironic, is the appeal to fairness:

One of the principles of Roman law states: “Nullum crimen, nulla poena sine culpa”. (“No guilt – no punishment”.) The innocent shall not be punished and put down to knees. This approach violates the basic human rights and undermines the trust in law and justice. Athletes dedicate their rather short life in sport for this one moment when they can see their country’s flag in the sky and hear the sound of their national anthem. This is the pinnacle of their glory, their personal conquest of Everest.

This very principle of fairness is what got the Russian sports machine in trouble. The well-documented state-sponsored doping regime in Russia may have very well resulted in the cheater assuming the medal podium. When a doper wins a medal, clean athletes are deprived of the glory of claiming gold, and the potential of financial gains among other things. Clean athletes who finish fourth, fifth or sixth are deprived of receiving any medal and thus public recognition.

I understand Usmanov’s appeal. And he is actually right. However, a little more empathy about how other athletes feel about the Russia doping scandal could have helped.

Don Harper

“I felt like my feet were locked in concrete. I couldn’t move.”

At that moment of truth, at the edge of the 3-meter springboard in his final jump of the competition at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Don Harper froze. His subsequent dive was sub-par, and Harper dropped from first to second, earning him a silver medal.Don Harper froze

Disappointment was brief for Harper, whose final moment at the Olympics defied the fact that he was ever a man in motion. Relatively diminutive at 5 foot 5 inches tall (165 cm), Harper was a whirling dervish on the trampoline and off the diving board. In addition to his silver medal in Melbourne, the Redwood City, California native was a dominant force in the 3m springboard in the US in the second half of the 1950s, winning five US National championships, two NCAA championships, and five National AAU championships in that category.

Don Harper portraitHarper, who was a star on one of the premier diving programs in the US at the time, Ohio State University, not only excelled athletically, but also academically, graduating from Ohio State with Bachelor, Master and Doctorate degrees in the fields of physical education, health and physiology. Today, researchers use motion capture balls or 3D sensory laser technology, but back then, Harper pioneered a way to capture the detailed motion of a tumble through the air by applying a film camera to his chest.

Harper would then execute a wide variety of spins and somersaults on the trampoline to determine the most efficient and effective form for dives off of the 3m springboard. I could not find any photographic evidence of Harper’s innovative training technique, so I wondered – were film cameras small enough that you could strap one to your chest? But when I saw the Revere Eight 8mm (Model 55), a portable film camera from the 1950s, I could see the possibility.

As an innovative coach and a professor of physiology at Ohio State, Harper continued to influence divers the world over. Harper passed away on December 6, 2017.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley
US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley

Members of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics Organizing Committee must be pulling their hair out.

On December 5, the IOC banned the Russia national team from the upcoming winter games. In reaction to losing representatives from one of the biggest and best national teams, president of the organizing committee, Lee Hee-beom, was quoted as saying, he didn’t expect the IOC “to go this far.”

Then on December 8, U. N. Ambassador from the United States, Nikki Haley, apparently raised the possibility of Team USA declining their invitation to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics due to fears that North Korea will create such an environment of uncertainty about safety that Americans would not be safe in South Korea.

Haley’s comments prompted perceived backtracking by officials as White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was quoted as saying that “no official decision has been made” about America not going to PyeongChang.

What’s interesting is how the press kind of over-reacted to Haley’s comments, in my view, reading a bit too much into the tea leaves. According to SB Nation, Haley’s quote was actually a very indirect reference to the Olympics.

Haley saying that U.S. involvement is an “open question” was part of a larger quote — one that could hint at the topic never being raised in the first place.

“There’s an open question. I have not heard anything about that, but I do know in the talks that we have — whether it’s Jerusalem or North Korea — it’s about, how do we protect the US citizens in the area?”

By saying “I have not heard anything about that” Haley’s answer seems to imply that no discussion is taking place on whether the U.S. will skip the games. Her saying it’s an “open question” is making the rounds, however, and that’s what people are picking up on.

Earlier in the month, National Security Advisor to the US government, H. R. McMaster said, “Yes” to the question if Americans should feel safe about going to the Winter Olympics in Korea next year. But one word alone from McMaster will not diminish the fear.

McMaster tweet

In recent months, France, Austria and Germany have also expressed concerns about safety in Korea, and raised the possibility of not going to the Winter Games in February. And with Russia out and America hinting at an exit as well, the PyeongChang is looking, quite possibly, at winter of discontent.

Ski Jumper Sarah Hendrickson Takes Flight on the Sleeping Giant
Ski Jumper Sarah Hendrickson Takes Flight on the Sleeping Giant

To the untrained eye, ski jumping is essentially finding the courage to go screaming down a mountain on skis at 90 kilometers per hour with winter winds whipping your face, staring down the possibility of a crash of cataclysmic proportions. Think the opening of ABC’s Wide World of Sports program, and Jim McKay’s famous line “agony of defeat.”

To the trained eye, the ability to control your anxiety, launch into the air explosively, manipulate your body and skis into the most efficient aerodynamic form possible and maintain it, and of course, sticking the landing requires considerable preparation and training. The slightest variation to the optimal flying technique, and the wind will throw your body out of form with sometimes ugly ramifications.

Wikipedia was kind enough to map out the differences in ski jump technique over the years. To understand them visually, I identified video that represents that technique as closely as possible.

