Paea Wolfgramm defeats Duncan Dokiwari
Paea Wolfgramm defeats Duncan Dokiwari

Pita Nikolas Taufatofua put Tonga on the map during the opening ceremonies of the 2016 Rio Olympics. Carrying his nation’s flag, his torso bare, muscles rippling and golden skin gleaming, Taufatofua had tongues hanging and wagging.

But Taufatofua didn’t last the entire bout of even his first match, eliminated from the Olympics due to mercy rules, losing 16-1 to Sajjad Mardani. To be fair, Tonga is so small, the Pacific archipelago’s population is a bit above 100,000, which is probably about the population of my neighborhood in Tokyo. So the numbers alone make it unlikely for a world champion to emerge from Tonga.

But the tiny kingdom of Tonga, participating in the Olympics since 1984, beat the odds and claimed a silver medal in 1996. Paea Wolfgramm was a student at the university of Auckland in New Zealand where he played rugby when a schoolmate suggested that Wolfgramm give boxing a try in 1990. After 24 bouts in and around the Pacific islands circuit, Wolfgramm found himself the super heavyweight representative of Tonga, and was going to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Wolfgramm was a big man, 185 cm tall and 140 kgs in weight, but as he had no international track record, he was a total unknown among the American, Cuban and European boxers expected to medal.

Pita Nikolas Taufatofua
Pita Nikolas Taufatofua

First up for Wolfgramm was a boxer from Belarus, Sergei Dahovich, whom Wolfgramm snuck by on points, 10-9. This set up a match with the Cuban, Alexis Rubalcaba. The Cuban boxers were always considered a threat. But Wolfgramm, a devout Morman, surprised essentially everyone, taking the fight to Rubalcaba, pummeling him at the ropes, and sending the Cuban to two standing eight counts. Wolfgramm won on points 17-12, and in that moment, to the chants of “Ton-ga! Ton-ga!” from the Atlanta crowd, went from unknown to unbelievable.

The entire island nation of Tonga was already celebrating its greatest Olympic moment as Wolfgramm had secured the nation’s first medal, guaranteed a bronze medal with the Cuban’s defeat. While the match between Wolfgramm and the Nigerian boxer Duncan Dokiwari was not televised in Tonga, the entire populace was on pins and needles when Wolfgramm took to the ring for semi-final bout.

The fight between Wolfgramm and the 1994 Victoria Commonwealth Games champion was a tight affair, tied 6-6 going into the third and final round. And the match stayed tied at 6 until the very final seconds, when Wolfgramm landed a punch to Dokiwari’s face to get the decisive point. Wolfgramm was going to the gold-medal round!

But there was a cost. Not only did Wolfgramm have a broken nose, he had broken his wrist in his desperate match against Dokiwari. And he was up against Vladimir Klitschko. The brainy PhD from the Ukraine, Klitschko would also go on to become a world heavyweight champion, in fact, the second longest reigning heavyweight champion of all time. (Joe Louis reigned for nearly 12 years, while Klitschko was champion for nearly 10.)

Wolfgramm had said that if this had not been a championship bout, he probably would have not gotten into the ring. But this was for gold, and he was reported to have said, “If I won a gold medal, I could not even imagine. I would die first, coach would die next and the king would give me half of Tonga.”

The Tongan did not win, although he made the fight a fight. After the second round, Wolfgramm was down only 3-2. But the third round was the Ukrainian’s. Klitschko pummelled away, and won the gold-medal match 7-3. Despite the lack of resources and support, the broken nose and wrist, Wolfgramm battled for himself and for an entire nation. Of his wrist, Wolfgramm was quoted as saying, “I was willing for it to break into 2,000 pieces if necessary.

Wolfgramm would turn professional soon after the Atlanta Games, and go onto a successful career, winning his first 14 bouts, and retiring with a career record of 20-4.

