Mary Rand and Whillye White in the UK 2
Mary Rand and Whillye White in the UK

It was February 19, 1965, a few months after the Tokyo Olympic Games. A collection of international track stars, many fresh from medaling in Tokyo, gathered at Madison Square Garden in New York City for the AAU National Indoor Track Championships.

Billy Mills, the first and only American to win the gold in the 10,000 meters in the Olympics, won the three-mile race. In a rematch of the Tokyo Olympics men’s long jump, USSR’s Igor Ter-Ovesyan outdistanced America’s Ralph Boston. Tamara Press repeated as champion in the shot put. Iolanda Balas of Romania continued her dominance in the high jump. And Mary Rand was also in town.

But the women’s long jump champion of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics faded quickly in Madison Square Garden, crashing out in the preliminary rounds by fouling two of her three jumps. The runway for the long jump did have a quirky quality: there were two take-off boards on the runway, the white indicators that tell the athlete exactly how far they can step before they launch themselves into the air. But she didn’t feel that was the reason for her poor performance, as she wrote in her autobiography, “Mary Mary“.

We were having problems because on the long jump approach there were two take-off boards very close to each other. You had to pass over the first one just before taking off, which was a bit distracting. I wasn’t jumping particularly well. In fact I was fed-up with my jumping more than irritated by the other board.

Mary Rand second stripe
Mary Rand jumping from the second take-off board. Click on the image to watch the actual video.

So Rand was in her hotel room when she heard a knocking on her door. It was American long jumper, Whillye White, silver medalist in the long jump at the 1956 Melbourne Games, and silver medalist in the 4X100 relay at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. White came to explain to Rand that she had protested the outcome of the preliminary round because the first take-off stripe should not have been on the track in the first place. White said to Rand that she had told officials that the first stripe upset her, and it must have upset the other competitors as well, and that she said Rand could join the other six in the finals.

I might have said something about it being “stupid” – but I would never have dreamed of protesting. I said I wouldn’t come back unless it was absolutely all right with all the other jumpers, because it did mean that I might go ahead and win. But Willye had already put it to all the other athletes, I was told, and they had all agreed.

So Rand returned, and she landed a jump of 20 feet 4 inches, over a foot shorter than her Olympic record in Tokyo, but good enough for first place in New York. Thanks to Whillye White!

Mary Rand at home

When you emerge victorious far from home, people may say that the hometown folks are all so excited about your accomplishments. But you don’t understand that until you finally make it home. Just in the recent Rio Olympics, the greetings that Joseph Schooling got in Singapore and the Fijian Rugby 7’s team got on their return home were beyond what any average citizen can comprehend.

Even back in 1964, decades before the internet brought us instantaneous news, in many cases, Olympic medalist often returned home as conquering heroes. The same was true for Brit Mary Rand, who won three medals at the Tokyo Olympics: a gold in the long jump, a silver in the pentathlon and a bronze in the 4×100 relay. But in the 1960s, athletes had to deal with the extra burden of deciding whether to go professional or not, regaled with offers that often seemed irresistible.

Along with her fellow members of TeamGB, Rand landed after a long flight from Japan, had a champagne breakfast at 6 am, and were told they had to ready for lunch at Buckingham Palace, to meet the Queen of England.

As Rand related in her autobiography, “Mary Mary“, the Queen said she explained to her son, Prince Andrew, how far Rand had jumped by measuring out the Olympic record of 6.52 meters on the floor in the palace. The conversation about the Queen’s son reminded Rand that she still had not seen her own daughter, Alison. They had not seen in each other in weeks, and so Rand’s description of the mother-child reunion is charming:

She came into the room with Diane. She looked at me and I could see she wanted to come to me, but she was looking at me as if to say, “If you think I’m going to make a fuss of you when you’ve been away this long, you’re wrong.” But she came over, and then she in my arms, I was terribly cut-up and I had to hold back the tears so as not to upset her.

There were the ticker tape parades, first in Henley, and then in her hometown of Wells. Then came the invitations to dinners and luncheons, opening and to shows….and as she explained of her quandary: “you were really expected to do all these things – it was very hard to say no – and a woman can’t just turn up in the same old dress each time.”

