Claressa Shields USA
Claressa Shields, SHE GOAT

She grew up in Flint, Michigan, a city so poor and underserved that the local government doesn’t care their children are being poisoned by lead in the water. But she had a talent – to hit, and hit hard.

Claressa Shields is the world’s strongest female boxer in the middleweight class (75kg), and is a favorite to win gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics. In fact, she could become the first American to win boxing gold in two successive Olympics.

She is a marketing phenomenon heading into the Summer Games – the most recent being her appearance in the recent Sports Illustrated The Magazine’s Body issue, which features nude photos of some of the most famous athletes in the world. But it is the documentary, T-Rex, which tells the story of a fragile young girl turning into a determined woman and Olympic champion, that put her firmly on the American pop culture map.

Will she have strong competition at the Rio Games? Of course, she still has to be win her three or four contests. But as Shields stated recently in Slate’s sports podcast, Hang Up and Listen, she has fought all her known competition and beat them all at least once. And when she won the middleweight women’s world boxing championship on May 27 this year in Astana, Kazakhstan, she beat the only strong contender she had not faced, Nouchka Fontjin of the Netherlands.

She’s (Nouchka) pretty tall, she’s a heavy hitter. For the last two years, I just can’t wait to fight her. I can’t wait to run into her. She was ranked number 3 in the world, and when someone’s ranked that high, and I hadn’t fought them, there’s always some talk. I want to prove the doubters wrong, prove that I’m the best, prove that I cannot be beat by anybody. For the last two years, she’s been an opponent I’ve been hitting on in the gym against her because I thought she was top competition. I fought her in the worlds and dominated her, 3-0. She was competitive. But I was just great.

Shields is 74-1 in her career, a two-time world champion, gunning for a second Olympic gold. Chances of success? High.

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Oscar Pistorius led away

On July 6, double-amputee Olympian Oscar Pistorius, was sentenced to six years in prison for murder. The South African, who competed in the 400-meter sprint at the 2012 London Olympics, was convicted for firing four bullets into his bathroom door, killing his girlfriend Reena Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day three years ago.

In this high-profile long-running set of trials, Pistorius claimed someone had intruded his home and that he fired his gun fearful for his life. Many feel that Pistorius was let off easy, his six years not coming close to what many thought would be a 10- to 15-year sentence.

In the long history of the Olympics, Pistorius joins a small group of Olympians who served time for murder, according to one my favorite go-to books, The Book of Olympic Lists, by David Wallechinsky and Jaime Loucky. In their list of 20 Olympians Who Did Time in Prison, there are four other Olympians who went to the slammer for murder.

James Snook
Dr. James Snook

James Snook: Snook was a member of the gold medal winning US Free Pistol Shooting team at the Antwerp Games in 1920. At the age of 48, then a professor of veterinary medicine at Ohio State, Snook confessed to the murder of his mistress, Theora Hix. He was put to death in the electric chair after being found guilty of taking a hammer to Hix after violent sex at a rifle range.

Humberto Mariles
Humberto Mariles

Humberto Mariles: This two-time gold medalist and bronze medalist equestrian from Mexico competed at the 1948 Games in London and the 1952 Games in Helsinki. One August summer day, Mariles experienced an extreme fit of road rage when another motorist forced him off the road. According to Wallenchinsky and Loucky, “at the next traffi light Mariles pulled out a gun and shot the man.” Mariles was sent to prison but was pardoned by the President of Mexico.

Ludovit Platchetka
Ludovit Platchetka

Ludovit Plachetka: Plachetka was a middleweight boxer from the Czech Republic who won his first match at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics against a boxer from Swaziland before being eliminated by a boxer from Uzbekistan. According to Wallechinsky and Loucky, Plachetka went from Olympian to felon in less than a year. Apparently he was in an ongoing dispute with his girlfriend over visitation rights of their child that escalated to the point where Plachetka shot to death the mother of his girlfriend. He would have shot his girlfriend if not for gun jamming at that moment. The former boxer/bouncer was sentenced to 13 years.

