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.
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.
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.
It was a very hot day, and I was running in the back of the pack. As I came by Easton he said, “Billy, get up where you belong; get up in front.” Another lap went by, and I heard him say, or I thought I heard him say, “Get up where you belong or get off the track.” And I thought, You know, there’s a third way to do this, and it’s my way. I’m a senior in college. I can do it my way, which is to run in the back and come up slowly.
When Easton said that again, I walked off the track. He sent for me and said, “Why did you quit?” I answered, “Coach, I didn’t quit. You said to get up in front or get off the track. I got off the track.” “You quit,” he said. All the pressures I was feeling I took out on this man who was really trying to help me. By walking off the track I may have appeared to be protesting against my coach, but in reality was protesting against society. I don’t think he ever understood that.
Billy Mills, who would later take the world by surprise at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, was an angry young man, as you can tell from his own words, published in the book, Tales of Gold. A Native American of the Lakota tribe, he developed into such a strong distance runner that he earned a scholarship to the University of Kansas. As described in a previous post, Mills struggled with the transition to life outside the reservation.
Bill Easton was the coach of the track team at the University of Kansas. During Coach Easton’s tenure at KU, from 1947 to 1965, his track teams won 39 conference championships, including eight years in a row from 1952-1959. By the time Billy Mills met the KU coach, Easton had the supreme confidence that comes from consistently winning. And yet, Mills and Easton were like oil and water. Mills felt that Easton was a symbol of all the barriers society threw in his face, and after the altercation described at the top of this post, Mills quit the track team.
I had a love-hate relationship with Easton. I wanted to please him, but I wanted to do things my way, the way I knew was best for me. And the hostility that grew out of all the blatant and subtle rejections that society was throwing at me I took out on him, and he really had no idea I was doing that. I was trying to find answers to questions I couldn’t even express, and my coach was not a sociologist or a psychologist. He couldn’t determine where I was coming from. So during my years at Kansas my track career languished.
After getting his degree in education, Mills joined the United States Marine Corps, and moved to the Marine Corp Base in Virginia, called Quantico, where he was immediately asked to join the track team. It was there he met former Annapolis track coach, Earl “Tommy” Thomson. Thomson was a gold medalist in the 110-meter hurdles, representing Canada at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. But more importantly, as Mills told me, Thomson was a mentor.
Coach Easton, he broke me. Tommy Thomson, he was my mentor. He was totally deaf. He would read lips. He was the first white man I ever trusted. He helped me. He came up to me and said, ‘I don’t want to coach you. I’d like to be your mentor. But you have to let me inside,’ he said, holding his hand near my chest. I learned that word, ‘mentor,’ from my dad. He’s saying this in a gentle way. I believe the creator sent him to me because he’s talking like my dad.
In the exchange below, Mills is explaining to me that Thomson had a way of dealing with Mills’ sensitivities, and asking the right questions to get to the truth.
Thomson asked me, ‘what you do you want to do?’ I said ‘I want to go to the Olympics.’ He said, ‘Why the Olympics?’ I said, ‘Don’t you think I can?’ I’m defensive. He asked, ‘What do you want to do at the Olympics?’ I said, ‘Win a medal.’ He asked, ‘Why a medal?’ I replied, ‘Don’t you think I can?’ He said, ‘Which medal?’ I said to him, ‘I want to win the gold medal.’ He said, ‘Now we know.’
In the summer of 1964, Mills is running well approaching the Olympic trials. But in a race prior to the trials, Coach Easton is in the stadium. And for Mills, all he has to do is see Mills and he turns into a confused cacophony of emotions. He said that he confronted Easton and made it clear he did not want to see or hear him. “I cannot run in your presence. I could do well in Tokyo, but if I hear your voice, I will drop out.”
Easton stayed away. Mills went to Tokyo, and seemingly out of the blue, went on to become the first and only American to win the 10,000 meter race at the Olympics.
A day after the winning the gold medal, a Japanese woman came up to Mills with a letter, and asks him to open it. The letter was from Coach Easton.
Dear Billy, I saw the greatest race of my life. You are the greatest Jayhawker of all. It was an honor to coach you.
