nina-ponomareva-rome
Nina Ponomareva in Rome.

In the midst of the Cold War, the Soviet Union were finally invited to the Summer Olympic Games. In 1952, with a will to establish the superiority of their system through sport, the Soviets garnered 71 total medals, including 22 golds, to finish second in the medals race.

The first gold went to Nina Ponomareva, who won the women’s discus throw, and glory for her country, setting an Olympic record as well. “Only after I had felt a heavy golden circle in my hand, I realized what happened. I am the first Soviet Olympic Champion, you know, the first record-holder of the 15th Olympiad…Tears were stinging my eyes. How happy I was!

She would go on to win bronze in Melbourne in 1956, and then gold again at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. That’s an impressive track record. Unfortunately, when Ponomareva passed away in August, she was remembered for something else.

In 1956, prior to the Melbourne Games, the Soviets were invited to a bilateral track and field meet between Great Britain and the Soviet Union in London. Ponomareva stepped into a C&A Modes, which The New York Times informed me was a low-priced clothing store on Oxford Street, and was said to have shoplifted. According to the Herald Scotland, Ponomareva was “arrested on charges of shoplifting four feather hats (white, mauve, black, and yellow) plus a red woolen one, costing a total of £1.65.”

nina-ponomareva-helsinki
Nina Ponomareva in Helsinki.

When the team manager Konstatin Krupin heard of the arrest this doctor’s wife, teacher and 27-year-old mother, he pulled his team from the competition with Britain. The Bolshoi Ballet, which was headed to London, threatened to cancel their trip if British authorities did not retract the arrest and apologize. The UK Ambassador was summoned to the Kremlin for a good tongue lashing.

Forty four days after the arrest, Ponomareva came out of hiding in the Soviet Embassy. She was found guilty of shoplifting in court and asked to pay three guineas in costs. After that, she went straight to the harbor and got on a ship back home. Later that year, she failed to defend her Olympic championship in Melbourne (finishing third), but rebounded for gold four years later.

It is the legacy of the five hats that lived on beyond her golden glory. According to this obituary in The New York Times, Ponomareva’s name was cited during a debate on Britain’s actions during the Suez Crisis in the House of Commons. Labour member had this to say about the leading party’s foreign policy. “If the (Suez) Canal is vital to us, we take it,” he said. “This is the morality of Nina Ponomareva – ‘I like your hat, I will have it.'”

CK Yang pole vauilting
Asian Iron Man C.K. Yang in his strongest decathlon event – the pole vault.

He had barely lost, losing by a mere 58 points in the decathlon to his best friend, Rafer Johnson, at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games. Using the 2nd place finish as motivation, C. K. Yang went on to break the world record in April, 1963, and was viewed as the heavy favorite for gold at the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo.

But it was not to be. Not only did Yang fail to win gold, he fell to a disappointing fifth place. In fact, Yang was in ninth place at the end of day one, but had a very strong day two in which he won the 400-meter hurdles, pole vault and javelin throw events, clawing his way to fourth place before the final event. But Yang’s 13th-place finish in the final 1500-meter race meant that two Germans, a Russian and an American would finish ahead of him in the final placements.

A chance at a first-ever gold medal for Taiwan faded into that cool evening of October 20, 1964. Two explanations have been provided for Yang’s disappointing results: a recent change in the way scores were tallied for the decathlon, and Yang’s mysterious illness.

The decathlon scoring system was always considered complicated, as administrators have time after time adjusted the benchmarks and formulas to come up with scores that were perceived as fair so that athletes were satisfied with their points for a strong jump, or a speedy run, as well as with their points for a fantastic jump or a spectacular run. In 1964, the scoring tables were revised yet again. And the rule changes appeared to be heir apparent, Yang, at a disadvantage. Technology advancements in plastics resulted in the increasing prevalence of fiber-glass poles. Yang had mastered the new pole more quickly than others, enabling him to claim a world indoor record in the pole vault. As legendary New York Times sports writer, Arthur Daley, explained in a preview to the 1964 Olympic decathlon, the scoring revision hurt Yang.

“Not too long ago the International Amateur Athletic Federation updated and revised the decathlon scoring tables. This has hit Yang harder than most because he no longer can make a blockbuster score of fifteen hundred points in the pole vault. He still will be the decathlon favorite but not by the preponderant margin that once had been assigned to him. “

Daley went on to quote Yang that he wasn’t overly worried. “Of course I lose points by the new tables,” he said. “But I don’t think it will affect me over the whole thing.” Others, though, believed that Yang was indeed psychologically affected by the rule changes, particularly regarding the pole vault.