As for Pistorius, six years may seem like a long time for him. But a top sports officials in South Africa has said the sentence includes time served, and that with good behavior could be out in time to train and participate in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.

According to the Daily Mail, “Tubby Reddy, CEO of South Africa’s Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee, said he had ‘no problem’ with the idea of the ‘Blade Runner’ returning to the national team and representing his country at the highest level – despite widespread condemnation of Pistorius’ crime and six year sentence.”

Manus Boonjumnong in Athens_Getty
Manus Boonjumnong (R) of Thailand and Ionut Gheorge of Romania compete during the men’s boxing 64 kg semifinal bout on August 27, 2004 during the Athens 2004 Summer Olympic Games at Peristeri Olympic Boxing Hall in Athens, Greece. Getty Images

The light welterweight from Thailand was breezing through the bouts, handily beating boxers from Greece, Philippines, France and Romania with his superior ring movement and speed.

The final bout was against Yudel Johnson of Cuba. The tiny Carribean nation was the dominant power in boxing at the time. In fact, they entered boxers in all 11 weight classes and medaled in all but two, including 5 golds. Johnson was expected to win, but Boonjumnong raced to an early lead and then boxed defensively to victory and gold.

While the Johnson quickly complained about the refereeing, Boonjumnong took a phone call from the King of Thailand, praising the boxer’s achievement. Holding a picture of King Bhumpibol Adulyadej in one hand and a cell phone in the other, he listened in awe, taking a call he could only dream of. As he said in this AP report, “I fought for my king, who urged me to be strong in my final bout,” Boonjumnong said. “I dedicate the gold medal to my family and to all the people of Thailand. And, of course, to the king of Thailand.”

And with victory comes the spoils. Boonjumnong returned to Thailand a hero, seeing his six-week old son for the first time, aptly named “Athens”. The hero was also awarded 20 million baht in recognition of his gold-medal achievement.

In 2004, 20 million baht was about US$560,000, which in Thailand, still recovering from the Asian Economic Crisis that began in 1997, would have been an extraordinary amount of money, particularly for someone who came from modest means. In Boonjumnong’s case, the money meant freedom to do as he pleased. In short, the Olympian went on a boozing, womanizing and gambling spree that resulted in scandalous headlines, divorce and a return to modest means.

Still in his mid-20s, his supporters thought he had another round of Olympic glory left in him, but the only way they could get him back into a fighting mindset and ready for the 2008 Beijing Olympics was to show him some tough love. The Thai amateur boxing president through down the gauntlet, put Boonjumnong on a plane with no money in 2005, and sent him to Vietnam to train and get his act together.

Training away from adoring fans in Thailand, and feeling the heat of the competition, many who gathered from all over Asia to train in Vietnam, Boonjumnong began to re-discover his fighting spirit. At the 2006 Asian Games held in Doha, Qatar, took gold as the light welterweight champion.

At the Beijing Games, Thailand had high hopes for two Boonjumnongs, as younger brother Non competed in the welterweight division. Unfortunately, Non, the 2007 world championship silver medalist fell quickly in the competition, leaving the elder brother to restore family and national honor. And gold was within Manus the elder’s reach, as he made his way through Japanese, Kazakhstani, and Cuban rivals. He was not as dominant as in Athens, and fell to an aggressive lefty from the Dominican, Manuel Felix Diaz.

Manus Boonjumnong in Beijing_Getty
Silver medalist Manus Boonjumnong of Thailand, gold medalist Felix Diaz of Dominican Republic and bronze medalists Alexis Vastine of France and Roniel Iglesias Sotolongo of Cuba pose on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Men’s Light Welterweight; Beijing 2008 Olympic Games

Bronze, not gold adorned the now aging boxer upon his return to Thailand. Still, no Thai had, or has since, medaled in two different Olympics. As the 2012 Olympic Games, there were rumors that Boonjumnong would go for gold again in London. But at the age of 31, he said that he lost the fire for amateur boxing, and declined to be considered for a third Olympics. And yet, apparently he had enough fire for professional boxing, claiming his party days were long gone, and that he was aiming for champion Manny Pacquiao of the Philippines

Boonjumnong’s supporters got his professional career off to a wining start, ensuring his

Cassius Clay wins gold in rome
Cassius Clay wins gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics after defeating Zbigniew Pietrzykowski by decision in the finals of the light heavyweight championship.