Mary Rand_Mary Mary 3
From the autobiography, Mary Mary

Mary Rand was not only a hero, she was marketable. Seen as part sexy siren and girl next door, accentuated by being Great Britain’s first female gold medalist, commercial opportunities came flying her way. But going commercial would come at a cost.

I could make money if I wanted to, straightaway. In Tokyo I’d get a telegram offering me a contract to feature in advertisements. Every day a lot more offers were coming in. Possibly there was much as GBP20,000 to be made. Of course it would mean giving up my amateur status and never competing again. But when you love a sport it’s hard to resign yourself to just suddenly giving up forever. You’re scared of committing yourself and then eventually thinking, one fine morning, how great it would be to get out on with our new house, there lots of financial commitments to be met, and the money was very tempting.

Fortunately, she found an agent who helped think it through. Were there opportunities out there that would not jeopardize her amateur status and maintain her potential to continue competing? One job they settled on quickly – a column for the Sunday Mirror, which paid her to write about housekeeping. She was safe as long as she didn’t write about athletics! (Yes, those days are long gone.)

When Rand was in Cannes for the debut of Kon Ichikawa’s film on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics at the film festival, she was approached with a very intriguing idea by film producers:

The idea was for a series of ‘women James Bond’ films. They said they thought I’d be great as a female 007, with my build and athletic ability. It was a fantastic idea, they said, it could be a huge success, on the other hand it could be a complete flop. They talked about locations like the South Sea Islands, the South Pole, Japan. It was terribly exciting but I was wary too. I wasn’t sure how provocative I was going to have to be in the roles – and how long it would mean being away from home. I told them I’d have to talk it over with my husband.

Rand was actually offered a contract for the female Bond films. When she examined the details, she realized that she would be away from home for such long stretches that it would take her away from what she wanted to be: a mother, and an athlete.

So it was no for “Rand. Mary Rand.”

1992 US women's gymnastics team Barcelona
BARCELONA – 1992: (L-R) Kim Zmeskal, Kerri Strug, Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes, Wendy Bruce and Betty Okino of the United States stand on the podium

They are little girls. But they are as tough as nails. They have to be in order to be a top flight gymnast. And there are real costs.

The revelations last year of sexual abuse in the world of USA Gymnastics, led by reporting by The Indianapolis Star, were shocking – well over 300 cases of sexual abuse of minors over the past 20 years!

But when you listen to people in the know, former gymnasts who grew up in the seemingly cruel world of competitive gymnastics, these stories of abuse are no surprise.

Wendy Bruce Martin won a bronze medal as a part of the US women’s gymnastics team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. She currently runs a consultancy that helps athletes with the mental and emotional aspects of competition, and has thought deeply about what she calls the “cult culture of gymnastics.” Martin believes it is a culture that feeds an addiction, as she writes in a blog post:

Gymnastics is like being in an unfair relationship, it takes way more than it gives back to the gymnast, and whatever it needs from us gymnasts, we give it. When it does give back, it gives us feelings that reach straight into our souls. The little tastes of success are enough to keep us working, and get us addicted.

I was willing to give anything to gymnastics and I was willing to give everything. My addiction had me focused mostly on my immediate gratification. As long as I could perform my skills, I was willing to ignore the advice from my Doctor. When my Doctors told me to take time off of gymnastics to heal, I didn’t. I pushed myself and worked in pain, and when I couldn’t handle the pain, I begged the Doctor to help. I begged for something to help ease my pain and so against my Doctors advice, I made them give me Cortisone shots in my ankles and wrists.

Jennifer Sey is a US national champion gymnast, and author of the book, Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams. She too knows first hand of this culture. This is how she described her experience for The New York Times:

When I was training, I blackened my eyes when I fell on my head on the beam after fasting for three days before a competition. “I don’t coach fat gymnasts” was a common refrain from coaches antagonizing me about my weight. I competed on an injured ankle swollen to the size of a baseball. At one point, I required monthly cortisone injections to limp through my floor routine.

After I broke my femur at the 1985 world championships, I had the cast removed early under pressure from my coaches so that I could train for the next national championships. I competed and won, but not without breaking the opposite ankle in the process.