Willi Holdorf and C. K. Yang in 1964
Willi Holdorf and C.K. Yang after the decathlon’s 1500-meter race in Tokyo 1964, from the book Tokyo Olympiad 1964 Kyodo News Service

Based on the revised scoring system, Yang’s world record of 9,121 points would convert to 8,087 points, which is significantly higher than gold medalist Willi Holdorf’s winning point total of 7,887. But clearly, at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Yang did not come close to his world-record times and distances of his 1963 world-record setting effort. The explanation at the time was that Yang was not 100% healthy. As his coach Ducky Drake said, Yang hurt his left knee about five weeks ago. He never got into shape and this was reflected in his performances.” Another report said that Yang was suffering from a cold.

But Yang’s buddy, Rafer Johnson, revealed in his book, The Best That I Can Be, a shocking explanation for Yang’s unexpected performance in 1964. Remember, this is the time of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, Mao’s China and Chiang Kai-shek’s Taiwan.

In the 1970s, C. K. had dinner with a man from Taiwan’s counterpart to our FBI. They were talking about the 1964 Olympics when the man dropped a bombshell: C. K. had been poisoned, he said. Because of the tension with mainland China, Taiwan had assigned two bodyguard to C.K. at the Games. Despite that precaution, this man told him, a teammate had spiked C. K.’s orange juice at one of their meals. Shortly afterward, that athlete and two Taiwanese journalists defected to Red China. C. K. had always considered himself unlucky for having gotten ill at the wrong time. Instead, he may have been a victim of political warfare. “I was so angry I thought I would cry,” he told me.

Woah.

For more stories on C. K. Yang, see the following:

marny_jolly_with_sukarno_1_asian_games_1962_2
Mariana Jolly meets President Sukarno at the Asian Games in 1962, from the collection of Mariana Jolly

She was a 14-year old, and yet an artifact of colonial Asia – the daughter of British parents representing Singapore in The Asian Games. When Mariana Jolly was asked to join the national swimming team to represent Singapore at the Asian Games, she had no idea that she would catch the attention of the most powerful man in Indonesia.

“It was the Asian Games, but I was the only European there,” Jolly told me. “Sukarno organized a lot of these social events for the athletes, there were quite a few. And the first time, he took one look at me and came to me. He asked me if I was Dutch. I said ‘no’, and he smiled. I danced with him at a barbecue, and I sang to him in Malay at another party.”

Little did Jolly know that the Asian Games they joined ignited the heated feud between Indonesia and the IOC, resulting in the last-second decision by Indonesia and North Korea to boycott the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.

marny_jolly_with_sukarno_2_asian_games_1962_2
Dancing with Sukarno, from the collection of Mariana Jolly

Post-war, post-colonial Asia was a mess, a political vacuum, a time of economic experimentation that led to social upheaval. In the midst of those turbulent times, Malaysia emerged as a new nation in 1963, bringing together the British colonies of Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo and Sarawak.

Indonesia in the early 1960s was an emerging political power in Asia, led by that country’s first president, Sukarno. Leading the fight against the colonial rulers from the Netherlands, Sukarno was imprisoned by the Dutch rulers, freed by invading Japanese forces in 1942, and then appointed President of Indonesia when Japan surrendered to the United States and the allies at the end of World War II.

After decades of fighting Dutch colonial rule, Sukarno was anti-imperialist, and by extension, anti-West. While he did secure billions of dollars in aid from the United States and the Kennedy administration, Sukarno cultivated strong ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Soviet Union.

And to reflect Indonesia’s growing power and influence, Sukarno won the rights to hold the Asian Games in Jakarta in 1962. The Asian Games is held every four years like the Olympics, and brings together the best athletes of Asia. In 1962, the participating countries included the PRC, which was boycotting the Olympic Games, as well as nations in the Middle East. Sukarno decided to make a statement – he would not invite athletes from Israel, which was the enemy of so many of Indonesia’s allies in the non-aligned world, nor athletes from Taiwan, which the PRC did not recognize.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), led by then president, Avery Brundage, took umbrage, reiterating the importance to separate politics from sports, and indefinitely

 

Tokyo firebombed 1945
Aerial view of Tokyo September 10, 1945

 

On October 10, 1964, Japan welcomed the world to Tokyo, a bustling, clean and modern city.

But only 19 years before, when the Pacific War ended on August 15, 1945, Tokyo was a flattened devastated city. The war had taken its toll on the Japanese.

