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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.

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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.

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Screenshot from video of Josipovic and Holyfield on the medal podium
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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.

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The great American diver, Sammy Lee

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

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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.

 

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Iolanda Balas in Tokyo, from the book, XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964 Asahi Shinbum

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Will we be getting a kick out of Muay Thai at a future Olympic Games? Will cheers be coming from the stage as well as the stands in an Olympics cheerleading competition some day?

Both are possible, now that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has officially bestowed “provisional status” on The International Cheer Union and the International Federation of Muay Thai as international sports federations. This recognition means access to a USD25,000 grant every year for the next three years, as well as the right to apply for inclusion in the Olympics any time within that three years.

What is an Olympic sport? It appears that, at its simplest, it’s a three step process:

  • Form an international federation that is recognized by an organization called SportsAccord;
  • Apply for and gain provisional status from the IOC;
  • Apply for and gain approval from the IOC for inclusion at a future Games.

According to this article, Muay Thai applied for recognition to SportAccord in 2006. SportAccord is an uber organization for all sports federations or sports-related associations, whether they are involved in the Olympics or not. SportAccord assists sports federations in promoting their sports, as well as providing the sports organizations with advice and guidance on anti-doping and social responsibility. Once SportAccord recognizes a sport for five years, it can proceed to the next step of applying for provisional status to the IOC.

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It’s unclear why the Muay Thai application to the IOC, which was submitted some time in 2015, took so long to get provisional status. My guess is that the given sports federation has to respond to a long list of questions regarding rules and regulations, safety measures, prevalence of doping, for example. According to this article, Muay Thai may have been given great insight when wrestling was suddenly dropped as an Olympic event because of the vagueness of their rules, and the length of the matches. This is how the Bangkok Post saw the situation in 2013:

Another obstacle is that the IOC has made it clear that all new sports seeking Olympic admission must make the necessary changes to make their sport “more viewer-friendly”. By reducing the rounds, wrestling has become more attractive, and Muay Thai needs to address the first and last rounds for its five-round bout that are often extremely slow and irrelevant. The two-minute rest periods between each round are too long and boring for many fans but appreciated by the gamblers.

To improve its chances of becoming an Olympic sport, Muay Thai has to revise the scoring system to reward the fighters who show effective attack as well as eliminating prolonged grappling. Muay Thai bosses must have an understanding that all sports must evolve and that includes allowing more women to enter its upper echelons of administration and encouraging more women to compete in Muay Thai.

I lived in Thailand for 11 years. I’d love to see a Thai sport in the Olympics!

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Fidel Castro, southpaw, throwing a pitch in 1964

Fidel Castro has passed away. But his legacy for the love of sport continues.

Cuba has the 65th largest GDP in the world today. It has the 78th largest population in the world at 11.2 million people. And yet, in the Americas, only America and Canada have garnered more total Olympic medals than the small island nation of Cuba. Incredibly, in the period from the 1976 Olympics in Montreal to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Cuba finished in the top 11 medal count. At the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, only the United Team (the former Soviet bloc), the United States, Germany and China got more than Cuba’s 31 total medals.

Clearly, this Caribbean nation has punched way above its weight class, and not just in boxing where Cuba is most famous. In 20 Olympic Games, Cuba has won 79 gold medals, 67 silver medals and 70 bronze medals in judo, athletics, wrestling and of course baseball. By comparison, India, which has a population over a hundred times larger, and the fifth largest GDP in the world, has competed in four more Olympics than Cuba, and yet has totaled only 28 medals.

And according to articles after President Castro passed away on November 25, 2016, Castro had a hand in turning Cuba into a sports power – and it doesn’t appear to be via state-sponsored doping systems. According to this article, sports became a social phenomenon due to state-sponsored institutions.

After Castro entered Havana on Jan. 1, 1959, the revolutionary government approved and implemented a nationwide plan to improve the nation’s sports practice, resulting in free and universal access to sports schools for every citizen.

In 1961, Cuba created the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation which was placed in charge of promoting sports for children, adults and even the elderly on the island. The state-run program was also charged with improving the quality of service in its sports facilities, manufacturing its own equipment and conducting research in sports science.

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But Cuba’s biggest sports cheerleader was, according to the New York Times, was el presidente himself.

“I think Fidel Castro legitimately liked sports,” said David Wallechinsky, the president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. “One got the sense with East Germany, for example, that it really was a question of propaganda and that government officials didn’t have that obsession with sport itself that Fidel Castro did.” Whatever hardships they endured, Cubans could take pride in their sports stars.

But of course, during Cuba’s hey day in the 1970s and 1980s, in the heat of the cold war, Castro could not help but use Cuba’s great sporting achievements as a tool in the battle for geo-political mindshare. Of course, as the Times points out, propaganda is often just propaganda, a smokescreen behind which you hide the uglier shades of truth.

