Pita Taufatofua on skis

You may not remember the name, but you surely remember the body.

When Pita Taufatofua walked into the stadium at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2016 Rio Olympics, carrying the Tongan flag at the head of his delegation. And in the doing, he, as they say, blew up the internet.

The taekwando competitor was dressed in native Tongan costume, from the waist down. From the waist up, Taufatofua was shirtless, his muscular upper body slick and shiny with oil. Men stared and women swooned the world over. Jenna Bush, the daughter of President George W. Bush, was one of three NBC anchorwomen filmed rubbing oil over the arms and chest of the Australian born native of Brisbane.

As a fighter, Taufatofua lost his first match in the heavyweight competition at Rio, and that was it.

But once bit by the Olympic bug, it’s hard for some people to walk away. So Taufatofua did the unthinkable, and found a way into the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. And while there will be a taekwondo demonstration team from North Korea, this Tongan will be competing in cross-country skiing. That’s amazing since he didn’t start skiing until 2017.

As you can guess, Taufatofua has not been around snow all that much, but he caught a break when the International Ski Federation changed their eligibility rules allowing skiiers to employ points gained in roller skiing competitions (more commonly organized in warm-weather countries).

As explained in this article, Taufatofua had to work hard to learn a new discipline and spend a lot of money to boot. He formed a ragtag team of experts who coached him in his new discipline, moved to Austria to get his training on snow, and worked to make the minimum time to make the Olympics on the Tongan national team.

“I’m the brokest I’ve been in my life,” he said. But he’s back in the Games.

Can’t Miss Prediction: He won’t go shirtless in the PyeongChang Olympics Opening Ceremony.

Pita Taufatofua on skis 2

1000 days in a row

Every day.

He ran every day for at least a mile from December 20, 1964 to January 30, 2017.

That’s 52 years and 39 days straight!

Ron Hill, of Accrington, Lancashire, is a three-time Olympian, who finished 19th in the marathon at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and is without a doubt, my patron saint of consistency.

So, I state with some humility that today, Wednesday, January 24, 2018, with this post, I have published an original article on The Olympians for the 1,000th day in a row.

When I started this blog on May 1, 2015, as a kind-of first draft of my book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, I had no intent of publishing a post a day. But alas, one day led to the next, and so on and so on….

I will continue the streak for a while, but I will no longer fret about skipping a day, or two or three. What little time I have for writing on the weekend will eventually shift to time writing the book on ’64, the raison d’etre of this blog.

Now it’s time to do the real writing. Gotta start moving faster. 2020 is around the corner.

IX Winter Olympics in Austria, 1964

There were whispers.

The four-time Olympian and 7-time medalist in cross-country skiing, including three gold medals, Eero Mantyranta of Lankojarvi, Finland was a legend in his country and his sport. But he could not outrace the rumors of blood doping when he competed.

As a child, everyone in Lankojarvi skated and skied, but Mantyranta excelled, winning his first cross-country ski race at the age of 7, and then dominating all takers into his early teens. Eventually he was able to find employment as a border patrol guard, who got around his territory on skis. As a twenty-year old, he made the Olympic squad that traveled to Squaw Valley, California for the 1960 Winter Games, snagging a gold medal in the 4x10km cross-country ski event.

Four years later at Innsbruck, Austria, Mantyranta was one of the Games’ stars, taking two more golds in the 15 and 30-km races, as well as a silver medal in the 4x10km relay. And in his third Olympics, Mantyranta tool home a silver and two bronze medals.

All that success only encouraged the rumors. After all, it was known since he was a teenager that Mantyranta had “high hemoglobin and far more than the usual amount of red blood cells,” according to David Epstein, author of the fascinating book, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. “Normally, those are signs that an endurance athlete is blood doping, often with a synthetic version of the hormone erythropoietin, or EPO. EPO signals the body to produce red blood cells, so injecting it spurs an athlete’s own body to bolster its blood supply.”

But also according to Epstein, the rumors were untrue.