The woman then pointed out Easton, who had made the trip to Tokyo. “When I saw him, we grabbed each other and cried.”
He was one of the biggest stars of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He was the first American to win the 10,000 meters race in the Olympics. And the world press, particularly the American press, celebrated this surprise victory by a Marine lieutenant of Native American Indian stock (Lakota) with blaring headlines of glory.
And yet, when it was time for Billy Mills and his wife Pat to return home to the United States, he couldn’t get transportation to the airport. The Mills were leaving Tokyo a day before the end of the Games so would not be joining the USOC-arranged transport to the airport. When gold medalist Mills asked the USOC to help him get to the airport, they said they wouldn’t do so.
These were the days when only amateurs could participate in the Olympics, and many American athletes had to be very careful financially. Mills had maybe $1.50 in his pocket at the time, he said, so when turned down by his own country, he had no choice but to turn to the Japanese organizers. Mills told me the Japanese were surprised the Americans would not take care of one of their biggest stars. They picked up his bags, put them in “the largest, widest limousine I had ever seen, with Japanese and Olympic flags up front with an American flag on the back. We take off with two motorcycles escorting us to the airport. We left Japan in style,” said Mills to me, with a smile formed of true fondness.
Prior to departing for the 1964 Olympics, Mills said he was looking forward to seeing Japan, how people outside America act and think. In America, he told me he never felt like he fit in, which started when he was growing up, as revealed in the book, Tales of Gold.
There were quite a few white people living on the reservation; probably 1,000 of the 8,000 people there were white. At that time not many Indians were going off to college, so most of the educators were white people. And the whites controlled the economic base of the reservation. They operated the stores and, of course, ran the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Also, there was always the anthropologist who was working on his or her doctorate degree. They would come and study us for a summer and then go back and have a book published. We always resented being studied like some kind of insect.
Mills was advised by his father to compete in sports because “if I competed with the white man – with the dominant society – in sports, I could have fun at the same time.” So Mills tried basketball, tried boxing, before finding joy in running. And yet he could not find joy integrating into white society, feeling pressured into believing there was a zero sum game between the dominant Christian church on the reservation and his Lakota beliefs, which he could never separate himself from.
When Mills arrived in Japan for the 1964 Summer Games, Mills felt an affinity for the Japanese. He told me that he understood the Japanese to be a proud people forced out of seclusion by foreign powers in the 19th century, and had only recently come out of a post-war occupation by the Allied powers, primarily General Douglas MacArthur and the United States.
In Japan, I saw people who were so courteous and polite. I knew underneath there had to be this anger. I could relate to the pain. Almost a sacredness of the way they contained the pain, and the respect they showed. They were like the elders I knew, who controlled their pain, and still showed respect to others.
In the 1983 film, Running Brave, the actor Robbie Benson portrays Billy Mills as an intense and tightly wound young man, who hides his emotions behind ambiguous smiles and blank expressions, only to let them out in raw displays of frustration and anger, usually in private.
When, in this film, the track coach of Kansas University comes out to Mills’ high school to see him run, and learns that Mills is native American Indian, the university coach says to the high school coach, within earshot of Mills, “You know as well as I do what happens to these Indian boys. They are gifted runners but they can’t take orders. They have no discipline. They’re quitters! Sooner or later, they all end up back at the reservation pumping gas or dead drunk or on skid row. You know that.”
When Mills’ Kansas University track team is invited to go to a fraternity party, he goes to the party with the joy of a first-time experience, only to be told that Indians aren’t allowed in the fraternity. When he begins dating a Caucasian co-ed at Kansas, he eventually grows frustrated that the parents of his girlfriend, later his wife Pat, did not openly accept Mills initially.
“In retrospect, I can understand now that some of that might have been not because I was an Indian, but because here I was, an orphan, raised in poverty, and the prospect that their daughter might have some security with me was very slim,” he wrote in Tales of Gold, which profiled him. “But at the time, I understood that they didn’t want their daughter to have anything to do with an Indian, even a part Indian.”
The gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was an affirmation for Mills, that he was indeed worthy of his biggest dreams. His success at the Olympics provided Mills with a platform to help young Native Americans. In 1986, he and the founder of the Christian Relief Services Charities, Gene Krizek, formed a non-profit organization called Running Strong for American Indian Youth.