Vladimir Klitschko defeats Paea Wolfgramm
Vladimir Klitschko defeats Paea Wolfgramm

Cotswold Games

Robbie Brightwell was a 16-year old student in Shropshire, England, and was straining to keep his eyes open while doing research in his local library when he came upon an old magazine and was struck by a picture of runners in a competition sometime in the late 19th century. As he related in his autobiography, Robbie Brightwell and His Golden Girl, he was surprised to see that in an area called Much Wenlock, not far from his own, there was a sporting event called “The Olympics”.

Intrigued, Brightwell, who went on to captain Britain’s track and field team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, began impromptu research into the Much Wenlock Games, and learned that Baron de Coubertin, at the age of 27, came to Much Wenlock and met an 81-year-old English physician, who planted the idea for what we now recognize as the Modern Olympics.

But as is true with any great endeavor, new ideas and initiatives are often built on earlier iterations. According to The Games: A Global History of the  Olympics by David Goldblatt, events held in both England and France could be considered precursors to Coubertin’s Olympics.

The Cotswold Games: In the early part of the 17th century, fairs and festivals were a common part of the English country lifestyle. One of the biggest in England was the Cotswold Games in Chipping Camden, a mixture of fun and sports, contests and gambling. As can be seen in the poster for the Cotswold Games, also known as the “Cotswold Olimpicks”, there was a mock castle created on a hill, in front of which was the main theater for the events. Developed by Robert Dover, a “charismatic and charming man”, the Cotswold Games featured “hare coursing and horse racing, wrestling and shin kicking, stick fighting and hammer throwing.” Dover established this country fair in 1612 and was able to organize the Cotswold Games for about 30 years. Unfortunately for Dover, and perhaps the community of Chipping Camden, the 1630s saw a shift from the hedonistic reign of King James I to a more conservative, puritanical approach of Oliver Cromwell, who overthrew the King in 1645. That put an end to the Cotswold Games.

The Republican Olympiad: When the French monarchy was overthrown in the French Revolution of 1789, leaders of the new republic were excited about change to come. One of the leaders of the revolution, Charles Gilbert Romme, devised a way to update the calendar for a new, enlightened France. With five days added to the year, with the inclusion of another day added to a Leap Year, which would take place every four years. According to Goldblatt, “Romme thought that the lead day might be a good occasion for staging public festivities and games: ‘we suggest calling it the French Olympiad and the final year the Olympics Year.” In 1796, the first Republican Olympiad was held in Paris, where hundreds of thousands came out for games, music, dancing, running and wrestling. Winners of competitions won wreaths of laurels, pistols, sabres, vases and watches. The Republican Olympiad continued for two more cycles, but died out before the start of the 19th century.

Benefit of Mr Kite and John Lennon
John Lennon in front of poster that inspired “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”

Pablo Fanque’s Travelling Circus Royal: As Goldblatt noted, the Olympics were often more often associated with circuses in the 18th and 19th centuries in England. One of the most popular traveling circuses was called Pablo Fanque’s travelling Circus Royal, which offered an “unrivalled equestrian troupe” and ” new and novel features in the Olympian Games.” Pablo Fanque was said to be the most popular circus proprietor in a golden age of circuses in Victorian England, and was quite accomplished not only as an equestrian, but also as a master of the corde volante. But as you may be able to tell, Fanque’s association to the Olympics is peripheral at best. His association to The Beatles may be stronger. The album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” featured a song called “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite“, the lyrics of which are primarily lifted from an 1843 poster marketing Fanque’s Circus Royal.

The Much Wenlock Olympian Games: Dr Penny Brookes of Shropshire, England, agreed with the thinking of the time, that it was important to promote “the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town…by the encouragement of outdoor recreations and by the award of prizes annually at public meetings for skill in athletic exercises and industrial attainments.” The first Much Wenlock Olympic Games were held in 1850. While these Olympic Games were a rural fair, they also had a firm sporting focus. In addition to fun events like wheelbarrow and sack races, both amateurs and professionals competed in cricket, football, archery, hurdling, running, shooting, cycling and a pentathlon. Large cash prizes were awarded.

