Mac Wilkins and John Powell
Mac Wilkins and John Powell

They were teammates. But they were not friends.

For well over a decade Mac Wilkins of Eugene Oregon and John Powell of San Francisco, California competed on the field trying to out-throw the other in the discus, and competed off the field with cutting quips.

Sports writer John Schulian wrote a great opening paragraph for his June 29, 1984 column in the Morning Advocate, a Baton Rouge newspaper, describing their rivalry. (Yes, you need to be up on your 20th century American pop culture.)

If John Powell said, “Less filling,” Mac Wilkins would reply, “Tastes great,” for they are the Bickersons of the discus, and agreeing on anything would likely ruin their reputations forever. They will argue about how much a quarter-pounder weights, or when the swallows come back to Capistrano, and the fact that they are Olympic teammates once again will do nothing to harness their tongues. Why should it? They are halfway to the new American dream – a beer commercial.

In a June 24, 1984 article in The Boston Herald, Charles Pierce described an exchange between Powell and Wilkins after Powell had won the discus throw finals in the Olympic trials a few weeks before the start of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.

  • Powell (referring to then 33-year-old Wilkins): “Some old guys choke, and some don’t, I guess,” opined 37-year-old winner John Powell (220.3 ft)
  • Wilkins: “That’s right, John,” chimed in Mac Wilkins, the 1976 gold medalist who threw himself into second place with a final toss of 217 feet. “It wasn’t exactly a top flight performance out there. I personally think that my performance was one of my worst.”
  • Powell: “I appreciate that.”

A few weeks previously, they had this exchange:

  • Wilkins: “Powell has a new diet. I understand it’s helping him avoid those mood swings. Now he’s unhappy all the time.”
  • Powell: “Poor Mac, he’s delirious. It must be the sun.”

When did this enmity/comedy routine begin? Some say it began in earnest with the discus throw finals at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. In the discus throw finals there are six rounds to make your best throw. Wilkins tossed the discuss 67.5 meters or 221 feet in the second round. In the third round, Powell tossed the discus 65.7 meters or 215 feet, which was good enough for silver, until the sixth round. That’s when East German Wolfgang Schmidt unleashed a throw of 66.22 meters or 217 feet.

Wolfgang Schmidt, Mac Wilkins John Powell
Wolfgang Schmidt, Mac Wilkins John Powell on medal podium at 1976 Montreal Olympics

When it was clear that Wilkins had won the gold medal, Powell, who had slipped to bronze went up to Wilkins to congratulate him. The story goes that Wilkins ignored his American teammate and went up to the East German, Schmidt, and gave him a big hug.

As Wilkins explained in the book, Tales of Gold, those who reported on this scene didn’t understand.

Everybody around there thought I had insulted Powell, my fellow countryman. John Powell was not my friend, but Wolfgang was. I wasn’t looking at what country Schmidt was from; I was just looking at the terrific performance he had made, coming through on his last throw like that to take a silver medal. He was great, but a lot of stuffed shirts were upset with me then, and ever more so a bit later.

Wilkins would win the silver medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, with Powell taking bronze.

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Mac Wilkins
Mac Wilkins, Photo/Foto: George Herringshaw, 04 September 1977

In many ways I was the bad guy, the black sheep of the ’76 Olympic Games. First, I was big and strong and had long hair and a beard, and that probably intimidated some people.

Whatever it was, Mac Wilkins had a way of ticking people off. Wilkins had just won the gold medal in the discus throw at the Montreal Olympics, and was asked by the press whether he won the gold for his country or himself. Wilkins replied that it was “for myself. I worked for it. The United States can share in it if they wish, but they had no part in winning it.”

The president of the United States Olympic Committee at the time, Phillip Krumm, called Wilkins, gold medalist in the discus throw at the Montreal Olympics, a “grandstander and a popoff,” and that his response was akin to “hating your parents.”

Wilkins was a maverick, often at odds with officials. In prepping for the Montreal Games, Wilkins said in the oral history of American Olympic gold medalist, Tales of Gold, that he had informed the USOC that he and his shot putter friend, Al Feuerbach, intended not to enter the Olympic Village at the same time as the rest of team so that they could continue to train independently.

“Al and I decided we didn’t want to check into the Village that far ahead of our event. I knew what it would be like; it would be mass chaos and constant stimulation, and when you get too much of that your mind goes blank, and you don’t know what you’re going, so you can’t concentrate.”

