This 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.
It was 1986. Preparations were under way for South Korea’s coming-out party – The 1988 Seoul Olympics. And on the other side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), North Korean began preparations of their own, breaking ground for a dam to be built on the Bukhan River, a short 19 kilometers from the border. Completed in 2003, it is called the Imnam Dam.
Perhaps fears of North Korean terrorism during the South Korean Olympics were top of mind for South Koreans, so they began to imagine the worst. As the New York Times explained in an article in 2007, then President Chun Do-hwan did imagine a scary scenario – the new dam in the North producing a monstrous flood, pounding waters headed straight for the South.
In response to the so-called water-bomb scare, South Korean television networks broadcast artists’ conceptions of monstrous walls of water unleashed from the North Korean dam, wiping out most of Seoul, 120 miles downstream, with the impact of a nuclear explosion during the Olympics.
A year later, in 1987, the fears were too hard to resist, and the South Korean government gave the green light to their own dam project, today called the Peace Dam. Located about 16 kilometers from the border to the north, the Peace Dam took a while to build, and in fact was finally completed in 2005, seven years after the Seoul Olympics. But it stands today, 125 meters high and 600 meters wide. There is actually no reservoir at the Peace Dam. Its sole purpose is to be peace of mind – a wall just in case the feared flood from the North ever comes racing down the Bukhan River – peace of mind in this case that cost USD429 million.
It actually seems like a bit of expensive folly, and to be fair, the South Korean government suspended construction work on the dam after a few years. But when satellite photos apparently showed signs of cracks in the Imnam Dam in the North, fears of the deluge arose anew in the imaginations of the leaders. Work resumed, and the Peace Dam was finished.
Actually, it is another dam in North Korea that is causing grief – The Hwanggang Dam on the Imjin River, which is 42 kilometers from the DMZ. Over the past several years, there have been 8 cases where North Korean officials released massive amounts of water, causing significant flooding in South Korea. It’s not the “nuclear explosion” impact that was feared in the 1980s, and yet 6 South Koreans were killed when water was released from the Hwanggang Dam in September 2009.
The South and the North have an agreement that the North would provide notice to the South when they intend to release dam waters, commonly after significant rainfall, but in practice, the North Koreans rarely do.
In the end, should they have bothered building the Peace Dam? I guess one could say that they were dam-ed if they did, and dam-end if they didn’t.
“Like the two Koreas, the two dams are twin brothers, born at the same time, facing each other across DMZ,” said Lee Tae-ik, an official at Korea Water Resources Corporation, which maintains the South Korean dam. “The Peace Dam is an inevitable child of a divided nation.”
There were whispers.
The four-time Olympian and 7-time medalist in cross-country skiing, including three gold medals, Eero Mantyranta of Lankojarvi, Finland was a legend in his country and his sport. But he could not outrace the rumors of blood doping when he competed.
As a child, everyone in Lankojarvi skated and skied, but Mantyranta excelled, winning his first cross-country ski race at the age of 7, and then dominating all takers into his early teens. Eventually he was able to find employment as a border patrol guard, who got around his territory on skis. As a twenty-year old, he made the Olympic squad that traveled to Squaw Valley, California for the 1960 Winter Games, snagging a gold medal in the 4x10km cross-country ski event.
Four years later at Innsbruck, Austria, Mantyranta was one of the Games’ stars, taking two more golds in the 15 and 30-km races, as well as a silver medal in the 4x10km relay. And in his third Olympics, Mantyranta tool home a silver and two bronze medals.
All that success only encouraged the rumors. After all, it was known since he was a teenager that Mantyranta had “high hemoglobin and far more than the usual amount of red blood cells,” according to David Epstein, author of the fascinating book, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. “Normally, those are signs that an endurance athlete is blood doping, often with a synthetic version of the hormone erythropoietin, or EPO. EPO signals the body to produce red blood cells, so injecting it spurs an athlete’s own body to bolster its blood supply.”
But also according to Epstein, the rumors were untrue.
First there were indications that other members of the Mantyranta family also rested for high levels of hemoglobin, but because there were little ill effects from higher-than-average hemoglobin levels, doctors were never concerned. But this coincidence made hematologists from Finland wonder. After putting the Finnish Olympian through additional blood testing, it was learned that in fact Eero Mantyranta had very low levels of EPO, and that when most people stopped producing hemoglobin based on what the body considered enough, Mantyranta’s body was genetically designed to continuouisly pump out hemoglobin.
And more hemoglobin meant not only very ruddy cheeks. It also meant high levels of oxygen circulated inside Mantyranta, a significant advantage that allowed him to ski faster and longer than almost every other cross-country skier. Most certainly, Mantyranta’s singular drive to train and increase his performance as a cross-country competitor was essential to his Olympic success. But most certainly, so was this genetic advantage.
Here’s how Epstein remembered Mantyranta in this obituary, when the great cross country skier passed away in 2013.
