Szewińska and her Tokyo medals
Szewińska and her Tokyo medals

In 1964, one of the more powerful track and field teams at the Tokyo Olympics was the team from Poland. Jozef Szmidt won his second straight gold in the triple jump. Andrzej Badenski took bronze in a tough men’s 400-meter competition, and the Polish men from the 100-meters relay team took silver behind the Americans.

The 4×100 women’s relay team did even better, streaking to gold and an (apparent) world record in Tokyo. The women who ran the second leg was Irena Kirszenstein Szewinska. The then-20-year-old from Warsaw was starting a career that would carry her through five consecutive Olympiads. In that period, she captured an amazing total of seven Olympic track and field medals.

In addition to her gold medal in the 100-meter relays and a silver in the 200 meters, she was a silver medalist in the long jump as well. But she was indeed a sprinter at heart, and set 10 world records in the 100 meters, 200 meters and the 400 meter sprints.

At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, she won her first individual sprinting gold medal in the 200-meter sprint finals in come-from-behind style. Seemingly behind 4 or 5 other runners, when she hit the straightaway, she accelerated and pulled away with ease, as you can see in the video below.

After winning a bronze medal in the 200 meters at the Munich Olympics in 1972, Kirszenstein Szewinska reinvented herself. In 1973, she began competing in the longer 400 meters, and as her IAAF Hall of Fame profile page states, “she quickly proved very adept at the new distance. The following year she became the first woman to break 50 seconds over one lap of the track.”

“My favorite event was the 200 meters because deep down I felt like a sprinter,” she said in this short video on the Polish Olympian. “My heart always belonged to sprint. Nevertheless, I always treated the 400 meters as a long spring, and that’s why I was successful at that distance as well.”

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Szewińska pulling away in the 400 meter finals at Montreal

In Montreal, at the age of 30, she punished the competition, set a world record, and won her most satisfying gold medal.

“I had been running for 20 years. During that time, there were many important moments. But I suppose the most important moment of all of them was the last gold medal I won at the Montreal Games for the 400 meters.”

One of the greatest women track and field stars of the 20th century, Kirszenstein Szewinska has continued her career in sports as an administrator, including Vice-President (1995-1999) then Executive Board Member (1999-2003) of the World Olympians’ Association (WOA), member of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) Women’s Committee (1984-2007).

 

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From the book The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad Tokoy 1964 Volume 16

Jesse Owens was special for several reasons, but his four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics was an accomplishment that shone as bright as his spectacular statement of race and merit. Since that time, no one else had achieved the feat of four Olympic championships in a single Olympiad.

No one, that is, until Don Schollander swam to glory in the stunning National Gymnasium in Yoyogi in 1964. Schollander won gold in the 100-meter freestyle, 400- meter freestyle, and the 100-meter and 200-meter freestyle relays.

And a fifth gold medal was definitely within his reach. One could argue it was his for the taking…until it wasn’t.

At the time, there was an unwritten rule within the US swim team that the winner of the 100-meter freestyle gets to take the freestyle leg of the 100-meter medley relay race. The 100-meter medley is a competition made up of four styles of swimming – the butterfly, the backstroke, the breaststroke and freestyle – each one swum by a different person for two lengths of the 50-meter pool.

As explained in part 1 of this series, Schollander, unexpectedly to all except Schollander, won the 100-meter freestyle race. Thus he expected the unwritten rule to be enforced, and to be told to assume his rightful place as the anchor leg of the 100-meter medley relay team.

But when he met with the coaches, Schollander’s place on the medley team appeared tenuous. According to Schollander in his book, Deep Water, the coaches thought that Steve Clark was the fastest 100-meter freestyle swimmer on the team, and if not for bursitis, he would certainly have finished better than fourth in the Olympic Trials.

The coaches decided that they would use the 4×100 freestyle relays to determine who would swim the freestyle leg. Clark, followed by Mike Austin, Gary Ilman and Schollander won the finals handily, trouncing Germany by a full four seconds and set a world record. Clark’s time in the relay was 52.9 seconds, a tenth of a second faster than Schollander. Clark joined the 4×100 meter medley team, and would go onto set another world record to win the gold.

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Don_Schollander,_Gary_Ilman,_Mike_Austin,_Steve_Clark
Schollander would most certainly have met the same result if he were on the medley team. When someone said to him before the decision was made, “You’re going to win four gold medals, anyhow. What do you care whether you get one more? What’s the difference between four and five?” Schollander viewed this as a matter of “justice”. But perhaps he also viewed this as one of those rare opportunities for historic significance.