Muhammad Ali passed away on June 3, 2016, and the internet flooded with tears.

A great man has passed, and all we can do is remember.

In 1960, Ali was known as Cassius Marcellus Clay. The 18-year-old from Louisville was certainly one of the noisiest Americans at the Rome Olympic Games. He did claim to be the Greatest to anyone who would listen, but he was not viewed as a leader of the US team. According to David Maraniss in his book, Rome 1960, Clay was simply not recognized on the same level as fellow US Olympians like decathlete Rafer Johnson, sprinter Wilma Rudolph, high jumper John Thomas, basketball players Oscar Robertson and Jerry West.

Rafer Johnson running in 1960
Rafer Johnson in Rome in 1960.

As discus thrower Rink Babka, the discus thrower from USC was quoted as saying, “When I think of 1960 and hear people say Cassius Clay was Mr. Olympics and everyone went to see him – bullshit.”

But one person in particular found Clay to be a kind of kindred spirit, or rather an alter ego. Maraniss wrote touchingly about the relationship between 1960’s Greatest Athlete in the World, decathlon champion Rafer Johnson, and boxing’s self-proclaimed Greatest of All Time.

“He (Johnson) felt close to the young boxer from the first time they met at the Olympic Village in Rome. Months after they had won their gold medals, they toured the South together on a speaking tour of predominantly black colleges. They were roommates on the road and stayed up late at night as Clay told Johnson precisely how he planned to become an unforgettable character as well as the heavyweight champion of the world. Many of the cocky phrases and poems that Clay – and later Ali – brought to the world, he first tried out on Rafer Johnson in their hotel rooms. Johnson saved those discussions for posterity on a small tape recorder.

The friendship, for Johnson, was an attraction to an opposite, or a repressed part of self, and he was self-aware enough to appreciate it, saying of Cassius Clay: “I love the way he talked. He was just brash and challenged people, and he said it the way he felt it, and he talked about it. I am not that type of person. I carry it inside. I talk about it a little bit, but I don’t need to say everything. He seemed to need to say everything. He wanted to talk about the beginning, and how he was going to do it, and the end, how he was going to finish. I just couldn’t do that. That just wasn’t my makeup. But I loved him for being that kind of person. I loved him for that.”

Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire
1960 Olympian and gold medalist Muhammad Ali defeats 1968 Olympian and gold medalist George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire, in 1974.

Clay won the gold medal in the light-heavyweight division at the Rome Olympics. He would go on to fame, recognition and notoriety four years later as Muhammad Ali. You can read all about that on the Internet, where Ali will indeed go down in history as the Greatest of All Time.

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in The Thrilla in Manila
1960 Olympian and gold medalist Muhammad Ali defeats 1964 Olympian and gold medalist Joe Frazier in The Thrilla in Manila, in 1975.
Mourad Laachraoui victorious
Mourad Laachraoui (center) wins gold in the European Taekwondo Championship on May 18, 2016.

It is hard to imagine. You train and train in relative anonymity, hoping for a spot on the team that takes you to the Olympics. And when you finally make the team, you become the topic of terrible news.

On May 18, Mourad Laachraoui won gold in the European Taekwondo Championships, and earned the right to represent Belgium at the Rio Olympics. The 20-year-old defeated Jesus Tortosa of Spain to take the 54-kilogram division championship.

The victory triggered a media avalanche, for Laachraoui has the misfortune of being the younger brother of Najim Laachraoui, the now infamous terrorist who made the bombs used in attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, and the explosions at the Brussels Airport on March 22 2016. In a time when Laachraoui should be ecstatic with glee and glowing with hope, he and his family read such headlines: “Mourad Laachraoui: Suicide bomber’s brother wins European gold”.