The message I got was that if you couldn’t take it, you were weak. If you complained, you didn’t deserve to be on the team. In fact, if you perceived it as abuse, rather than just plain old tough coaching, you were delusional.

Jennifer Sey
Jennifer Sey

The problem that these two former gymnasts reveal is that it is not just the children and the coaches that perpetuate this culture of success and abuse, the parents of these children do as well. Martin explains that she had bulimia, an eating disorder. And an adult close to her was aware of this issue, and could have decided to reveal this secret, the consequences of which could have led to treatment and possibly a loss on the Olympics squad. But, she wrote, the adult was also complicit in the culture.

This adult told me that they knew about my eating disorder and they said, “Just don’t do it too much.” I was so relieved that they didn’t want to send me to treatment or therapy. I knew that I would miss out on my chance on being an Olympian. This was exactly the response I wanted. I shook my head and promised not to do it too much, and walked away in relief.

To me, Bulimia was something I was willing to sacrifice for the chance of my dreams. I was never upset at this adult for not doing more or forcing me to go into therapy. I was fine with their passive and non-confrontational advice on my disorder. I knew that they didn’t want to ruin my dream, and they didn’t want to be the one who spoke up and destroyed the 14 years of training I devoted my childhood to. They understood the Cult Culture of Gymnastics and so did I.

Sey has similar sentiments, understanding that the child gets so locked in the culture that “you learn to focus only on achievement and to disregard your own sense of right and wrong, along with your own well-being.” But she goes on to say that parents and adults do not have that excuse, particularly when it comes to sexual abuse.

Because of this, I can understand how young gymnasts might be confused about whether and how to speak up for themselves when they’ve been mistreated. But there’s no excuse for adults to turn a blind eye to sexual misconduct.

The strength and discipline of our gymnasts shouldn’t cause us to forget that most of them are children for a majority of their careers. The coaches, officials and other adults charged with harnessing their talents must also stand up for their well-being.

I wish I’d had someone to stand up for me.

Martin exclaimed the same.

The bottom line is that NOTHING is more important than the health of a child. No skills, routine, meet, medal, or trophy is more important than the child. Gymnastics will end one day, then what will the gymnast, coach, and parents be left with?

I’m aware that drafting is a great part of car racing strategy. I didn’t realize that even cyclists employ drafting as a part of their strategy as well.

drafting technique

The Eurosport video above takes a fascinating look at team strategy, breaking down a race showing how team support in the last kilometers of a race could make a huge difference.

drafting technique 2

Clearly, conserving the energy of your star sprinter as you head towards the finish is the key. Drafting, the act of cycling in the air wake of the cyclist in front of him, results in the cyclist being pulled by the wind eddies. So while your teammates are using up all their energy to drive a very fast pace, the sprinter at the back can conserve energy in the wind draft. As this video shows, drafting behind your competition is also a key tactic.

drafting technique 3

In other words, you almost always want to come from behind in cycling, as long as you can keep your teammates and your rivals close.

Matthew Mitcham
Matthew Mitcham

All of the rows on either side of me faded to nothing. And all sounds completely dissipated. All that I could hear was the sound of the spray trickling onto the water. Time slowed down and it was just me and the dive.

Matthew Mitcham, with his back to the water atop the 10-meter platform, exhaled, and lept into the void. The Australian then executed a two and a half somersault with two and a half twists in the pike position, and nailed it. Liang Huo of China, who was in first up to the last dive, climbed the platform to execute the same dive, and was unable to deliver the precision of Mitcham. Huo fell to fourth, and Mitcham, to his wonder and surprise, took the gold medal. In fact, at these 2008 Beijing Olympics, Mitcham was the only non-Chinese to win gold in the 8 men’s and women’s diving competitions.

Mitcham won because he was able to execute a dive of the highest difficulty at the time. FINA judges rated Mitcham’s and Huo’s attempt at 3.8 degree of difficulty (D.D.). But as is true in sports that employ D.D. in their judging, like figure skating or aerial skiing, the bar will continue to rise. At the Beijing Olympics, you had to have a D.D. of well over 3. Today, it needs to be over 4.0. In fact, FINA has identified 13 dives that have a difficulty of over 4, compared to over 10 years ago when it was only 2.