Running Strong helps to ensure that the survival needs of American Indians – food, water and shelter – are met. This NPO also develops and implements programs that perhaps Mills himself would have benefited from when he was a youth – development opportunities to help build self-esteem and purpose.
Mills often talks about how important it is for people to “look behind the hurt, the hate, the jealousy, the self-pity, all of those emotions that destroy you.” And in 1964, he told a New York Daily News reporter that his biggest memory from the Tokyo Olympics was the young man, Yoshinori Sakai, who carried the Olympic flame to the top of the National Stadium steps, to light the Olympic cauldron. Sakai was born on August 6, 1945 in Hiroshima, the day that an atomic bomb was dropped on his city. Sakai survived. He did not let hate or self-pity keep him down. Instead, at those 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Sakai elevated himself.
For example, the front page of the Riverside Daily Press on July 24, 1935 blared across the full length of the front page, “Gay Cocktail Parties Result in Dismissal of Eleanor Holm Jarrett”.
Under the word “Ousted”, was a lithe Eleanor Holm in a skin-tight swimsuit posing like a Hollywood starlet. The caption read “Eleanor Holm Jarrett, attractive night club queen-swimmer who was dropped from the American Olympic team for indulging in liquor and parties contrary to training rules.” The article started with a provocative lead – “The one member of the American Olympic swimming team who appeared the most certain to win a title, Mrs. Eleanor Holm Jarrett, prepared to return home today.”
Holm was the Olympic champion in the 100-meter backstroke, having won gold convincingly at the 1932 Los Angeles Games. Married to a jazz band leader, Art Jarrett, and very much used to the life as a celebrity, Holm did not take to the third-class accommodations on the SS Manhattan, which was transporting the US Olympic team to Europe and the Berlin Olympics.
According to The Book of Olympic Lists, by David Wallechinsky and Jaime Loucky, Holm – a veteran of two Olympiads – she wanted to be where the officials and the press were: first class. When an executive of the company that owned the SS Manhattan invited Holm up to first class for a party, the only Olympian invited, she of course said yes.
Quick to accept, she stayed up until six a.m., matching drinks with the sportswriters. She had to be helped back to her cabin. The next day there was much joking and wisecracking among the non-Olympic first-class passengers about the “training techniques” of the US team. Embarrassed US Olympic officials issued Holm a warning, but she was defiant and continued to drink in public off and on for the next few days. When advised by friends to moderate her behavior, she reminded them that she was “free, white, and 22”.
Wallenchinsky and Loucky described further examples of Holm’s drunken adventures on the SS Manhattan. On the evening of July 23, shortly before reaching Europe, the ship’s doctor found Holm “in a deep slumber which approached a state of coma”, which he diagnosed as acute alcoholism. The next morning, the American Olympic team manager woke Holm up and informed her that American Olympic Committee had voted to remove her from the team.
The next day, the press included the official announcement from Avery Brundage, the US Olympic Committee chairman. “Mrs. Eleanor Holm Jarrett has been dropped from the Olympic team and her entry has been withdrawn on account of violation of training rules. I wish to emphasize that there is no reflection in any way upon the entire team.” According to the press, Holm was requested to return to the United States.
Unfortunately for Brundage, Holm was immediately hired by news gatherer, the Associated Press to write a column, presumably about anything she wanted (presumably since she felt her Olympic career was over and her amateur status no longer a requirement). With press credentials, Holm was in Berlin to stay, and with her star power, she was at all of the biggest social gatherings. According to Holm in the book, Tales of Gold, Brundage didn’t like playing second fiddle to her.
A funny sidelight to Brundage kicking me off the team was that I was invited to everything in Berlin, and he would be there, too. He would be so miserable because I was at all these important functions. I would ignore him – like he wasn’t even alive. I really think he hated the poor athletes. How dare I be there and taking away his thunder? You see, they all wanted to talk to me.
Holm said she hung out with Herman Goering, and regularly got autographs from Adolph Hitler. She claimed that famed documentarian, Leni Riefenstahl, filmed her in the pool, although that footage was apparently left on the cutting floor. Despite the socializing, Holm wrote that she trained every day just in case she was reinstated to the team. In the end, however, Brundage would not budge and the world watched a Dutch woman named Nida Senff win gold in the backstroke.