Najim Laachraoui at Brussels Airport
Images of Najim Laachraoui at the Brussels Airport

Najim had apparently disconnected from his family when he moved to Syria in 2013. When asked about his brother in the aftermath of the Belgium bombings, Mourad said he was “sad and ashamed.” “Our family has the same questions you all have,” he said in March. “He [Najim] used to be a nice intelligent guy. I couldn’t believe it.”

According to this article, the lawyer for the Olympian said that Najim “was dead to Mourad from as soon as he went to Syria. He said the family were no longer able to live their lives normally and could not even go to the shops.” Apparently, since Najim died in the suicide bomb attack in Brussels, the family has lived holed up in their home with curtains closed at all times. Mourad said at the time, though, that he would continue to fight and win a spot to represent his home country of Belgium.

And fight and win he did.

But the victory is not yet so sweet.

It was round 3 of the gold medal championship bout in the light middle-weight division at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea. Broadcasters for the American Broadcasting Company, Marv Albert and Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, already seemed convinced that the gold medal was going to go to the American, Roy Jones Jr, who was battling the South Korean, Park Si-hun.

“Jones just picking away and stepping away,” remarked Albert. Jones had already scored a standing 8 on Park, and the broadcasters argued that Se-hun should have had another standing 8. With only 1 minute and 30 seconds remaining, Marv Albert said “Park Si-hun is taking a thrashing. It was back in 1984 at the Los Angeles Olympics that Frank Tate won the gold in this light middleweight division. Roy Jones looking to join him in the record books.”

When the broadcast came back from the commercial break, the American announcers were pretty sure of the outcome. “Roy Jones severely outclassed his opponent, Park Si-hun of Korea, as we await the decision,” said Albert. “And Jones scored from outside, scored from inside and he scored from the middle distance,” said Pacheko. “Almost anywhere he chose to stand and give angles, he out-boxed, out-punched, out-sped and out-talented Park.”

Jones landed far more punches than Park over the course of the three rounds, 86 for Jones, 32 for Park. “Should be a no question, but you never know,” intoned Albert just before the announcement.

The decision: Park Si-hun wins, 3-2 on points.

Albert’s reaction: “Well there it is! Park Si-hun has stolen the bout!”

Park Si-hujn and Roy Jones Jr_1
Boxing: 1988 Summer Olympics: USA Roy Jones Jr. victorious with South Korea Park Si-Hun after Light Middleweight (71 kg) Final at Jamsil Students’ Gymnasium. Seoul, South Korea 10/2/1988 CREDIT: John Iacono (Photo by John Iacono /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (Set Number: X37085 TK33 R6 F21 )

Was this a home ring judgment? After all, Koreans still recalled the loss of Kim Dong-kil to American, Jerry Page, in the light welterweight semi-finals at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. As you can see in this recording of that fight, it was definitely a close fight. I am not so big a boxing fan that I can explain in detailed fashion why one fighter deserves a decision over another, but I would reckon that Page won the first two rounds, and that Kim came on strong enough in the third to possibly win the third round….but all up, I can’t argue with a Page victory.

However, my amateur eyes tell me that Jones indeed did “thrash” Park in 1988. And as David Wallechinsky and Jaime Loucky explain in their fun-fact-filled book, The Book of Olympic Lists, Park seemed to fight unimpressively throughout the Olympic tournament, gaining their title as the most “underwhelming winner” in any Olympic Games. “Probably no gold-medal-winner in Olympic history has been less deserving of his prize than Park Si-hun, who benefited from five ‘hometown’ decisions.”

In Park’s first bout, he beat Abdualla Ramadan of Sudan, who retired after two illegal blows to his hip and kidney. Park then defeated East German, Torsten Schmitz, in a unanimous decision, even though observers thought Schmitz had won. Then Park

Roy_1965 maybe
Roy, around 1 years old

On May 1, 2015, I kicked off my blog, The Olympians, with the intent of providing at least one blog post every day. Here we are, 365 days, over 10,000 visitors, nearly 20,000 views later, and I have kept my promise. Many thanks to all those who have helped me along the way!

