The USA team looked sharp in blue blazers over white slacks and skirts. But to cap it off, the men were given a typically American touch – a white cowboy fedora. Some knew it was the idea of President Lyndon Johnson, a proud Texan. Some loved the hat enough that when thousands of pigeons were released during the opening ceremony, they made sure to take them off and shield them from the inevitable bird droppings. Some were pleased they had something to keep their hair from getting dirty.
The bottom line is that athletes and officials from other countries wanted the American hats! Jeff Mullins was a member of the gold medal-winning men’s basketball team in 1964. Like every other athlete in the Olympic Village, he enjoyed the United Nations vibe, but couldn’t really communicate…except when they were bartering.
“Trading,” said Mullins, “was our form of communication. Bill Bradley got us started. He brought a whole bunch of Princeton beanies with him, and we tried to fill them with lapel pins for our pins – red, white and blue pins with a pearl in it.”
“And we always were trading up,” said the man who would go onto play for the champion Golden State Warriors in the NBA. “Our uniforms were popular. So were our basketball shoes. But the thing that was worth the most was the Western hat. None of us liked it,
Tamara Press was a phenomenon, winning gold in the shot put and discus in Rome, as well as gold in the shot put in Tokyo. She was a large woman, and as American gymnast, Ron Barak, told me in an interview, a hulking woman, fortunately with an equally hulking sense of humor.
“I was in line one day in the Olympic Village cafeteria, and right behind me, Tamara Press was waiting in line with a couple of Soviet teammates. My wife, who was fairly tiny, came rushing in. US officials had given wives of the gymnastic teams sweat suits so they could get in and out of the village. Barbie was coming to meet me for lunch, and was a bit late. She spotted me and hurried over. Focused on me, she somehow didn’t see Tamara, and butted right in front of her.”
“Well, Tamara Press is a very nice person. She comes up to her from behind, grabs her elbows gently and firmly and bench presses my wife above her 6 foot frame, holding her high up like a piece of lumber. Her head was pointed to the ceiling and her back was pointed to the ground. Tamara proceeded to spin her in a revolution above her head, before finally putting her down behind Tamara in line. Barbie’s eyes were wide open in shock.”
“Because I saw Tamara smiling, I was relieved to know that we were not headed for an international incident. Everybody was watching, rather quiet at first. When Tamara quickly repeated the maneuver and this time set Barbie down in front of her and waved her finger not to cut in again, the whole place exploded in laughter. I was happy to know that I would not have to rescue my wife from someone who towered over me by at least half a foot, and easily outweighed me by more than a hundred pounds.”