Holm would go on to divorce Jarrett and marry a man named Billy Rose, who produced a hugely popular music, dance and swim show called Billy Rose’s Aquacade, where she would become an even brighter star, swimming with fellow Olympic champions Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe.
Holm passed away in 2004 at the age of 90, her star dimmed by the passage of time. But in the mid-20th century, during the Depression and War years, there were few brighter stars than Eleanor Holm.
The daughter of a fireman, perhaps it’s no wonder that little Eleanor loved the water from an early age.
“I had no fear of the water, and I used to go way out in the ocean, and a lifeguard had to come out and keep getting me,” explained Eleanor Holm in the book, Tales of Gold, of her childhood at her family’s summer cottage in Long Beach, New York.
Winning competitions from the age of 13, Eleanor Holm was selected at the age of 14 to the national swim team to represent the United States at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. Holm placed fifth in her specialty – the 100-meter backstroke.
At the age of 17, the beauty from Brooklyn was offered a chance to travel with the Ziegfeld Follies, one of the dominant entertainment machines of American pop culture of the time, but Holm declined. She was determined to participate and win at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Holm as an adult had a reputation as the life of the party. But in 1932, as she got herself ready for the Olympics, she insists she was very serious, to the point of being a party pooper.
In 1932, when nothing was going to stop me, I used to snitch on the girls if they kept me awake. I’d say to the coaches, “Did you know she was out last night? She didn’t get in until 10 o’clock.” Nobody believes this now.
Holm’s focus paid off. On August 9, the backstroker set a blistering pace to set the world record in the 100 meters. Two days later, with a comfortable, lead, Holm took the gold medal with seconds to spare over Philomena Meaning of Australia.
As The New York Times reported on August 12, 1932, “not once did Miss Holm pay any attention to the guiding line of red flags strung overhead. She stroked rhythmically and perfectly, but her black-capped head was ever turned toward Miss Mealing’s lane. It was not until she was ten meters from the end and well ahead that the Brooklyn girl paid strict attention to her own race. Then she flailed away at the water in a sprint finish that insured her triumph beyond any doubt.”
After her Olympic triumph, not far from the Hollywood hills, a star was born. As she told David Anderson of The New York Times in 1984, ”I was hardly dry at those Olympics when I was whisked from one studio to another – Warner Brothers, MGM, Paramount – to take movie tests. In the years before the next Olympics, I took diction lessons and drama lessons but as it turned out, I was only in one movie. I was Jane in a Tarzan movie. Glen Morris was Tarzan.”
In a 1992 interview with Sports Illustrated, Holm said that she signed a contract with Warner Brothers only eleven days after her gold medal victory. “They sent me to school to learn how to act,” said Holm. “I started out at $500 a week, and I was supposed to go to the studio or take an acting lesson from Josephine Dillon, Clark Gable’s first wife, every day. There was a great director at Warner then named Mervyn LeRoy, and I did bit parts in a few of his movies. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was there then, and Carole Lombard and Edward G. Robinson. The studio would make me go to their sets to learn how to act. And I was impressed, seeing the stars and the celebrities. So I’d ask them for their autographs!”
But after only nine months, Holm was given a difficult choice. Because the studio wanted her to swim in the movies, she felt that would jeopardize her amateur status and prevent her from possibly competing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She would later go on to star in movies about herself, as well as in the 1938 film, Tarzan’s Revenge, but in 1933, she got out of her contract with Warner Brothers.
“It’s funny, but I never really had any ambition to be an actress. God knows the studio tried, but I still have my Brooklyn accent, don’t I? And they spent a lot of money for me to lose it! They tried to groom me for light comedy, but the only thing I ever wanted was to win the Olympics.”
Fortunately, in Los Angeles in 1932, she did. Holm did not get a second chance in 1936.