Certainly in the back of my mind I was aware that this could mean my fifth gold medal. And it wouldn’t be just one more gold medal – it would be an unprecedented fifth gold medal. No swimmer had ever won four gold medals at an Olympics, but nobody in history – in any sport – had ever won five. But this wasn’t my arguing point. I felt that I had earned the spot on the medley relay team.

Mark Spitz, a teammate of Schollander’s in Mexico City, would go on to win an incredible 7 gold medals in Munich in 1972. Michael Phelps would go onto greater heights, grabbing 8 golds at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But before there was Phelps and Spitz, there was Schollander – one of the brightest stars of Tokyo in 1964.

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“He runs like a man who has just been stabbed in the heart.”

It sounds too good be true – Hollywood script perfect.

The balding veteran, past his prime, and yet a threat in the back of the minds of the favorites, gets himself ready at the starting line of the marathon. This wasn’t Finland. It is Australia, where it is 30 degrees celsius, a good dozen degrees hotter, and where Emil Zátopek won the marathon to cap an unprecedented sweep of golds in the 5k, 10k and marathon at the 1952 Olympics.

Like a weary warrior, about to lead his troops, one more time into the breach, he is said to have uttered these famous words to his fellow competitors: “Men, today we die a little.”

According to Richard Askwith, author of a brilliant biography of Zátopek , it is unclear if Zátopek said these words at that moment, but based on his deep understanding of the man, he believes he could have said them. “It is hard to think of a neater encapsulation of his spirit: his cheerful camaraderie; his dry humour; and his slightly bonkers bravado in the face of the agonies of his sport. It was also, in context, a starkly accurate prognosis.”

When Zátopek finished the marathon in sixth place, his Olympic career was over. At the age of 34, Zátopek , who over three Olympiads since 1948, became perhaps the most famous athlete in the world, and a beloved hero in his home country of Czechoslovakia. And while one marathon finished, another one would begin.

The Cold War in Europe was reaching frigid temperatures. Just prior to the 1956 Melbourne Games, the Soviet Union had sent troops into Budapest, Hungary to quell an uprising. Twelve years later, Soviet troops would enter Prague, Czechoslovakia for similar reasons. As described in my previous post on Zatopek, the folk hero of Czechoslovakia, when the tanks entered the Czech capital, was at the center of the invasion, shouting in protest for all to see, moving from tank to tank in an attempt to talk sense (in Russian) into the Soviet soldiers. While Zatopek had no noticeable impact on the Soviet presence, his own role in these protests were noticed by the authorities.

With the reformist government in Czechoslovakia brought to heel, and a Soviet-friendly regime in place, Zátopek’s life was turned upside down. Due to his legendary status, he was not sent to a labor prison, nor did he end up deceased. Instead, he found himself out of a job, no longer a member of the Czechoslovakian Army or the Communist Party. He was, as Askwith explained in this synopsis of his book, Today We Die a Little!: The Inimitable Emil Zátopek, the Greatest Olympic Runner of All Time, a pariah. He could not find work easily. His name was scrubbed from the history books, his many sporting accomplishments – a source of immense pride to Czech leaders and citizens alike up to that time – only to be uttered in whispers.

While Zátopek was one of the most beloved personalities in sports the world over, in Czechoslovakia, friends and relatives were reluctant to go near him. The only work he could find tended to be isolated and hard, which likely caused Zatopek to drink heavily. His marriage suffered and he aged quickly. As Askwith poignantly shows in the synopsis article, he had lost his joie de vivre.

Once, near the village of Lytomysl, a local woman sent her son to present him with a small gift, a piece of smoked meat. The boy was shocked by the disheveled figure who opened the maringotka door. “I am not the Zátopek you used to know,” confessed Emil, bottle in hand.

But like a marathon, eventually over time, you get closer to the goal you long for. Zátopek endured a public shunning and an unofficial banishment to the hinterlands for some five years. But he was not forgotten outside Czechoslovakia. When the Summer Olympics were to be held in Munich in 1972, Zátopek was invited. When the foreman of his mining team refused to allow Zátopek leave for three weeks to be the guest of honor of the world’s greatest sporting fest, back-channel discussions went into hyperdrive, and finally Zátopek was allowed to leave the country and be celebrated in Germany.