An estimated 3 million Japanese died during the war in both Japan and he war zones of Asia, including upwards of 800,000 civilians. And while the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were horrific moments at war’s end, much of the devastation in Japan was due to continuous air raids by American bombers. After the American Navy’s victories over Japan’s Imperial Navy in the Mariana and Palau Islands, the American military built airfields on Saipan and Tinian. These islands were some 2,400 kilometers away from Japan, close enough for B-29 bombers to make routine sorties over Japan and return without refueling.

And from November, 1944, the bombing raids over Japan was relentless. And the destruction immense.

  • 66: major cities heavily bombed
  • 40: percentage of all urban areas in Japan destroyed by bombing
  • 100,000: civilian deaths in Tokyo alone

In the powerful documentary, The Fog of War, director Errol Morris interviews Robert McNamara, who was secretary of defense for American presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. During World War II, he was also a captain in the US Army Air Force whose job was to analyze the efficiency and effectiveness of American bombers. Intimately familiar with the incendiary bombing raids on Japan during World War II, commanded by General Curtis LeMay, McNamara describes the results of American bombers in Japan with hard cold facts.

50 square miles of Tokyo were burned. Tokyo was a wooden city so when we dropped these firebombs they just burned it.

In order to win a war should you kill a hundred thousand people in one night, by firebombing or any other way? LeMay’s answer would be clearly ‘yes’. McNamara, do you mean to say that instead of killing a hundred thousand – burning to death a hundred thousand Japanese civilians in that one night, we should have burned to death a lesser number, or none? And then have our soldiers cross the beaches of Tokyo and be slaughtered in the tens of thousands? Is that what you are proposing?

Why was it necessary to drop the nuclear bomb if LeMay was burning up Japan? And he went on from Tokyo to firebomb other cities. 58% of Yokohama – Yokohama is roughly the size of Cleveland – so 58% of Cleveland destroyed. Tokyo is roughly the size of New York. 51% of New York destroyed. 99% of the equivalent of Chattanooga, which was Toyama. 40% of the equivalent of Los Angeles, which was Nagoya.

According to McNamara’s rational mind, this was overkill. And yet, in the end, the desire for the American government to end the war as quickly as possible was the overriding objective.

This was all done before the dropping of the nuclear bomb, which by the way, was dropped by LeMay’s command. Proportionality should be a guideline of war. Killing 50-90% of the people of 67 Japanese cities, and then bombing them with two nuclear bombs, is not proportional in the minds of some people.”

I don’t fault Truman for dropping the nuclear bombs. The US-Japanese war was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history. Kamikaze pilots, suicide – unbelievable. What one could criticize is that the human race prior to that time, and today, has not really grappled with what are the rules of war. Was there a rule that you shouldn’t bomb, shouldn’t kill, burn to death a hundred thousand civilians in a night?

McNamara grappled a bit with the moral dilemma of the bombings of Japan. And perhaps McNamara maintained a lingering sense of guilt over the destruction in Japan.

LeMay said if we lost the war we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he’s right! He and I’d say I were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. What makes it immoral if you lose and moral if you win?

Alex Ovechkin at the Sochi Olympics
Alex Ovechkin at the Sochi Olympics

For the hottest game on ice, the players and owners have entered into a cold war of sorts. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently told the press that no meetings have been arranged with the International Olympic Committee regarding the possibility of NHL players competing in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in early 2018.

The NHL schedule and the Winter Olympics schedule overlap every four years. In order to convince he NHL to release its players in the middle of the NHL hockey season, the IOC agreed to pay for the insurance, travel and accommodation of these professional hockey players. The insurance is a key component because it protects the NHL teams against an injury to a star player who could impact team success and/or team revenue for years to come. For the Sochi Olympics in 2014, the IOC sent some USD7 million to the NHL, something the IOC does not do for other sports leagues. The IOC has done so for the past five Winter Olympics since the 1998 Nagano Olympics, but this year the IOC announced they would not pay the NHL for players to come.

Bettman stated that without IOC financial support, it’s unlikely the owners would support. “We don’t make money going [to the Olympics]. I can’t imagine the NHL owners are going to pay for the privilege of shutting down for 17 days. I just don’t see that.”

However, the star players in the NHL view the Winter Olympics as a matter of prestige and pride. The very best players like Canadian Sydney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Russian Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals have said they intend to go, Ovechkin going as far to say he would go without the NHL’s permission. And as mentioned in this Ottawa Citizen article, the owners will listen to their stars.

When Alex Ovechkin said he was going to the Olympics, with or without the NHL’s blessing, it didn’t take long for Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis to stand behind his star. And why wouldn’t he? Ovechkin is the face of the team. He not only helps the team win games, he puts fans in seats.