According to Wilkins, they never got approval, but still decided to hang back where they were training in Plattsburg, New York until the day before the opening ceremonies. Despite an intention to go to Montreal a few days later, they were ordered to Montreal for drug tests. Believing that the USOC would not kick a potential medalist off the team, he insisted that they send a car to pick them up and conduct the tests outside the Village. In the end, Wilkins got his way, and was able to stay out of the Village and prepare himself the way he wanted to.

We got back to the Village on the following Wednesday and checked in. it was perfect timing for me because once you check in you get a real adrenaline rush, and you can hold that for only so long. If you get it too soon, you’re going to be flat for your competition. But it came at just the right time for me. I did a little workout on Thursday, and I had a great workout on Friday. I hit 230 feet with a left-hand wind, which was a handicap. It was one of those times when, after the workout, you sit down to write in your diary, and you realize what you’ve done and what you’re capable of doing. It’s kind of overwhelming, and it brings tears to your eyes. This happens rarely, and I think it does because at those moment you are facing the fear of success and you’re accepting it and realizing that you can overcome it and reach your potential, which is usually beyond what you ever imagined.

The first day of the Olympics was the first day of competition for the discus throw. Wilkins watched his American competition, John Powell and Jay Silvester, make initial throws under the qualifying distance of 200 feet. Wilkins went up and tossed the discus 224 feet, 5 inches, an Olympic record.

The next day was the finals of the discus throw. Wilkins admitted he didn’t feel as sharp as the previous day, and ended up throwing the discuss 221 feet (67.5 meters) in the second round of the finals. It was not as far as the previous day’s record, but it was good enough to hold up as the greatest distance through the next four rounds. Wilkins believed that he knew exactly what he needed to do to get himself ready for winning. And when he executed on his plan, he was simply happy.

On the victory stand I was laughing and chuckling to myself and thinking, so this is what it’s all about. This is what you see on TV, and it comes down to this. This is easy and no big deal. Of course, the performance itself was relatively easy. The hard part was preparing physically and mentally to get to the level needed to make that performance.

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.”

Szewińska 400 meter finals Montreal
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).

munich-olympics-terrorist

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.

security-at-montreal-olympics
Increased security at the Montreal Olympics in 1976

 

Margaret Murdock and Lanny Bassham
Margaret Murdock and Lanny Bassham

 

Men and women do not compete against each other in too many sporting events. There is mixed pair figure skating, and mixed pairs tennis, but pairs are competing against each other on equal ground, gender wise. However, until 1992, both men and women could compete against each other in Olympic shooting events.

Learning how to shoot from her father, and honing her skills as an instructor in the US Army, Margaret Murdock was always aiming to compete on the Olympic stage. Having just missed qualification for the Olympics in 1968, and then not being able to compete in 1972 with the birth of a child, Murdock won a spot on the US Olympic shooting team and was eager to finally face off against the best in the three-position small bore rifle event.

Murdock’s teammate, Lanny Bassham, was considered a favorite to win, but at the end of the first part of the competition, shooting at 50 meters while prone on the ground, Murdock was one point off the lead, while, Bassham and Germany, Werner Seibold, were another point behind them. In the second stage, called the offhand position, which in layman’s terms, is the standing position, Murdock again shot well, but was one point off the leader, Seibold. Bassham fell back, and was four points off the leader.

Margaret Thompson Murdock
Margaret Murdock

In the kneeling stage, the final part of the competition, the riflemen and riflewoman had to wait for the final scores to be posted. According to this account by William Parkerson, history had been made.

When the kneeling stage was completed, no one was sure where the frontrunners had finished, and a large crowd began to swell around the public scoreboard outside the range. The tension increased as score after score was posted, but none next to the names of any of the leaders. Finally Murdock’s mark appeared . . . an 1162.

After what seemed more like hours than minutes, Bassham’s score went up . . .1161. Margaret Murdock was mobbed immediately by well-wishers, including her parents, sister and her five-year-old son Brett, who wasn’t sure what to make of the cheering and the tears. Seibold’s score had yet to appear, and in fact it was the last mark to be posted. When the 1160 finally went up, a second round of congratulations appeared in order for the Kansas nursing student who had become the first woman to earn a shooting medal in Olympic history.

Unfortunately for Murdock, those results were not official. According to the director of the