First there were indications that other members of the Mantyranta family also rested for high levels of hemoglobin, but because there were little ill effects from higher-than-average hemoglobin levels, doctors were never concerned. But this coincidence made hematologists from Finland wonder. After putting the Finnish Olympian through additional blood testing, it was learned that in fact Eero Mantyranta had very low levels of EPO, and that when most people stopped producing hemoglobin based on what the body considered enough, Mantyranta’s body was genetically designed to continuouisly pump out hemoglobin.

And more hemoglobin meant not only very ruddy cheeks. It also meant high levels of oxygen circulated inside Mantyranta, a significant advantage that allowed him to ski faster and longer than almost every other cross-country skier. Most certainly, Mantyranta’s singular drive to train and increase his performance as a cross-country competitor was essential to his Olympic success. But most certainly, so was this genetic advantage.

Here’s how Epstein remembered Mantyranta in this obituary, when the great cross country skier passed away in 2013.

Being born with talent is one thing; alchemizing it into Olympic gold entirely another. And though I drew attention to Eero’s startling biology, that’s worth remembering as well. I’ll remember Eero the way he was when I met him. A jovial and remarkable-looking man, with dark, slicked-back hair and prominent cheekbones that seemed to pull at the corners of his mouth, giving him a slightly inquisitive look. There was a thickness about him, a barrel chest and bulbous nose. I remember when he shook my hand, I felt as if he could’ve crushed my fingers, and I noticed that his middle finger was bent at a right angle from the top joint. He spent the brief period of Arctic winter sunlight that day working in his reindeer yard. I thought he must have been the strongest seventy-three year old I had ever met. That’s how I’ll remember him.

Eero Mantyranta at home

Shaun White ion Snowmass
Shaun White reacts to his perfect score

It’s disturbing to watch.

“I was going up and I remember seeing the wall come around…and I just kind of blanked.”

Of course he blanked. Shaun White‘s head, which was moving with considerable speed due to a complex high-speed aerial spin during a practice half-pipe showboarding session in October, smacked right into the lip of the wall. When White came tumbling down the wall, blood gushing from his face.

“I have never really had that much blood coming out of me before,” said White.

The two-time gold-medalist in the snowboard halfpipe from San Diego, California was in New Zealand to train in preparation of entering a fourth straight winter Olympics in PyeongChang when this accident happened, requiring 62 stitches to his face. But it took only a couple of months before White was back on the snow competing for Olympic qualification.

The last qualification took place on Saturday, January 13, in Snowmass, Colorado, and the 31-year-old White pulled off a perfect score of 100 to again qualify for his fourth Olympics in a row.

The footage of the accident was from an 8-part documentary called SnowPack: Shaun White and the U.S. Snowboard Team, which focuses on White’s journey to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games.

Sports Grand Prix Top AthletesAmerican Justin Gatlin is the fastest man in the world today, but can he beat the speed of a ball in freefall that accelerates at 9.81 meters per second squared in the Shotgun Touch competition?

Russian Denis Ablyazin won the silver medal in the men’s vault at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, but can he win the “Monster Box” competition, hurdling a vault over 3 meters high?

New Zealander Tomas Walsh won the bronze medal in the men’s shot put at the Rio Games, but can he defeat All Blacks rugby player and fellow New Zealander, Nepo Laulala, in the excruciating “Power Wall” contest?

If you’re a big fan of Ninja Warrior, you know the incredible obstacle course is based on a Japanese television program called Sasuke, produced by Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS). The same network, TBS, also produces a program called Sports Grand Prix Top Athletes which puts athletes to the test in creative competition.

And being an Olympian does not put you to the front of the class. Ablyazin made it look easy vaulting a horse built up some 2.5 meters high. But near the 3-meter mark, he faltered and lost to a Japanese trampoline competitor. Walsh also made it look easy pushing a movable wall against other competitors who sought to push the wall back, an event that is akin to a reverse tug of war.

But one would have thought that racing a falling ball to a spot requires pure speed, and that the fastest man in the world should win hands down. The “Shotgun Touch” competition requires a runner to touch a button which releases a ball from the ceiling (an unknown number of meters above the ground). The object is for the runner to get any part of their body, usually hands and fingers, on the ball before it touches the ground.