So where are divers and coaches getting insight into new ways to twist and tumble to greater dives? That’s right – mathematicians.

This article from MIT’s Technology Review cites the research of William Tong and Holger Dullin of the University of Sydney in Australia in explaining how to design even more complex dives, ones that would not necessarily come intuitively to the most advanced divers. How did they do it? Here’s how Tong explains it on his University of Sydney site:

My doctoral thesis focused on optimal shape change control and achieved three primary goals: using the geometric phase to improve planar somersault performance, developing the mathematical framework to describe the twisting somersault, and innovating new dive sequences yet to be performed by real world athletes.

No, I can’t quite fathom that either. So the Technology Review article dumbs it down for us by explaining that Tong and Dullin have created a mathematical model for how a human body twists and turns in the air, with the expectation that they can propose new sequence of movements to increase the speed of these movements. Increasing speed is essential for the simple reason that the law of physics limits the time one can stay in the air after leaping off a ten-meter platform or a three-meter springboard – 1.43 seconds in a freefall to be precise. The diver can currently increase that to 1.6 seconds with his body movement.

Tong and Dunn have designed a dive that includes five twists and 1 1/2 somersaults that would take 1.8 seconds, based on their mathematical model, “assuming the diver generates only moderate levels of angular momentum during takeoff.”

This is longer than divers have in the air. But the pair say that there are various ways to make gains. An obvious way is to increase the amount of angular momentum during takeoff. Also, the diver spends a significant amount of time—0.4 seconds—with arms and legs stretched out to achieve the full 1½ somersaults. This could be reduced by taking a tucked or piked position (although their model is as yet unable to incorporate these positions).

This dive, labeled the 513XD dive, has never been executed. But the researchers say it is a matter of time. “By simulating the 513XD dive we hope to provide coaches and athletes with insight and motivation so that the dive may one day be executed in competition.”

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
Panagiotis Soutsos
Panagiotis Soutsos

He imagined the ghost of Plato, wandering the deplorable state of his home country of Greece, wondering where the proud, heroic Greece that he knew had gone?

Where are all your theaters and marble statues?

Where are your Olympic Games?

Panagiotis Soutsos was a journalist and editor for a newspaper in Greece, and in the afterglow of Greece’s independence from the Ottoman Empire, wrote the poem Dialogue of the Dead, in which the ghost of Plato emerges. Soutsos was a patriot, who saw the revival of the Olympic Games as a way to restore national pride. A Greek industrialist named Evangelos Zappas, who fought in the Greek war for independence, became wealthy enough to indulge Soutsos’ dream.

As David Goldblatt said in his book The Games; A Global History of the Olympics, Zappas wrote a letter to King Otto proposing to renovate the Panathenaic Stadium, a structure that had fallen into ruin, with his own funds, and re-launch the Olympic Games there.

Evangelos Zappas
Evangelos Zappas

Zappas would end up working with foreign minister Alexander Rangavis, who was less interested in a sports event, and more in a one-month exposition, one that focused on Greek agriculture, industry and education. Rangavis did not respond to Zappas’ idea, so Soutsos stepped up with an article publicizing Zappas’ Olympic dream, which got the ball rolling again. In the end, King Otto agreed to the organization of athletic competitions every four years to run parallel to expo. Though the Panathenaic Stadium was not ready, the first modern Olympics in Athens, Greece, commenced on November 15, 1859. Here’s how Goldblatt described it:

Held in a cobbled city square in Athens over three Sundays, there was running, horse and chariot races, discus and javelin competitions modelled on the ancient sources, as well as the climbing of a greasy pole. The games were opened by the king and queen, medals bearing the words “First Olympic Crown” were issued and prizes were plentiful. The crowds appear to have been large, and athletes came from across the Greek-speaking world to attend, but the organization was poor. Few spectators could actually see much of the events and, when the crowd pushed towards the front, the local press reported that one policeman who was supposed to keep order showed so much incompetence that his horse ran every which way and hit men and women.

Only 6 years later, Zappas passed away.