When Baron de Coubertin, was told about the Much Wenlock Olympic Games, he made it a point to visit and meet Dr Brookes, a seminal act in the origin story of the modern Olympic Games.

William Penny Brookes in 1876 Photo WENLOCK OLYMPIAN SOCIETY
William Penny Brookes in 1876 Photo WENLOCK OLYMPIAN SOCIETY

 

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Artist’s rendition of the site of the ancient Olympia Games

 

Today, the modern-day Olympics are held over a two-week period, or 16 days because it covers three full weekends.

But back in the day, way way back in the day – say over 2500 years ago – The Olympia Games were a five-day affair, as is explained in the book, The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, by David Goldblatt.

Opening Day: Today, an athlete a judge or official and a coach take an oath symbolically for all athletes, judges and coaches at the opening ceremonies of an Olympiad, promising to uphold the spirit of sportsmanship. Here is the athlete’s oath, for example: “In the name of all competitors, I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules that govern them, committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams.”

In the 5th century BC, athletes, trainers and their families took an oath “that they would be guilty of no foul play and that they would be fair and not accept bribes.” But as we find inconsistency at times between what athletes promise to do and what they actually do, we find human behavior hasn’t changed much over the millennia. According to Goldblatt, “there was plenty of cheating and plenty of bribery.” He went on to say that the many statues of Zeus that adorned the area of the sporting grounds were paid by with fined for rule breakers.

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Greek boxer surrendering by raising of index finger

Day Two: According to Alan Carter’s book, The Olympic Glory That Was Greece, the second day was devoted to competitions for boys. The morning saw heats after heats of foot races as the qualifiers are shrunk down to the finalists. The victor receives a palm leaf, and his family and home town are honored by his grand accomplishment. The afternoon sees competitions in wrestling and boxing for the boys, as well as what could be considered a mixed-martial art called the pankration. Carter described it as “training for warriors who would be engaging in hand to hand confrontation with the enemy and Sparta was particularly associated with the sport.” In the pankration, you could bite or gouge eyes.

Day Three: On the third day, according to Carter, spectators enjoyed chariot races at the hippodrome. There were some six variants of chariot races – two and four-horse competitions, two mules, or foals as well – and they ran anywhere from 3,500 to 14,000 meters long. Below is a clip from the 1959 film Ben Hur, which is supposedly Rome in AD 26, over 680 years after the establishment of the four-horse chariot race. If the chariot races in Olympia were anything like this, I could see why this was a must-see event!

Day Four: Goldblatt wrote that day four was the day for generalists, when the pentathlon was held. The pentathlon then was made up of five events: the discus throw, the long jump, the javelin throw, a foot race and wrestling. According to Goldblatt, the competitors faced off in a footrace, the discus, the javelin and a jump that may have included weights. The winner was often determined after these four events. In the a winner could not be decided, wrestling was the tie breaker. The order and the way the winner was decided apparently is unclear and still debated.

Again, due to the sketchiness of the historical accounts, there is debate as to what happened on the fourth day. According to Carter, Day Four was a festive days, starting with the slaughter of 100 oxen in honor of Zeus. This was followed by the premier events, the stadion (200 yard foot race), the diaulos (400-yard foot race), followed by wrestling, boxing and pankration.

Day Five: Goldblatt wrote that day five is running, wrestling, boxing and “pankrating” (if I can turn that into a gerund). But Carter wrote that it is about pomp and circumstance, focusing on awarding the victors at the Temple of Zeus. The winners are announced with trumpets and declarations of their names and hometowns. They are given a palm leaf to hold and a wild olive branch to wear as a crown. After that, its feasting and partying into the night.

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Holyfield knocking out Barry and then Barry being awarded victory.

He was the dominant heavyweight boxer of the 1990s, successfully earning the heavyweight title three times, something accomplished previously only by Muhammad Ali.

But unlike Ali, who was an Olympic champion, winning gold at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games, glory escaped Evander Holyfield at the 1984 Olympic Games.