Yet it was primarily baseball, along with boxing and other Olympic sports, that came to symbolize both the strength and vulnerability of Cuban socialism. Successes in those sports allowed Mr. Castro to taunt and defy the United States on the diamond and in the ring and to infuse Cuban citizens with a sense of national pride. At the same time, international isolation and difficult financial realities led to the rampant defection of top baseball stars, the decrepit condition of stadiums and a shortage of equipment.

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Fidel Castro boxing great, Teofilo Stevenson in 1984

So for every great sporting star who remained in Cuba, like three-time Olympic heavyweight champion,Teófilo Stevenson, or Javier Sotomayor, still the world record holder in the high jump, there have been many who defected, often to their neighbor to the north, the United States.

What does the future bring? Will the recent thawing of relations initiated by presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama continue to allow greater travel and expanded opportunities for cross-border business and cultural exchange? Or will President-elect Donald Trump reverse the thaw? Will that have any impact on sports in Cuba?

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Ed Temple with, from left, Carla Mims, Edith McGuire, Vivian Brown and Wyomia Tyus at the women’s Olympic track and field tryouts on Randalls Island in New York City in 1964. Credit Ernie Sisto/The New York Times

Ed Temple was a black man who became a track coach for a women’s team in Tennessee, who overcame, along with the women on his teams, a severe lack of resources as well as significant racial prejudice in the deep south, to become one of the most historically impactful coaches in American track.

In a career of over 40 years at Tennessee State University, Temple coached 40 Olympians who garnered 13 gold, 6 silver and 4 bronze medals, including the belle of the 1960 Rome Games, Wilma Rudolph, and her successor at the 1964 Tokyo Games, Wyomia Tyus. At the 1960 games, the four members of the American women’s 4X100 team that blazed to gold were all members of Temple’s Tennessee State University team, affectionately known as the Tigerbelles. On September 22, 2016, Temple passed away at the age of 89.

To be black and female in the southern states in America was a challenge in a good part of the 20th century. Black athletes, whose competitions would take them all over the country, had to deal with long hours in cars hoping to find a place that would serve them food or put them up for the night, thanks to legally or socially enforced segregation along racial lines. David Maraniss, who wrote about Temple in his book, Rome 1960, said this in a Nashville newspaper interview in 2008:

We’re talking about the Jim Crow era, a period when the Tigerbelles . . . traveled through the deep South and endured harsh conditions to appear at meets. You look at what he accomplished and the obstacles he faced, and it’s simply one of the great triumphs in sports and history.

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Cassius Clay and Ed Temple both appeared at the 1960 Rome Olympics

Temple believed that for a black woman to persevere and win in America at that time, they had to be disciplined and smart. Temple’s standards were high, so training on the team was painful. The Tigerbelles were locked into practices three times a day, starting at 5 in the morning, resuming at 9:30 am, and then again at 2pm, often times in the searing heat of summer. Tyus, who was crowned fastest woman in the world by winning the 100-meters in both Tokyo in 1964 and in Mexico City in 1968 said that Temple practices were “just brutal. I just thought, ‘this man has got to be crazy.’” The Tigerbelles wrote and sang a song that reflected their feelings towards Temple and his practices: “It’s So Hard to be a Tigerbelle”.

And yet, the Tigerbelles won. But simply winning wasn’t enough for Temple. He was not only their coach. He was their father and mentor, one who showed a bit of tough love and expected them to keep up with their studies. Tyus was interviewed in the book, Tales of Gold: An Oral History of the Summer Olympic Games Told by America’s Gold Medal Winners, and she wrote about Temple was a father to her.

Coach Temple was an advisor as well as a coach. My father died when I was only 15, so he became a father figure as well. He was very strict, and he was very tough. He used to say, “If we’re going to run, let’s run. If we’re going to be spectators, then let’s get up in the stands where we belong.” He also insisted that we train the European way, which to him meant “No play; just hard work.” When I look back on it, I sometimes wonder how I made it, but I also know that he was very good for us as women. He was always there to lend a helping hand, but if you needed to be reprimanded, he was also very good at that. And academics always came first with him. We had to have a C average to compete, but he always pushed us to do much better than that. His whole philosophy was that we were not going to be athletes all our live, so we had to take advantage of this opportunity to get a college education. We did, and he was always so proud of the fact that of the 40 of us who competed in the Olympics, 38 have college degrees.

Temple insisted that his Tigerbelles be smart, not only intellectually, but also fashionably. There was a school of thought at that time that blacks who wanted to succeed had to hold themselves up to a higher standard of behavior and appearance in order to simply get accepted in broader swathes of society. According to Maraniss in his book Rome 1960, Temple made sure his women looked good.

As the caravan approached its destination, an order would come from the front: “Get your stuff together.” This mean rollers off, lipstick on, everything brushed and straightened. The sprinters were a free-spirited group; some chafed at Coach Temple’s rules of behavior but grudgingly obliged. “I want foxes, not oxes,” he told them. The Tigerbelles had perfected the art of emerging from the least flattering conditions looking as fresh as a gospel choir, for which they were often mistaken.