Below are 20 of my favorite posts in 2016:

  1. The 1962 Asian Games: How Cold War Politics Sparked Heated Debate, Leading to the Indonesian Boycott of the 1964 Games
  2. “Do it Again. Again. Again.”: The Uncompromising Mindset of an Olympic Champion
  3. The Dutch Boycott of the 1956 Olympic Games Part 2: Rehabilitation
  4. The Hijab and The Turban: Why American Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad is Important  
  5. Dr Jega: The Fastest Man in Asia Learns that Life Works in Mysterious Ways
  6. Duke Kahanamoku Part 1: Surfing’s Johnny Appleseed Inspires Australia’s Pioneering Surfers and an Entire Sports Culture
  7. Japanese Face Off in Australia on the 15th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor
  8. Ken Sitzberger and Jeanne Collier: Diving’s Power Couple in 1964
  9. The Pain and Joy of Pain: Dick Roth and the Gold that Almost Wasn’t
  10. The Perfectionist’s Dilemma: The All-or-Nothing Life of Hurdler Ikuko Yoda
  11. Rare Canadian Gold in Tokyo: George Hungerford and Roger Jackson Win the Coxless Pairs
  12. The Record-Setting Row2Rio Team: Following in the Footsteps (Sea legs?) of Christopher Columbus
  13. Remembering the 3.11 Earthquake and Tsunami, My Ancestors, and the Tokyo Olympic Cauldron
  14. Sazae-san Part 3: Suicides and The Pressure Cooker of Japanese Education
  15. Simple is Best: Finally, The New Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Logos
  16. Singaporean Cyclist Hamid Supaat and the Big Chill: Competing on the World Stage
  17. The “Six-Million-Dollar-Man” and “Real Steel” Scenarios: Science and Technology Blurring the Lines and Creating New Ones  
  18. Tommy Kono: Out of an Internment Camp Rises Arguably the Greatest Weightlifter of All Time    
  19. Unbroken: The Truly Epic Story of Louis Zamperini Finally Shown in Japan
  20. Worrying Willy and Paradise Pete: How the US Army Prepped Recruits for Japan in the 1950s

Click here for my favorite posts from 2015! Again, many thanks for all your support!

electrically stimulated muscles_Cybathlon
Wheelchair racers whose legs are paralyzed, but whose leg muscles are electro-stimulated to move

 

We cringe when we hear about yet another doping case in sports. Dopers are cheaters! We hope that international bodies like World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) can stay close with the shadow chemists who continue to devise new ways to mask the fingerprints of performance enhancing agents.

We thrill to see a double amputee sprint on carbon-fiber blades, but we worry if they will one day far outpace sprinters who race on legs they were born with. Unfair advantage!

The truth is science and technology, if it had a will of its own, is ever eager to advance, solve problems, and push the inside of the envelope. The infamous Oscar Pistorius was allowed to compete at the 2012 Olympics on his blades, running in the 400 meter and 4X400 meter competitions. Technology in this case did not afford the runner an advantage to take him to the elite levels of sprinting.

But we all know, it’s a matter of time. The “Six-Million Dollar Man” Scenario, where a given person with various prostheses and enhancements will be “better than he was. Better….stronger….faster.” The Six Million Dollar Man debuted on American television in 1973. If the main character, Steve Austin, wanted to participate in the 1976 Olympic Games, he would have won gold in almost every athletic event. Why he wasted time as a secret agent for the OSI is beyond me.

The Six Million Dollar Man

So what does the future hold? Clearly, engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs will continue to look for ways for people with disabilities to return to so-called “normalcy”. They will also look for ways to give “normal” people super-human abilities. In the case of organized sports, the nature of competition will continue to change. In fact, it already has.

When technology creates a totally different standard of performance, new competitions arise, as was explained in this Wired Magazine article from 2012.

When such devices are perfected to the point that they can be used for athletic purposes, we’ll be looking at an entirely new concept of sport. It’s doubtful the Olympics will ever feature exoskelletally assisted runners or weightlifters, but what’s to say that a different type of venue won’t arise for such a thing? “I think that once the technology is proven to exceed normal human function, then the stage will be set for the introduction of a whole new type of enhanced sporting entertainment,” said Matthew Garibaldi, director of the Orthotic and Prosthetic Centers for the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at UC San Francisco.