For competitors like track stars Kenji Fujimitsu and Gatlin, as well as Kansas City Royal Whit Merrifield, or J-League soccer star, Kensuke Nagai, getting to the ball 12 meters away was not so difficult, but another 50 to 100 centimeters, and the ball can seem to be accelerating faster than the law of physics. In some of the early attempts around 12 meters, Gatlin made it look easy with the ball hitting him in the back or his arms.

And yet, he actually missed at 12.60 meters and twice at 13 meters, disqualifying him from the rest of the competition. As he learned, diving technique is as important as speed. There’s no way Merrifield would beat Gatlin in a 100-meter sprint, and yet he was able to succeed at 13 meters. In the end, it was J-League soccer star Nagai who triumphed the shotgun touch competition.

Kinda silly, kinda fun…that’s how I spent my New Year’s evening.

Jean Claude Killy_Sports Illustrated cover

As soon as Jean-Claude Killy ended his run in the Alpine downhill competition at the 1968 Grenoble Winter Olympics, the first person to greet him was his mentor and friend, Michel Arpin. Arpin, who worked for ski manufacturer, Dynamic, adroitly hugged his friend, showing photographers his back pouch with the Dynamics logo.

A policeman, as instructed to do for all skiers, took Killy’s skis away in order to avoid the “unseemly” display of ski brands adorning an amateur Olympic champion. Arpin then, according to The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics, took one of his skis off and planted it in the snow so that photographers could capture Killy with the ski and the two yellow bars of the Dynamic brand.

Killy retired from competitive skiing not long after Grenoble, because he knew that it would be hard to sustain his World Cup skiing dominance and triple-gold medal Olympic achievement. He also knew that he had other worlds to conquer. He signed with sports management firm, International Management Group, and started his career representing such brands as American Express, Schwinn bicycles, United Airlines, Chevrolet, as well as Head, the ski equipment manufacturer which put Killy’s vaunted name on their newest fiberglass skis.

Jean-Claude Killy, from the tiny village of Val-d’Isere in the French Alps, was a super star, and was now getting paid enough to live the life of the jet set and do what he pleased. He married an actress, Danielle Gaubert. He competed as a race car driver. He acted in movies, and produced television programs. Eventually he moved into sports administration, joining the executive board of the Alpine Skiing Committee of the International Federating of Skiing (FIS), serving as co-president of the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics, president of the Tour de France organization, as well as a member of the International Olympic Committee.

Jean Claude Killy in the 1972 film Snow Job

Famed gonzo journalist, Hunter S. Thompson, spent some time with Killy in the midst of his transformation from world-class skier to world-class pitchman, catching Killy in a burst of unsolicited honesty. “Before, I could only dream about these things,” said Killy. “When I was young I had nothing, I was poor. . . Now I can have anything I want!”

Killy indeed started from humble beginnings. But he felt he had earned his way to the top, focusing on all aspects of how to be the greatest skier of his time, and making the same effort to be the best in his part of the world of business. Thompson recognized that drive in Killy in his profile called “The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy.” Thompson was following Killy during a marketing tour for Chevrolet, noting that Killy’s ability to draw you in was Gatsby-like, and was an ability that made him rich. But Thompson also admitted that Killy worked at his new profession, as much as he did in his previous one.

The Temptations of Jean Claude Killy

Jean-Claude, like Jay Gatsby, has “one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”

That description of Gatsby by Nick Carraway — of Scott, by Fitzgerald — might just as well be of J.-C. Killy, who also fits the rest of it: “Precisely at that point [Gatsby’s smile] vanished — and I was looking at an elegant young roughneck, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. . .”

The point is not to knock Killy’s English, which is far better than my French, but to emphasize his careful, finely coached choice of words. “He’s an amazing boy,” I was told later by Len Roller. “He works at this [selling Chevrolets] just as hard as he used to work at winning races. He attacks it with the same concentration you remember from watching him ski.”

The Gregory Brothers

The Gregory Brothers are an amazing group of musicians who have used pitch-correction software to turn verbatim into joyous song. The video below is of a song they call “Speechless,” stitched together with the words of joy of 2016 Rio Olympians. See Olympic stars Monica Puig, Mo Farah, Andre deGrasse, Kevin Durant and Simone Manuel in their singing debut.