Major League Baseball stands in contrast to the NHL. Currently, the World Baseball Classic, an international baseball championship series taking place in March, 2017, has the full commitment and support of MLB. And while the major league players from big-time baseball nations of Japan, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Korea are heavily involved in the World Baseball Classic, Team USA is bereft of its stars. In contrast to the NHL players, the Americans have little to no interest in participating.

Now, the World Baseball Classic is not the same at the Olympics. And when baseball returns to the Olympics in 2020 in Tokyo, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred will likely want to ensure his league’s best players are at the Summer Games. Growing the international market for baseball will be a big priority for Manfred. But he has yet to gain consensus with team owners on how to make it work for the MLB when the Olympics will take place in the middle of the 2020 MLB season. Injuries and lost revenue to lost games will certainly be in the minds of the owners.

Rob Manfred MLB Commissioner
Rob Manfred MLB Commissioner

According to this Sports Illustrated article, there are two possible options to make it work: allow the season to continue without interruption, and just free up the players selected to their respective national teams, or shut down the MLB season for, say two-and-a-half weeks, like the NHL has done in the past.

The NBA, on the other, other hand, has had the distinct advantage of holding a primarily Fall-Winter-Spring season, while the Olympics tend to fall in the summer, the basketball off season. Traditionally, the NBA has promoted its brand and players globally, and have been a model for building a global business. Their commitment to the Olympics is thus considerable. The issue has been ensuring that the richest and greatest athletes in the world stay motivated enough to train and risk injury during their time off.

The US men’s team took bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and were dubbed “The Nightmare Team”. It didn’t bode well when the superstars of the league, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett begged off of the team, and Ray Allen and Jason Kidd were out with injuries.

After the team’s embarrassing finish in Athens, Team USA appointed Jerry Colangelo to take charge of team selection. His job was to persuade the NBA’s best American players that it was their duty to restore pride and glory to men’s basketball in the international arena.

Colangelo convinced such stars as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwayne Wade not only to join Team USA for the 2008 Seoul Olympics, he got them to commit to playing together for three years leading up to the Olympics. Under Colangelo’s leadership and the coaching of Mike Krzyzewski, Team USA dominated at the 2008 Seoul Olympics to easily win gold. They’ve done so ever since.

Summary:

  • NHL: League and Owners not committed; Players committed
  • MLB: League committed; Owners not yet committed; American players not committed, but world players committed
  • NBA: League committed; Owners committed; Players committed
sainsbury-christmas-truce-2
From Sainbury’s Christmas Truce commercial marking the 100th anniversary of this WWI phenomenon

There was a time when war had rules and etiquette. And even between combatants in the trenches, a shared sense of humanity could invoke momentary pauses in our base desires to fight and kill when under threat.

Like the Ancient Olympics, when hostilities between warring states would cease before, during and just after the Olympic Games, there was a similar phenomenon on Christmas Day, 1914, along the Western Front of the war between the French, German and Brits. This was the first year of World War I, one of the most horrific wars in the history of mankind, resulting in the deaths of some 16 million people. But in those early days of the war, the soldiers still held out hope that common sense would win out.

sainsbury-christmas-truce-1

Sainsbury’s, the British supermarket chain, created a commercial in 2014 that re-enacted a scene of the so-called Christmas Truce that may have happened in multiple places along the Western Front, where British and German soldiers huddled in cold, dark trenches, waiting for gunshot or snap of a twig to send them into battle.

Based on diaries from soldiers, the commercial’s producer pieced together an archetypal scene: singing of Christmas songs in the night in German and English, a soldier mustering courage to tip toe into No Man’s Land, others discovering their own need to connect with his fellow man on a day where good will toward men was more than just a bible quotation.

In this beautifully told story, the enemies allow their better angels to rise as they greet each other, share song and drink, and consume their nervous energy in impromptu games of football on land already drenched in their comrades’ blood.

Here’s the re-enactment of that holy night 102 years ago today.

May this day be a very Merry Christmas to one and all.

Aileen Riggin 1920_wikipedia
Aileen Riggin at the 1920 Antwerp Games

Belgium put in their bid for the 1920 Olympics in 1912. Little did they know that Archduke Ferdinand would be assassinated in 1914, sparking World War I. Germany overran Belgium, clearly overriding any planning for the Olympics. In fact, the Olympics in 1916 were cancelled.

But when the war ended in 1919, Antwerp was selected to hold the 1920 Summer Games.

Over 9 million soldiers died in World War I. Around 7 million civilians died as a result of the war. The invasion of Belgium by Germany is often called “The Rape of Belgium“, during which over 27,000 Belgians were killed by German soldiers, an additional 62,000 died of hunger or due to lack of shelter, and one and a half million Belgians fled the country.