Being born with talent is one thing; alchemizing it into Olympic gold entirely another. And though I drew attention to Eero’s startling biology, that’s worth remembering as well. I’ll remember Eero the way he was when I met him. A jovial and remarkable-looking man, with dark, slicked-back hair and prominent cheekbones that seemed to pull at the corners of his mouth, giving him a slightly inquisitive look. There was a thickness about him, a barrel chest and bulbous nose. I remember when he shook my hand, I felt as if he could’ve crushed my fingers, and I noticed that his middle finger was bent at a right angle from the top joint. He spent the brief period of Arctic winter sunlight that day working in his reindeer yard. I thought he must have been the strongest seventy-three year old I had ever met. That’s how I’ll remember him.
Most of us think about the luge and skeleton competitions once every four years during the Winter Olympics, if at all. Regardless, watching these competitions will get the tension up for anyone. Sliding down an icy curvy course at speeds of over 130 kph without breaks, with very little to protect you looks crazy dangerous….thus the thrill.
Just in case you’re interested, there are a few significant differences between two sliding events that seem similar to the untrained eye: the luge and the skeleton. The most obvious difference is that luge competitors race down the sliding course feet first, face looking to the sky, while skeleton competitors zip down the course head first. Here are a few more:
Runners: Luges have razor-sharp blades for runners while skeleton sleds have metal tubes for runners.
Starting Point: Luges for individual competitors (as well as bobsleigh) start higher up the course than skeleton (although women at a lower point than men)
Starting Method: Luge competitors start from a sitting position, pushing off from the starting point with their hands, while skeleton competitors sprint at the start like bobsleigh teams, running for about 40 meters, admittedly somewhat awkwardly as the sled is very low to the ground.
Steering: Lugers on their backs with their feet at the front and so the way the luge is designed is for the luger to steer with their legs, pushing down on the left “kufen,” the hook-shaped part of the runner, for example. The challenge is steering without being able to see. Skeleton competitors can see very clearly, and since they are nestled in a “saddle” attached to the skeleton sled, they can steer more easily than lugers with subtle shifts in body weight can alter the direction of the sled.
Speed: All factors being considered, lugers are able to hit faster speeds than skeleton competitors. Lugers start higher up the course, and their feet-first approach is more aerodynamic than the head-first approach of skeleton sliders. Clearly, a round helmet creates greater air resistance than two feet pointed straight ahead. According to the science guy, Bill Nye, “so serious are luge sliders about drag, the soles of their shoes have no tread, and the heels are permanently set to keep them walking on tiptoes to the starting gate.” As a result lugers can hit speeds of 145 to 150 kph, while skeleton sliders max out at around 130 kph.
It was to be a chance to shine, they told him. A chance to get out from under the long shadow of his wife, The Queen of England.
It was 1956, and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, took off on a trip to Australia to participate in the opening of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. He and the Queen had actually attended the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, and two years later, went to Australia as that country was gearing up for the Melbourne Summer Games. According to this article in the Daily Telegraph, the Queen accepted an invitation to return to Australia to open up the first Olympics in the southern hemisphere.
As Queen Elizabeth’s schedule would not permit, Prince Philip stepped in. On board the HMY Britannia, the Prince was on an extended tour of the British empire, including New Guinea and nearby islands, as well as a trip to Antarctic, the first member of royalty to travel that far south.
But as is portrayed in the wonderful period series, The Crown, it was not all smooth sailing. The Daily Telegraph stated that the Prince “arrived at the MCG in a Rolls Royce, resplendent in naval uniform, to open the games,” which helped smooth over the rumors of infidelity. But the rumors would gain momentum when it was reported that his close friend, Mike Parker, was being sued for divorce by his wife for adultery among other things. Parker, who was the Prince’s private secretary, resigned on the Brittannia, and the Prince returned home to rumors of worsening relations between he and his wife.
So what was supposed to be a moment of pride for the British empire turned into tawdry tabloid fodder.
He was 16, and he was an Olympic gold medalist. At the age of 20, he won his second gold medal. At the age of 24, Billy Fiske had an opportunity to head up another US bobsleigh team, this time at the 1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen Winter Olympics in Germany.
Fiske turned down a possible third gold medal, and he never said why. But according to The Guardian, his friend, Irving Jaffee (a two time gold medalist in speed skating at the1932 Lake Placid Games), believed it was because “Fiske objected to the treatment of Jews, like Jaffee himself, in Nazi Germany.”
As a teenager, Fiske went to Trinity College in London, England, to study economics and history, as well as drive his Bentley down the English country roads as fast as he could. In 1938, Fiske moved back to England, where he made friends with members of the British air force at the White’s Club in London, and married an English girl named Rose Bingham. He returned to New York. But when Germany invaded Poland, and Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later, Fiske felt he had to return to England.