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The funeral of Emil Zatopek

A year later, Zátopek was invited to attend the funeral of famed Finnish runner, Pavel Nurmi. His quick and uneventful visit to Finland, coupled with a sudden flow of requests to have Zátopek be a guest of honor at this meet or that, made Czech officials realize that lying about Zátopek’s availability was becoming an unnecessary burden. Zátopek was not going to flee and embarrass the country, and was in fact, reminding the world that Zátopek was a legendary athlete from Czechoslovakia.

Zátopek never returned to folk hero status in Czechoslovakia, even after the so-called Velvet Revolution of 1989,when then President Vaclav Havel awarded Zátopek the “Order of the White Lion”, officially rehabilitating his reputation. But when he passed away in 2000, the outpouring of respect and love for the ungainly and misproportioned runner from Kopřivnice was immense.

Zátopek’s life-long marathon had ended. But as Juan Antonio Samaramnch, then president of the International Olympic Committee said upon the posthumous awarding of the Pierre de Coubertin medal to Zátopek, “Emil was a living legend. And a legend never dies.”

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Juan Antonio Samaranch (second from right), President of the International Olympic Committee, attends the funeral of Czech runner Emil Zatopek December 6, 2000 at the National Theater in Prague, Czech Republic. December 06, 2000
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Hans-Gunnar Liljenvall in Mexico City

One thousand Russians are known to have benefited from doping and the cover-up of doping in the state-sponsored program to provide illicit advantage to Russian athletes, particularly during the 2012 London Olympics, the 2013 track and field world championships in Beijing, and the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The first major report on Russia from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in July, 2016 included a recommendation to the IOC to ban the entire Russian team from the 2016 Rio Olympics. As a result, over a hundred Russians were eventually forbidden from competing in Brazil.

WADA released a follow-up report on December 9, 2016 – a far more comprehensive review of the state-sponsored doping program in Russia, and it was damning. And there will likely be another round of medal shuffling – at least 15 Russian medalists at the Sochi Winter Games had urine samples that had been tampered with.

It’s a grim time for international sports – the insidious plague of doping and the lengths individuals and countries will go. It makes me pine for those halcyon days of the 1960s and 1970s (yes, written with ironical intent), when our views on doping were less sophisticated.

The first person ever disqualified for “doping”, as it were, was when Swede Hans-Gunnar Liljenvall was discovered to have ingested an illegal substance prior to competing in the modern pentathlon at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics – beer.

It’s said that he had a couple of beers and that traces of alcohol were found in urine. Unlucky for Liljenvall, 1968 was the first year that the IOC included urine testing, as well as alcohol on the list of banned substances. Unfortunately, Liljenwall took his two other teammates down with him, as they lost their bronze medals as well.

Why beer? After all, alcohol is a depressant, not a simulant. This article supposes, probably correctly, that in certain hand-eye coordination events, like pistol shooting in the pentathlon, you need to calm yourself, as opposed to gear yourself up. That’s the same reasoning why anti-psychotics are sometimes illegally injected into horses in equestrian events – to calm down the excitable horses.

Today, getting disqualified for beer sounds silly. Getting banned for caffeine too, but I suppose only to the non-athlete. My mind wonders how many cups of coffee or cans of red bull would it take to get you to world record levels…but I suppose that is not what WADA is looking for.

Caffeine is a stimulant, and until 2004, it was a banned substance. In fact, the second person ever banned for “doping” was a Mongolian judoka named Bakhaavaa Buidaa, who lost his silver medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics after over 12 micrograms of caffeine per milliliter was found in his urine. At least that’s how a lot of sources explain this incident.

But there are also references to Buidaa taking Dianabol, an anabolic steroid that provides a low-cost way of building muscle quickly. Since combining caffeine and Dianabol is a popular routine for athletes who need muscle mass to compete, it’s possible that both were in the judoka’s system.

Caffeine was taken off the banned substance list, but it is still on the IOC monitoring list.

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Wayne Collett (left) and Vince Matthews (Associated Press/File 1972)

They stood there casually, one barefoot, hands on hips, the other in thoughtful repose, right hand stroking the chin. You would think they were waiting for the bus.

But Wayne Collett and Vince Matthews were actually standing on the winners podium at the 1972 Munich Olympics, their medals for their silver and gold medal finishes in the 400 meter sprint around their necks, and the American national anthem playing.

Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee, viewed the behavior of Collett and Matthews as abhorrent and immediately banned them from the Olympic Games. This may have seemed like déjà vu to Brundage as he had made the same decision four years earlier in Mexico City, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos accepted their medals after the 200 meter finals, and raised their black-gloved fists into the air, reflecting their anger at the state of race relations in America.

The day after Brundage’s decision to kick Collett and Matthews out of the Munich Olympic Village, a white bed sheet was suspended from the windows of the American team’s dormitory. According to Ollan Cassell in his book Inside the Five Ring Circus, the bed sheet read, “Down with Brundage”. Cassell reveals that the person who dropped this flag of protest was Vince Matthews.

The head coach of the US track team at the 1972 Munich Olympics was Bill Bowerman, the legendary coach at the University of Oregon. With Smith injured and Collett and Matthews suspended, he knew he would not be able to field a 4X400 relay team. Clearly the men would have been a near-lock for gold if not for the suspensions. According to Kenny Moore’s book, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, Bowerman was upset with the behavior of Collett and Matthews, but he did not believe they deserved to be suspended.

“Matthews and Collett made asses of themselves,” as Bill would put it, “jiving around and talking, giving the impression they didn’t want to be ramrod straight. That was unfortunate but no big deal. I felt they hadn’t meant to be disrespectful during the anthem. Jesse Owens talked with them afterward and felt the same. He was arranging for them to apologize, but before they could, Brundage had Matthews and Collett suspended and sent from the Village.”

“You cannot expect on an Olympic squad of sixty to have everybody act like army privates,” Bill said later. “They’re great athletes. They’re great individuals. The fact that some of them did things that the press objected to didn’t bother me too much. They’re vivid, alive, human animals. They’re keenly interested, very competitive, and all different. So why not accept that and enjoy it?”

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Bill Bowerman at Hayward Field in Oregon

So Bowerman said he would talk to Brundage the next day and see if an apology might convince Brundage to change his mind. Bowerman did meet with Brundage, and despite the fact that Palestinian terrorists had just broken into the Olympic Village and taken Israeli athletes hostages, Bowerman and Brundage were able to manage a discussion on Collett and Matthews. And as related in Bowerman’s biography, Brundage accepted Bowerman’s apology on behalf of his athletes and accepted their reinstatement on condition that the USOC agreed.

Bowerman, and his partner in this negotiation, Jesse Owens, rushed to a gathering of USOC members to tell them the wonderful news, that Brundage had actually reversed his decision and that all they needed was USOC’s endorsement. But Bowerman was surprised to learn that more than the IOC, the USOC was even more outraged, and had already voted to support Brundage’s original decision to kick Collett and Matthews out of the Olympics. According to the Bowerman bio, the presiding officer of the USOC, Clifford Buck gave as rationale, “Well, they insulted the American flag.”

And so, Collett and Matthews were suspended and the heavily favored 4X400 relay team never made it on the track.

Years later in 1992, Collett told the Los Angeles Times the following:

“I love America. I just don’t think it’s lived up to its promise. I’m not anti-American at all. To suggest otherwise is to not understand the struggles of blacks in America at the time.’’

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Ollan Cassell signing the 1964 Tokyo Olympics poster in Rio; from the collection of Ollan Cassell

The doomsayers had their say – the Rio Olympics, under the crushing weight of the poor economy, scandals, environmental and health scares, worries of security, would fail.

Ollan Cassell has seen it all. As a member of the 4X400 US men’s track relay team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, as well as in his role as the executive director of the Amateur Athletic Union, the American governing body for 17 sports in his time, Cassell has been to every Olympics since 1964, excepting the Athens Olympics in 2004.

So when he arrived in Rio, he read all the stories about the problems. He certainly noticed the empty stands. And he put up with the traffic snarls that paralyzed the city during the Games. But Cassell knew that once the Games started, the problems would fade to the background.

The org committee was broke, the country is in a mess. They threw their president out. They didn’t have the finances to get things done. But like all the other Olympics, for the athletes with medals on the line, they‘re ready to compete. Regardless of what the situation is, once the Olympics roll around the athletes are ready. The athletes are focused on competing and wining regardless of what’s going on. When the lights go on, and the gun goes off, the press writes about how great the games are.

And what was the most amazing event Cassell witnessed? “The most spectacular event I saw in Brazil was that 400 meter world record (set by Wayde van Niekerk). I couldn’t imagine anyone could go 43.3 seconds. It’s like going 21.5 for two 200s!”

