Sunday, August 7, 2016

My Brush with the Olympics....

Pierre (Fredy) de Coubertin, the French educator, historian, and founder of the modern Olympic movement saw sport as an integral part of education. Sport keeps the mind and body in balance, he thought: it builds moral character, social strength, and prevents time wasted on more trivial things. Coubertin was a dreamer. But it has mostly worked for me.

The Tokyo Olympics in '64 passed me by. I was nine years old, still in Switzerland.  My family did not yet have a television and I read no newspapers. I had started skiing, albeit badly and without instruction. I climbed trees, explored the forests and ruins on the hill behind our house, palled around with incipient gangs, and got bad grades in school. It landed me in boarding school for some much needed supervision.

In my Swiss all-boys boarding school they subscribed to de Coubertin's philosophy. But sports was encouraged in a strictly informal manner. There were no school teams with competitions against other schools. No coaching. But every recess and lunch hour, and after school period we played soccer. It was a passion. I gravitated to goal keeper. An independent position, solitary, proud, with no  competing claimants. I read juvenile novels about goal keepers. Nationalism and sport caught our fancy during the 1966 Soccer World Cup. We listened raptured in the lunch hall that summer as Switzerland played Germany, Spain, and Argentina and went home with three losses. England captured our hearts as they beat Germany in the final 4-2. I've been rooting for England every cup since.  But sine Brexit, England is losing to Iceland! It may be time to move on.

In 1967 my family emigrated half way round the globe to the wilds of central British Columbia. Out in the northern pine forests, far from organized sport, my family moved into a trailer and proceeded to build a house, two barns, and an outhouse. There were tractors, trucks, a D-3 Cat, building fences, corn crops, and squirrel hunting; but I also kept a soccer ball. That ball and a goal marked on the side of a barn kept fantasies alive.

A flickering image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos's black fisted salute, a gesture beyond my understanding at the time, was all I recall of the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. The remarkable leap of Viktor Saneyev did not loom large for me until half a decade later.

Viktor Saneyev World Record in Triple Jump (17.39m), Mexico City 1968

By the time the Olympics dawned in my consciousness I was channelling de Coubertin and taking my sports at least as seriously as my studies.

By ninth grade my family drifted south from Prince George to the Okanagan town of Kamloops. There I found basketball and made my way onto the starting squads of my Junior High and High school teams. I continued to play goal in soccer. I discovered track and field and the Western roll. I read a book about running in the school library and fancied to take up the mile. I recall the lightheadedness, fear, and anxiety at the starting line of my four 1500m races. Without coaching,  training, or a requisite base, it never amounted to much.

By my senior year in High School, my family had moved to Vancouver.  The big city. I continued with soccer. I started as a forward on the basketball team. I tried volleyball and found I did not have the hands for it. The same problem placed limits on how far I might go as a soccer goalie in University. I ran cross-country. And in the spring I stumbled onto a group of jumpers--high jump, long jump, triple jump--with coaches who were dedicated. It turned out I had a knack for the triple jump.

I won the British Columbia High School championship in triple jump that year (1973), and I was hooked. I learned about Viktor Saneyev.  I found a loving and supportive community of athletes and coaches. I attended the University of British Columbia and received support from the University, the Province, and the Country to pursue my passion of triple jumping. It was nurturing support. It was support designed to further student athletes--it was not support to further the glory of the University, the Province, or the Country. It was sport in the image of Pierre de Coubertin.

The Munich Olympics of 1972 were an inspiration to me. The great Viktor Saneyev won the second of his three triple jump gold medals (17.35m).  The event had progressed a lot since Naoto Tajima set a world record at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 with a 16.00m leap. There was the tragedy of the Israeli team and terrorism. But above all there was Steve Roland Prefontaine, the great runner from Oregon who finished fourth behind Lasse Viren in the 5,000 meter run.

Sports did not make me a better student. But it did celebrate life, and it instilled in me a confidence and love of movement that has lasted through the decades. The love of sport, and the desire to make me a better person, is also what motivated my coaches through the years. It has made me respect their efforts, it has made me love them. And the love of sports and admiration of effort, and progress however grudging, is what makes me admire and respect individual athletes in every sport, whether they are gold medalists at the Olympics, or friends picking up skiing and working at it at age 30.

There was a generosity and love of sport in Steve Prefontaine when I met him at Brockton Oval in Stanley Park in May of 1975. It was our practice track in Vancouver. Prefontaine was visiting and had finished a training run. He was vivacious and warm hearted in his encouragement. An ambassador for track and field. A week later he was dead, killed in a car crash. He was 24 years old. He did not get his rematch with Viren in Montreal. He never received an Olympic gold medal. And it did not matter. The lack of an Olympic medal diminished nothing about his running, about his life.

And the Montreal Olympics passed me by too. At the Canadian Olympic trials in Laval, Quebec, I jumped 15.15m, a personal best. It would have been good enough for 5th place at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, 3rd place in London in 1948, and fifth place in Helsinki in 1952. Even in Rome (1960) it would have sufficed for 14th place.  By 1976 the best I could do was no longer world class. Viktor Saneyev won his third gold medal in Montreal with a leap that was two meters beyond where I could have landed in the sand (17.29m).  This was 1.29 meters farther than Naoto Tajima managed when he set a world record in the event at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

And time has caught up with Viktor Saneyev as well.  Today, his Mexico City world record does not rank among the 100 best jumps of all time.  The current mark is Jonathan Edward's now 21 year old world record of 18.29m.

Jonathan Edwards 2 world records, August 7, 1995

The man who will be chasing that record in Rio next week is the American Christian Taylor, who set a personal best mark of 18.21m last summer.  These are remarkable distances: hop 20 feet, step 20 feet, and jump 20 feet into the pit! And this event takes place largely out of the limelight of nationalist expectations. Fans will be following the medal counts by country more closely than they will be following the results of the triple jump event.

De Coubertin also thought the modern Olympic movement could be instrumental in preventing wars, and in bringing out the best in nations. The mega-marketing and branding organization known as the IOC perpetuates this fantasy. But since Berlin '36, the Olympics has become a hyper nationalist propaganda festival. When we review the opening ceremonies of the Bejing Olympics and its thousands of robotic drummers, we are reminded of the Nazi sponsored Berlin Olympics. Over the years individual athletes and entire countries have engaged in systematic cheating with the use of performance enhancing drugs.  I think of the East German programs, I think of the Russian program that came to light in the last couple of years; I think of Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter, and Marion Jones, the American sprinter. The list is very long.

The Olympic program today is a huge marketing brand. It's a great show complete with soft pornography. It revels in nationalism and money and spectacle.  Medals and winning and records seem outshine sport.

Yet through it all, sport persists. Athletes remain real, and their efforts, de Coubertin would say, are there to appreciated from the lowliest heats to the finals. If we keep our eye on the ball, on the Olympic ideal envisioned by de Coubertin, on the stories and athletes who are there to compete--out of the medals--out of the finals, sport remains true.

I'll be keeping my eye on the triple jump event on August 15-16. And I'll be rooting for Christian Taylor. And I won't give a hoot about the medal count.

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