1964 Olympian Ollan Cassell Reports: Safe and Sound in Rio

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Ollan Cassell signing the 1964 Tokyo Olympics poster in Rio; from the collection of Ollan Cassell

The doomsayers had their say – the Rio Olympics, under the crushing weight of the poor economy, scandals, environmental and health scares, worries of security, would fail.

Ollan Cassell has seen it all. As a member of the 4X400 US men’s track relay team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, as well as in his role as the executive director of the Amateur Athletic Union, the American governing body for 17 sports in his time, Cassell has been to every Olympics since 1964, excepting the Athens Olympics in 2004.

So when he arrived in Rio, he read all the stories about the problems. He certainly noticed the empty stands. And he put up with the traffic snarls that paralyzed the city during the Games. But Cassell knew that once the Games started, the problems would fade to the background.

The org committee was broke, the country is in a mess. They threw their president out. They didn’t have the finances to get things done. But like all the other Olympics, for the athletes with medals on the line, they‘re ready to compete. Regardless of what the situation is, once the Olympics roll around the athletes are ready. The athletes are focused on competing and wining regardless of what’s going on. When the lights go on, and the gun goes off, the press writes about how great the games are.

And what was the most amazing event Cassell witnessed? “The most spectacular event I saw in Brazil was that 400 meter world record (set by Wayde van Niekerk). I couldn’t imagine anyone could go 43.3 seconds. It’s like going 21.5 for two 200s!”

There were of course fears of security. Cassell was in Mexico City when hundreds were killed as government troops thwarted an anti-government protest prior to the start of the 1968 Olympics. Cassell was in Munich when Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israeli Olympians and coaches in 1972. But Cassell felt safe in Rio de Janeiro. Accompanied by his daughter, Cassell played tourist and was comforted by the presence of security.

 

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Ollan Cassell at Christ the Redeemer; from the collection of Ollan Cassell

 

As was true with the world cup in Brazil, there were about 75000 to 80000 soldiers. I felt safe. No one in my group had been robbed or held up. The military was patrolling all the time. When you went out into the streets, sightseeing, you would see the military trucks with open beds and machines guns driving through the area. It was like an armed camp, but you felt safe. They had barriers in the sightseeing areas, big steel barriers the kind police use when they want to direct car and foot traffic into certain area. They were imposing. But that’s been true at all the Games. In London, they had barriers to make sure you went where they wanted you to go.

As for the environmental or health issues, to Cassell, it wasn’t an issue. “I didn’t hear of anyone getting sick because of the water. And I saw only one mosquito, which my granddaughter killed.”

But perhaps, one of the most satisfying parts of an Olympian’s life is to re-connect with the Olympian fraternity.

It’s a special feeling – being an Olympian. There are so few of us compared to the population of the world. In Olympic Villages there are about 10,000 Olympians, which is a select group. In the United States, there are about 5,000 living Olympians, with quite a few in their 90s. So it’s wonderful to see old friends and Olympians at these events.

To read about Ollan Cassell and the history of international sports from the 1960s to the 1990s, read his absorbing book, Inside the Five Ring Circus: Changing Global Sports and the Modern Olympics.

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