The youngest of nine children from Almore, Alabama, Holyfield grew up in a crime-infested neighborhood, finding respite as a seven-year old in boxing. Winning at every level as a pre-teen and teenager, Holyfield rose to international prominence by winning silver at the 1983 Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela. In 1984, he found himself representing the United States on the boxing team at the Los Angeles Olympics as their light heavyweight contender.

While spectators did not know much of Holyfield at the commencement of the Games, they certainly were aware of the rock solid boxer whose punishing body shots with the right, and hooks to the face with the left were making a case that Holyfield was destined for gold. He mowed down the competition in increasingly ruthless fashion, with the referee stopping the contest early in his first two bouts. Holyfield knocked out his quarterfinal opponent in the first round, setting up a match with Kevin Barry of New Zealand.

Holyfield dominated the fight. Blocking most of Barry’s punches, Holyfield landed hooks and body blows fairly regularly. Barry was cautioned a few times for clinching by holding the back of Holyfield’s neck, as that was his only way of slowing Holyfield down. A telling moment came in the middle of the first round when Holyfield landed what the announcer called a “stinging left”, which turned Barry’s legs to jelly. The referee, Gligorije Novicic of Yugoslavia, reached in to break the fighters apart, but Holyfield managed to land another solid right. Barry was given a standing eight, and looked to be in trouble as the first round ended.

The second round started somewhat cautiously for the first 30 seconds, until Holyfield landed two lefts to Barry’s gut, the Kiwi’s knees buckling momentarily. Barry, stopped Holyfield’s momentum by again holding the back of his neck. After that Holyfield began to land shots to the head and body relentlessly until the fight was stopped when the referee deducted a point from Barry’s scorecard for, I believe, hitting Holyfield late after telling them to stop. Soon after that, Novicic stopped the fight to caution Holyfield for something that seemed unclear. Soon after Barry was cautioned for a couple of rabbit punches to Holyfield’s head. Soon after Barry is cautioned for holding the back of Holyfield’s neck. Another caution for Barry. And again, another point stripped off of Barry’s score.

The fight essentially deteriorated into a herky jerky rhythm of starts and stops, primarily due to the Novicic’s need to caution and warn Barry. Then suddenly, the fight was over.

With fewer than 20 seconds left in the second round, with Barry holding the back of Holyfield’s neck yet again, Holyfield delivers a hard right to Barry’s mid-section, and at the moment Holyfield lands a second right to Barry’s stomach, the referee shouts “stop”. A split second later, Holyfield delivers a crushing left hook to Barry’s right check that sends the New Zealander to the mat. Barry gets up, but the referee counts him out.

Barry has been knocked out.

But he hasn’t lost.

kevin-barry-and-evander-holyfield

Soon after, the referee calls Holyfield over and says something that sends Holyfield away in clear disgust. Novicic has disqualified Holyfield, apparently for punching Barry after saying “stop”. And just like that, the fight is over and Barry has won the fight. And when the two boxers are standing at the side of the referee, and raises the right hand of Barry in victory, Barry grabs Holyfield’s right arm and lifts it in the air. For all to see, Barry wants people to know he thought Holyfield was the winner.

Ironically, there were no real winners in the light-heavyweight competition in Los Angeles. Holyfield was disqualified, and therefore lost his chance to advance to the gold medal round. And ironically, because Barry was knocked out with a shot to the head, the rules dictated that he was “automatically rendered ineligible to fight for 28 days”, according to this article.In other words, no gold medal match for him either.

The result was extraordinary. The gold medal went to Anton Josipovic of then-Yugoslavia, who did not have to throw a punch to earn the right to the top of the medal podium.

The result was protested by the United States and the protest was denied. But in an unusual act of sympathy or compromise, the protest committee agreed to award the bronze medal to Holyfield despite his disqualification.