There were of course fears of security. Cassell was in Mexico City when hundreds were killed as government troops thwarted an anti-government protest prior to the start of the 1968 Olympics. Cassell was in Munich when Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israeli Olympians and coaches in 1972. But Cassell felt safe in Rio de Janeiro. Accompanied by his daughter, Cassell played tourist and was comforted by the presence of security.

 

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Ollan Cassell at Christ the Redeemer; from the collection of Ollan Cassell

 

As was true with the world cup in Brazil, there were about 75000 to 80000 soldiers. I felt safe. No one in my group had been robbed or held up. The military was patrolling all the time. When you went out into the streets, sightseeing, you would see the military trucks with open beds and machines guns driving through the area. It was like an armed camp, but you felt safe. They had barriers in the sightseeing areas, big steel barriers the kind police use when they want to direct car and foot traffic into certain area. They were imposing. But that’s been true at all the Games. In London, they had barriers to make sure you went where they wanted you to go.

As for the environmental or health issues, to Cassell, it wasn’t an issue. “I didn’t hear of anyone getting sick because of the water. And I saw only one mosquito, which my granddaughter killed.”

But perhaps, one of the most satisfying parts of an Olympian’s life is to re-connect with the Olympian fraternity.

It’s a special feeling – being an Olympian. There are so few of us compared to the population of the world. In Olympic Villages there are about 10,000 Olympians, which is a select group. In the United States, there are about 5,000 living Olympians, with quite a few in their 90s. So it’s wonderful to see old friends and Olympians at these events.

To read about Ollan Cassell and the history of international sports from the 1960s to the 1990s, read his absorbing book, Inside the Five Ring Circus: Changing Global Sports and the Modern Olympics.

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The 1972 Munich Olympics will forever be associated with the most horrific clash of political values during an Olympiad, one that resulted in the murders of 11 Israeli coaches and athletes at the hands of Palestinian terrorists.

While Iron Curtain Spy-vs-Spy shenanigans had been part and parcel of the Olympics in the 1950s and 1960s, and the rhetoric was heating up as the nuclear arms race injected legitimate fear into the lives of ordinary folks, the venues and facilities of the Olympic Games had been sacrosanct, places off limits to tribal conflict. Countries come together in peace during the Olympics. Heck, Nixon went to China that year! Maybe things were getting better.

And so, in hindsight, we can look back on the security of the 1972 Munich Games and pronounce them horrifically bad by today’s standards. Ollan Cassell was at the Munich Summer Games. Cassell, a gold-medal winning member of the US men’s 4X400 relay track team, was the recently appointed executive director of the then American Athletic Union (AAU), which at the time, was the US body recognized internationally in 14 sports represented at the Olympics. Cassell gave a first-hand account in his book, Inside the Five Ring Circus, how lax the security was in Munich.

inside-five-ring-circus-coverAt the Munich Games, the ticket takers apparently returned the ticket stubs back to the ticket holder, in essence, giving back the ticket. Perhaps the ticket takers were being nice, thinking that the spectator would want the full ticket as a souvenir and a pleasant memory of their time at the Munich Games. Cassell wrote how he took advantage of that security flaw to get a member of his team into the Opening Ceremonies by going to the fence and handing his ticket stub to his team member, who then easily entered the Olympic stadium with a “valid” ticket.

Not only that, Cassell wrote about how easy the official credentials were to forge. With some care, Cassell wrote of how people created their own credentials to gain access to events more freely than they were initially able to do. He did write about how one person got caught with the fake credentials and was deported, but on the whole, security was filled with holes. Yes, tight security is a pain in the neck. And who knows, maybe the organizers of the Munich Games, perhaps in some way, were trying to overwrite the world’s image of Germany’s last Olympics – the Berlin Games – by prioritizing a relaxed attitude over a vigilant attitude.

But reality slammed home. The Black September terrorists who came to Munich to kill Israelis, took advantage of the security. They had stolen keys that gave them easy entry to the rooms of the Israeli men’s team. They entered the Village grounds in the first place by doing what other athletes did after curfew – by climbing the fence. The thought that terrorists would break into the Village was so remote that other Olympic athletes apparently helped the Palestinians in. There was criticism as well for the German authorities who struggled to contain the hostage crisis, and were, in hindsight, poorly prepared to handle this armed conflict. And yet, they were poorly prepared because they did not believe such a thing could happen at their Olympics.

The rhetoric of geo-political spats gave way shockingly to savagery and death at the Olympics. And security at the Olympics would be changed forever.

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Increased security at the Montreal Olympics in 1976