Fiske had to deceive in order to make it to England because American passports did not allow citizens to engage in foreign militaries, and it was Fiske’s aim to join his friends from the White’s Club. Pretending to be Canadian, Fiske returned to London where he enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF). According to HistoryNet, “Fiske duly pledged his life and loyalty to the king, George VI, and was formally admitted into the RAF. In his diary, a joyous Fiske wrote, “I believe I can lay claim to being the first U. S. citizen to join the RAF in England after the outbreak of hostilities.”
In fact he was the first. He was also one of the first Americans to perish in World War II.
The Battle of Britain began on July 10, 1940 when Luftwaffe arrived in London in full daylight to bomb the British capital. As a newly trained pilot in the 601 Auxiliary Air Force Squadron at Tangmere, “there was some apprehension in 601 about ‘the untried American adventurer,” as quoted in HistoryNet. Ten days later, the rookie fighter pilot was in the air in a 601 plane to make patrols, apparently learning quickly how to maneuver the plane effectively.
Three weeks later, Fiske, on August 16, 1940, Fiske was trying to get his plane back to the base after an attack by Luftwaffe. Shot up and badly damaged, Fiske glided his Hurricane fighter plane back to the airfield, hitting the ground hard and exploding into fire. Dragged out of his plane, Fiske suffered severe burns and was rushed to a hospital. But the shock from the burns was too great, and the Olympian and American RAF fighter pilot, Billy Fiske, died the next day at the age of 29.
Billy Fiske was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but his taste for Olympic medals was all gold.
Born in 1911 in New York, son of a wealthy banker, young Billy went to school first in Chicago, and then in France. It was in Europe where the teenager discovered speed on ice – the Cresta Run in St. Moritz, Switzerland – where he would go screaming down the natural ice skeleton racing toboggan track for fun.
When US officials were looking to scrounge up people who could man a bobsleigh team for the 1928 St Moritz Winter Olympiad, the young American seemed like an obviously convenient choice for what would become a somewhat ragtag 5-member bobsleigh team, according to this Guardian article. In fact, three other members were selected because they answered an ad in the Paris edition of the Herald Tribune. Another member of the team was an entertainer named Clifford Grey, whose wealth allowed him to dabble in musical comedy and vaudeville.
And according to The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics, none of the Team USA bobsleigh team, with the exception of Fiske, had never even laid eyes on a bobsleigh before. And yet, with Fiske at the front, Team USA had the fastest time. Granted, temperatures were 20 degrees celsius at the time of the competition, so the icy course was on the whole, slushy at best. Despite the conditions, Fiske steered the team to a time of 3 minutes and 20.5 seconds, about half a second ahead of another USA bobsleigh.
At the age of 16, Fiske was the youngest-ever gold medalist in a winter sport, a record held until 1992.
Four years later, when the Winter Games were held in his home state of New York, Fiske won his second gold at the Lake Placid Games. This time, according to an AP story from February 10, 1932, the Americans took the bobsleigh competition seriously, building “the finest, toughest, most daring run in the world down a barren mountainside” in Lake Placid, where “the boys learned to take its tremendous curves at 70 miles an hour without teeing off the top.” As a still-young 20-year Olympic sensation, Fiske headed a team that made Team USA the best bobsleighers in the world.
Again, the conditions were poor for the Olympic bobsleighers, many of whom complained about the slow times. According to an AP report from February 15, 1932, the organizers were worried that the state-of-art course, reputed to be the fastest in the world, was purposely doctored to slow it down. The icy surface was pared away and several of inches of snow was tossed onto the course. “….the blinding speed of the course was taken out by discontinuing the icy base, and making it a snow course instead of a glassy one. Now it matches the mush slower European runs.”
Fiske’s four-man team made it won the Lake Placid course routinely around 2 minutes across their four runs, which was apparently some 20 seconds slower than average speeds on the icy course. Still, no matter how fast or slow the course, the objective of the race is to be the faster overall. In the three heats, Fiske led his team to the fastest time in three of the four runs, thus winning Team USA gold in the four-man bobsleigh.
For Fiske, it was gold medal number 2. And yet, he had greater heights to climb still.
Noriaki Kasai has qualified for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics as a member of Japan’s ski jump team. And in one respect, no one has ever flown higher. Kasai will participate in his eighth Winter Olympic Games. No one has ever done that.
There are actually 11 other Olympians who have participated in 8 or more Olympics, but they all have been participants in Summer Olympic competitions like equestrian, sailing, canoeing, rowing and shooting events. Tied with him at 7 Winter Olympiads was Albert Demtschenko from Russia, who could have joined Kasai as an 8th straight winter Olympian, but was banned for life from the Olympics in December, 2017 for doping.
That’s what happens when you put skill and longevity together. “Legend,” as Kasai is called in Japan, has not only won 2 silver medals and a bronze medal in the Olympics, he has two Guinness World Records for appearances in international ski jump events.
Most interestingly, he has been immortalized in a song called “Mr. Noriaki Kasai,” by the Finnish punk rock band, the Van Dammes.
That is indeed the stuff of legends.