Aileen Riggin was part of the first ever US women’s team in the Olympics, which competed at the 1920 Antwerp Games. She got to Belgian in the SS Princess Matoika, which was known as the Death Ship as it had transported war dead from Europe to the US. In the book, Tales of Gold, Riggin shared memories that showed the war was still very much in the minds of people living and competing in Antwerp. As Riggin was a 14-year-old girl at the time, I simply cannot imagine how she felt.

“When we were not training, we went on several trips around Antwerp in our truck, and one was to the battlefields. The mud was so deep that we could not walk, so we stopped along the line and bought some wooden shoes and learned how to walk in them. They were not too comfortable but they did protect our feet from the mud. I do not know how we happened to be allowed on the battlefields, because they had not yet been cleared.”

“In places they were still the way they were in 1918, when the Armistice was declared. We even picked up shells and such things and brought them home as souvenirs. There were trenches and pillboxes and things like that scattered about the fields, and we looked into some of them, and they were deep in water. There were some German helmets lying on the field, and we brought some home with us. I picked up a boot and dropped it very hurriedly when I saw that it still had remains of a human foot inside. It was a weird experience, and we were glad to leave. It must have taken them another year to clear off the battlefields from the way we saw them. They were in shambles.”

Aileen Riggin On the Victory Stand
Aileen Riggin on the victory stand, from the book “Tales of Gold”
How a war devastated country could take on an international event while still in a “shambles” is hard to imagine. But the Belgian authorities did what they could, improvising in some ways. For example, the diving competition was held in a large ditch at the base of an embankment, created as a form of protection if a war were to come to Belgium. Riggin, who competed as a diver, describes the venue.

“On our second day in Antwerp an army truck came to drive us to the stadium where we were to swim. Words fail me in describing our first view of this place. I had never seen anything like it. it was just a ditch. I believe they had had rowing races there at one time. There were  boardwalks around the pool – I have to call it a pool – to mark the ends. In the center

Click on link for touching video.
Click on photo for touching video from The New York Times.

We watch world-class athletes with amazement, the effortlessness with which they achieve feats of strength and speed and accuracy beyond the average Joe. And yet, in truth, tremendous effort, and risk, go into the making of an Olympic champion. Paralyzed from the neck down, Laís Souza can no longer do the flips, twirls and leaps made natural from years of training as a gymnast. A two-time Olympian from Brazil, Souza was 25 and no longer able to grow in her discipline. Someone suggested that she try aerial skiing as a way to feed her thirst for competition, and aim for the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang. But Souza’s progress was so good, she actually qualified for Sochi in 2014, only a week before the start of the Games.

Laís Souza
Laís Souza

As a reward, she and her coach decided to hit the slopes for a celebratory run. And in an instant, she was on her back. And from that point on, unable to move, let alone dream of Olympic glory. “Of course I cry sometimes. Sometimes

Abebe Bikila Avery Brundage Basketball Billy Mills Bob Hayes Boycotts Closing Ceremonies Cold War Dawn Fraser Diving Japan […]

Spiderman vs Hulk at the Winter Olympics_1

I grew up on comic books, thrilled by the Marvel world of super heroes fighting evil in the universe while dealing with their own complications of making a living, family strife, and acne. The reason that Hollywood is enamored with the Marvel and DC universes is because of the powerful character development of superheroes who were learning as they went, uncovering personal flaws, while wisecracking and cracking heads.

But perhaps in my youth, I was overly forgiving.

I picked up a 1980 comic book because it was related to the Olympics – Marvel Treasury Edition #25, Spider-Man vs. The Hulk at the Winter Olympics.

Spiderman vs Hulk at the Winter Olympics_3

And boy, it is bad. The illustrations are fine. The story is ridiculous. The writing is awful – way too much explanation.

According to this article, there was a time in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Marvel and DC were locked in a Cold War – Détente relationship. When DC put out a large-sized comic book called DC’s Limited Collector’s Edition, Marvel did the same with Marvel Treasury Edition. Measuring 10 inches by 14 inches, the Marvel Treasury Edition was significantly bigger than the standard 6.5 by 10 inch mag.

But Marvel featured primarily reprints. Inspired by the coming Winter Games in 1980, Marvel decided to use the Marvel Treasury format in issue #25, creating original content in commemoration of the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics, complete with appearances by Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk. Despite the writing, and storyline, the art is still pretty cool.

I wonder if they were thinking to do one on the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. I guess we’ll never know.

Spiderman vs Hulk at the Winter Olympics_2