Kongsberger Technique: Named after the town – Kongsberg, Norway – in which this technique was created, “the technique was characterized by the athlete’s upper body being bent at the hip, with arms extended out front past the head and skis held parallel to each other. Sometimes the arms would be waved or ‘flapped’ around vigorously in a bird-like manner.” As you can see in the video below of ski jumping from the 1930s, there was definitely a lot of flapping of arms.

 

 

Windisch / Dascher Techniques: These two seem quite similar to me, at least the way they are described. The biggest distinction between them and the Kongsberger is that the arms and hands are no longer out front and moving, but instead are extended back towards the hips, and held still. In this video of ski jumping in the 1950s, you can see the ski jumpers are making the transition from Kongsberger to Windisch: half have their arms extended out front like Superman, which is the Kongsberger technique, with the other half with their hands back near their hips.

 

V-Style Technique: This is the style you see today, the skis no longer parallel. The ski tips, instead, or spread out in a “V” shape, creating more aerodynamic lift.

 

You can actually see the difference the V-Style technique makes in this mock up at the Sapporo Winter Sports Museum.

The Salchow – You hear it every Winter Games, and you still can’t figure out what it is.

For non-skaters like myself, quickly grasping the differences between a Lutz, a Salchow or an Axel is not easy. Fortunately, there are a lot of videos that show you what the moves look like. The Olympic Channel has a great 6-minute video on the evolution of the Salchow jump called “How the Original Salchow Changed Figure Skating.”

First, it’s pronounced “sal – cow.” For short, skaters will call it a “Sal.”

Second, it’s a skating technique where you jump off the back inside of the back foot, rotate, and then land on the back outside edge of the other foot. This is distinct from the Axel technique, which is a jump from the front skate.

Third, the first person to demonstrate this jump was a Swedish man named Ulrich Salchow, all the way back in 1909.

Ulrich Salchow

As you can see in the Olympic Channel video, skaters have been taking the Salchow to new heights for over a century. The first person to achieve a double Salchow was another Swede, Gillis Grafström, who would win gold in singles figure skating in three straight Winter Olympics. Decades later, at the 1956 Cortina d’Ampezzo Winter Games, American Ronnie Robertson, was the first ever to land a triple salchow, on his way to a silver medal in singles figure skating.

By the end of the ’80s, skaters had mastered the triple, symbolized by Brian Boitano‘s gold-medal winning performance at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. At those same games, silver medalist, Kurt Browning attempted to shock and awe with a quadruple salchow. He fell to the ice in the attempt, but he started the obsession of the 1990s – the perfect quad. Skaters would attempt, but end up under-rotating, landing on two skates, or simply crashing to the ice.

But skaters were oh-so-close. Many were hitting the quad perfectly in practice, but it took Russian skater, Ilia Kulik, at the 1998 Nagano Games, to finally land a quadruple salchow in Olympic competition, earning him gold in the singles figure skating competition.

Ilia Kulik
Ilia Kulik winning gold at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics

For nearly 20 years, the quadruple salchow has become a standard technique for the very best. So the question begs – will we see a quintuple salchow in our lifetime? According to this Scientific American article, entitled “Is the Quintuple Jump in Figure Skating Physically Possible?” the short answer is, um…maybe.

A biochemist from the University of Delaware, James Richards says no. “The quad is the physical limit. To do a quint, we would have to have somebody built like a pencil, and they can’t get much smaller than they already are.”

But Tom Zakrajsek, a figure skating coach, believes it is, but with considerable risk to the physical health of the skater. To quote the Scientific American article:

Still, Zakrajsek is confident that certain skaters have the body build and skills to achieve it. But even so, many coaches don’t allow skaters to attempt the quintuple due to the risks associated with falling while spinning at such high speeds and with such force. Even falling on a quadruple jump can take a serious toll on the body, Zakrajsek said. “In a quadruple jump, you are landing with seven times your body weight,” Zakrajsek said. “That is a lot of force. When they fall on a jump like that, some say it feels like their intestines end up in their throat.”

1956 Olympics in Stockholm equestrian events

The Stockholm Olympics were held in July, 1912, the fifth Olympiad of the modern era.

But there was also a Stockholm Olympics in June, 1956, and only equestrian events were held at this particular event. Why? Because the actual host of the 1956 Olympiad was Melbourne, and Australia is famous for its tight quarantine control, a custom that goes back decades.

According to Wikipedia, Australia “had a strict six-month pre-shipment quarantine on horses,” and authorities insisted from 1953 that they would not allow horses enter Australia, even for the Olympics, which were to be held four months later, from November 22 to December 8. So, in 1954, the IOC decided that instead of cancelling the equestrian events, they moved them to Stockholm, Sweden instead.

As a result, the 1956 Olympiad was the first and last to be held in two different hemispheres in the same year, and 1956 saw posters that featured two different cities. The one above is the equestrian part of the 1956 Olympics in Stockholm, while the one below is the standard poster for the Melbourne Games.

1956 Melbourne Olympics

Interestingly, Sweden won gold in half of the equestrian events: individual dressage, team dressage and individual eventing. One might think home field advantage made the difference. Maybe it did, although Sweden dominated the equestrian events at the 1952 Summer Olympics in neighboring Helsinki, Finland.

As is explained in the book, Success and Failure of Countries at the Olympic Games, by Danyel Reiche, success in equestrian events is directly correlated to a nation’s GDP – “Out of the 419 Olympic medals, 329 (78.5%) in equestrian were won by wealthy countries with a GDP above US$30,000.” In addition, Reiche points out that in the case of Sweden, “equestrian sports is a ‘folk sport’,” which may explain why Stockholm was selected as the venue on such short notice.