When Josipovic accepted his gold medal, he did what he thought everyone knew. He pulled Holyfield up to the top step. When Holyfield stepped off the podium, he was smiling widely, a classy finish to a boxer who would go on to win his next 28 fights as a professional, and become one of the world’s greatest boxers of all time.

josipovic-and-holyfield
Screenshot from video of Josipovic and Holyfield on the medal podium
buster-mathis-getty
Buster Mathis in May 1964.

He wobbles. He quivers. He rolls. He shakes. He is a dripping mass of flesh, a monument to fat. He is 6 feet 3 and weighs 295 pounds. His waist is 44, his chest is 52, but sometimes in the heat of action the measurements seem the other way around. Sitting in the corner, he looks like a melting chocolate sundae.

That’s how Sports Illustrated described heavyweight boxer Buster Mathis in an article on the results of the US Olympic team boxing trials, held in May, 1964. Mathis, despite his bulk, was surprisingly athletic. There are pictures of him playing basketball, flitting about on roller skates and dancing. And his ability to move deftly around the ring, weaving and bobbing, led one reporter to say that Mathis “floats like a baby elephant and stings like a bee.”

In the finals of the heavyweight division at the Trials, Mathis took on another promising heavyweight named Joe Frazier. Frazier, the butcher from Philadelphia who would go on to be heavyweight champion of the world in the glory days of Ali and Foreman, was no match for Mathis. Here’s how SI described Frazier’s futile attempt to go inside.

Frazier was a solid 195, but Buster still had a 100-pound pulling the weights. And he had his speed. Instead of hunting for the head, Frazier moved in to pound Buster’s belly, which shook and glinted under the lights. Buster managed to keep Frazier at bay with a whistling left hook (each one thrown with a loud grunt, “uuuuunnnnhhh!”), and even when Frazier did manage to get inside, his punches were smothered by flab. As Pappy (Gault) says, “Buster’s got an extra layer of fat on that stomach that stops the punches.”

buster-mathis-on-roller-skatesMathis, not Frazier was heading to Tokyo. Until he wasn’t. On September 19, just three weeks before the opening ceremony of the Toyo Olympics, it was announced that Mathis had a broken bone in his hand – some say it was a finger, others a thumb. It didn’t matter – Frazier was asked to go in Mathis’ place. Ironically, it is said that Mathis broke the bone in his fight with Frazier, learning the unfortunate lesson that winning isn’t everything.

Frazier would go to Tokyo and win the gold medal in the heavyweight division. However, when he broke his thumb in a semi-final match, Frazier told no one. Clearly favoring his right, Frazier managed to win the finals on points.

After the 1964 Olympics, both Frazier and Mathis turned professional, and began winning streaks. When Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the American armed forces, in the midst of the war with Vietnam, he was stripped of his titles and his license to box in the US revoked. Suddenly, the heavyweight title was up for grabs.

On March 4, 1968, Buster Mathis with a record of 23-0, took on old amateur rival Joe Frazier, with a record of 19-0. Mathis had beaten Frazier not once, but twice preceding the Tokyo Olympics. And when the bell had rung ending the sixth round of the 12-round title fight, Mathis was ahead on points. But Mathis had never gone so deep in a fight with the ferocious and determined Frazier. While Frazier’s patented body blows had little effect over short fights, over a longer period of time, Frazier’s blows began to wear Mathis down. And then suddenly, towards the end of the 11th round, a lightning left-hook by Frazier crumpled Mathis.

Hard-luck Buster Mathis could not win. He lost his biggest shot at the title against Frazier in 1968. And in 1964, he beat Frazier in the Olympic Trials, and still loses his shot at the Olympic glory. If not for Frazier, he coulda been a champ. Twice.

sammy-lee
The great American diver, Sammy Lee

In memory of Olympians or people significantly connected to the Olympics who passed away in 2016.

vera-caslavska_mexico-city
Triumphant Vera Caslavaska in Mexico City
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Cassius Clay at the 1960 Rome Olympics

In memory of Olympians or people significantly connected to the Olympics who passed away in 2016.

 

Iolanda Balas in Tokyo_Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Service
Iolanda Balas in Tokyo, from the book, XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964 Asahi Shinbum