In fact, two competitions that put technology front and center have emerged. As explained in this Inverse.com article, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich organizes a competition called the Cybathlon, the next one scheduled on October 6. It’s similar to the Paralympics, in which disabled people use technology, like a prosthesis, and the athlete

Mayweather on his Victory Tour
Floyd Mayweather, Jr on tour with his million dollar watch

On May 2, 2015, Floyd Mayweather Jr and Manny Pacquiao fought in a much-anticipated welterweight boxing championship. Mayweather won “The Fight of the Century” in a unanimous decision, which was also the highest grossing pay-per-view fight in history.

Despite the popular view that the match was mediocre in quality, and a letdown from the hype, Mayweather reinforced his reputation as the best “pound-for-pound” boxer in the sport, perhaps in the history of boxing. After all, Mayweather is now 47-0 in his professional boxing career. The last time he did not win a match was at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, when he lost on points to Bulgarian, Serafim Todorov, in a controversial decision that was heavily protested by the US team. He won the bronze in the featherweight class, but ever since, Mayweather has been golden.

Floyd Mayweather and tiger
Floyd Mayweather, Jr with his pet tiger

After the Pacquiao victory, someone must have put it in his head that more glory and riches were waiting for him on the road, not as a boxer, but as a person’s whose presence people felt compelled to be in. Thus was born the “2016 European Victory Tour”. At these events scheduled throughout England in February, Mayweather charged £70 (USD100) for a picture with the champ, and £600 (USD830) for dinner and a chance to listen to a Q&A session with Mayweather. At this talk, you would have heard how he arrived in his own £40 million jet (USD55 million), or seen the USD1 million watch he bought in Dubai.

You can splurge like that, I suppose, if you’ve earned over three quarters of a billions dollars in an undefeated professional boxing career.

The question is, did he really need to go on tour and charge people a hundred bucks for a selfie?

Here are a couple of interesting articles on the Mayweather tour:

Robinson Leonard Ali
Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali in Las Vegas in 1977. Both Leonard (1976) and Ali (1960), won gold medals in their respective Olympics before going on to glory at the professional ranks.
In 1988, when tennis debuted at the Seoul Olympic Games, allowing professionals to enter the competition, the gold medalist in individual play was Miloslav Mecir of Czechoslovakia. While he defeated Stefan Edberg, whom Mecir had lost to at Wimbledon that year, the Olympic tournament was missing quite a few stars of the time: Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Boris Becker for example. As I understand it, the Olympics provided no ranking points or remuneration so many of the pro stars were not motivated to be an Olympian.

In 1992, when FIBA allowed professionals to participate in the Olympics, many of the teams were transformed with players from the NBA and other international professional leagues excited to be Olympians. With Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird headlining a team of unprecedented talent, Team USA swept through the competition with ease to win gold.

In May, 2016, the International Boxing Organization (IBO) will vote whether to allow professionals to compete in the Olympic Games going forward. Presumably, the reason is the same for every other international sports governing body – the very best in their sport should compete at the Olympics.

So if the IBO gives pro boxers the thumbs up for the Olympics, will the reaction by the pros be like tennis in 1988, or like basketball in 1992?

The Philippines have never won a gold medal in the Olympics. So why not Manny Pacquiao? Even though he was prepared to hang up his gloves after his next fight with Timothy Bradley in April, he has publicly said that he would step up if asked. “It would be my honor to represent the country in the Olympics,” Pacquiao told Agence France-Presse. “If I would be asked to represent boxing, why not? I would do everything for my country.”

manny pacquiao
Manny Pacquiao thinking about Rio.
Will others pros step up into the ring in Rio?

This isn’t clear yet – some will be bothered by the lack of financial incentives, and others may be enticed by the national glory. But one thing is clear – boxing is a brutal sport. And as pointed out in this discussion board devoted to boxing, people don’t just lose in boxing matches…they can get beat up. And if you’re a pro, you’re sacrificing potentially lucrative but limited paydays to possible injury. If you’re an amateur, you may end up getting battered way more than what a fellow amateur could do to you.