Jesse Owens won four gold medals in Berlin in 1936, and came home to American a hero…for about a week…before he was then treated like any other black American. Unable to find work, he gave up his amateur status and earned a living as an entertainer, most famously sprinting and winning against thoroughbred horses. “People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”
Archie Williams was a teammate of Owens, one of ten black Americans on that 1936 USA team at the Berlin Olympics. And while he didn’t get the fanfare of Owens, Williams was already the owner of the world record time in the 400 meters, and would go on to win the gold medal in the 400 in Berlin. After the Olympics, Williams went on to graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in mechanical engineering, as well as in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Engineering School at Wright-Patterson Field, as well as in meteorology from UCLA.
But as was true for the majority of blacks in America, it was a challenge to get the opportunities to get ahead. Williams was quoted as saying, “When I came home, somebody asked me, ‘How did those dirty Nazis treat you?’ I replied that I didn’t see any dirty Nazis, just a lot of nice German people. And I didn’t have to ride in the back of the bus over there.”
Williams was a graduate of Berkeley with a degree in engineering in a war-time economy that could only be described as heated. But, Williams could not find gainful employment at places like GM or GE that were hiring to keep up with demand, as he explained in the oral history of American Olympians, Tales of Gold.
Those big corporations just weren’t hiring black people. They weren’t, and who else would? Look, I had a job one summer making $5 a week chopping weeds for the East Bay Water Company. Later I thought about working as an engineer for them. And I talked to the guy down there, but he said, “Sorry about that.”
Williams had a passion for planes, and wanted to become a pilot. He eventually got a job “gassing airplanes”, which is essentially fueling the planes, and warming them up. He had to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, but he also got to fly, build up his hours in the air, and get his flying qualifications. And yet, he couldn’t get up that next rung in the career ladder, as he explained. “That was early in 1941. Again, a black guy with a pilot’s license and an instructor’s rating; he’s…well, he’s nothing. Even the guy I worked for couldn’t hire me as a flying instructor. He’d have lost all his business.”
There were apparently very few black pilots in the 1940s, and even fewer opportunities for them in America. But as is often the case, war forces people to look beyond color. The US Army had established a training center for African Americans in Tuskegee, Alabama, where blacks were educated at Tuskegee University and trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field. Williams one day in 1941 heard about the Tuskegee program, and took his pilot’s license and mechanical engineering degree to the Tuskegee Institute.
Williams began his career as a pilot instructor in Alabama, and his first students were the famed Tuskegee Airmen, whose planes were called Red Tails for the color of the tails on their P-47s and P-51s, and who went on to fighting glory in North Africa and Italy.
Belgium put in their bid for the 1920 Olympics in 1912. Little did they know that Archduke Ferdinand would be assassinated in 1914, sparking World War I. Germany overran Belgium, clearly overriding any planning for the Olympics. In fact, the Olympics in 1916 were cancelled.
But when the war ended in 1919, Antwerp was selected to hold the 1920 Summer Games.
Over 9 million soldiers died in World War I. Around 7 million civilians died as a result of the war. The invasion of Belgium by Germany is often called “The Rape of Belgium“, during which over 27,000 Belgians were killed by German soldiers, an additional 62,000 died of hunger or due to lack of shelter, and one and a half million Belgians fled the country.
Aileen Riggin was part of the first ever US women’s team in the Olympics, which competed at the 1920 Antwerp Games. She got to Belgian in the SS Princess Matoika, which was known as the Death Ship as it had transported war dead from Europe to the US. In the book, Tales of Gold, Riggin shared memories that showed the war was still very much in the minds of people living and competing in Antwerp. As Riggin was a 14-year-old girl at the time, I simply cannot imagine how she felt.
“When we were not training, we went on several trips around Antwerp in our truck, and one was to the battlefields. The mud was so deep that we could not walk, so we stopped along the line and bought some wooden shoes and learned how to walk in them. They were not too comfortable but they did protect our feet from the mud. I do not know how we happened to be allowed on the battlefields, because they had not yet been cleared.”
“In places they were still the way they were in 1918, when the Armistice was declared. We even picked up shells and such things and brought them home as souvenirs. There were trenches and pillboxes and things like that scattered about the fields, and we looked into some of them, and they were deep in water. There were some German helmets lying on the field, and we brought some home with us. I picked up a boot and dropped it very hurriedly when I saw that it still had remains of a human foot inside. It was a weird experience, and we were glad to leave. It must have taken them another year to clear off the battlefields from the way we saw them. They were in shambles.”
How a war devastated country could take on an international event while still in a “shambles” is hard to imagine. But the Belgian authorities did what they could, improvising in some ways. For example, the diving competition was held in a large ditch at the base of an embankment, created as a form of protection if a war were to come to Belgium. Riggin, who competed as a diver, describes the venue.
“On our second day in Antwerp an army truck came to drive us to the stadium where we were to swim. Words fail me in describing our first view of this place. I had never seen anything like it. it was just a ditch. I believe they had had rowing races there at one time. There were boardwalks around the pool – I have to call it a pool – to mark the ends. In the center
Watching the build up to the 100-meter backstroke finals at the 1964 Olympic Games must have been like being in a pressure cooker. In the first preliminary heat, American Ginny Duenkel set the world record. In the next heat, American Cathy Ferguson broke Duenkel’s record. And finally, in the third heat, French women, Kiki Caron, set the world record yet again.
On October 14, 1964, three women who set three world records the previous day, were about to face off. As Ferguson wrote in the book, “Tales of Gold“, each of us had set a new world record, but only a fraction of a second separated us. In the finals, that would make the difference between gold and bronze.”
And so, in the pressure cooker of the National Gymnasium, the three record holders held even at the 50-meter mark when Ferguson began to pull ever so slightly ahead. In the end, Ferguson won the race at 1 minute 7.7 seconds, setting yet again, a world record.
You can see her crying on the podium as she hears the national anthem play, not only happy to win, but relieved it was all over.
I quit competitive swimming right before the ’68 Games. People ask me why I didn’t go on. But I knew I couldn’t win anymore, and when you know you can’t win, you can’t go on. I was only 19, but I just couldn’t get up for the races.
Most people do not understand just how much training takes out of you. It’s lonely in the pool. Just think of the countless hours in the water when you scarcely talk to another human being. All you have is that black line. It becomes your best friend. How many people can take that for more than six or seven years? I can remember being so tired at the end of the day that there was no way I had any energy left over to talk to the other kids.
Ferguson understood that her training and eventual triumph was worth it as her competitions and achievements took her to amazing places to meet incredible people. But her life, the life of a high-performance athlete can take its toll. In fact, when she was interviewed in the mid-1980s for the book “Tales of Gold“, she commented that athletes also need a program to help them transition out of life as an athlete.
I feel very strongly that we need some kind of detraining program for our former athletes. The East Germans have a program that helps their athletes get ready to move back into a normal life. It was very hard for me to be totally in the world of swimming and then, all of a sudden, to be completely out of it, then try to put that piece back in, only to find it doesn’t fit.
I felt quite empty when I left swimming. The thing I substituted for that programmed life was my first marriage. I was 19, and my husband was 26. in some ways I was probably 26 as well, but I had missed many of the experiences of being a teenager. Traveling all over the world and meeting important people was a fantastic experience, but I also needed those experiences that help one grow emotionally. When I was swimming, I was pretty much in control, but when I stepped out of that warm, secure cocoon, I didn’t control everything in my environment. I couldn’t control my husband, and I couldn’t control what was happening to me. At the time, I loved him dearly, but there was a needed growth period. Unfortunately, we both used marriage as a kind of sublimation for something else. I didn’t quite understand it then, but all I really needed was just to become “normal” again.
Apparently, that is something psychologists and the International Olympic Committee are coming to grips with. That the more you commit to the goal of achieving at the highest levels, the more people surrender their own personal identity to what is now being called the “Athletic Identity”. Psychologist, Chris Shambrook, explains this phenomenon in the book, The Secret Olympian.
There is a whole area of research around a concept called Athletic Identity. Athletic Identity is all about how closely my identity is allied to my performances as an athlete. If I am my results. If I am my performance. If I’ve handed ‘me’ over to that – that puts me in a very, very challenging place when the results and the performances aren’t there anymore. And it’s doubly challenging because you have to get pretty close to handling your personality over to that (mentality) in order to give yourself the best chance of winning. But it leaves you very vulnerable afterwards.