For some, Moscow Olympiad is poignancy, a last hurrah
From Soviet national hero Viktor Saneyev to East Germany's javelin-throwing wonder Ruth Fuchs to Montreal superstars Lasse Viren and Alberto Juantorena, several of the most famous names of recent Olympic history have been battling for medals once again this year. Some succeeded, some failed, and for some the results are not yet complete, but whether in victory or defeat, each has added his or her own element of poignancy and human drama to these 1980 games.
Saneyev, recently voted "Male Athlete of the Decade" by Track and Field News, had won the triple jump at the last three Olympics. He thus came to Moscow with a chance to equal US discus thrower Al Oerter 's record streak of gold medals in the same event in four consecutive games.
Actually, Saneyev, now 34, wasn't given much chance of doing that -- or even of winning any sort of medal. The Soviet jumper was only fourth among his own countrymen in terms of recent performance, but was put on the team anyway in recognition of his past glory. he also was given the honor of carrying the Olympic torch in the opening ceremony, and was obviously a big favorite of the capacity crowds of 103,000 that jammed Lenin Stadium for the competition.
All of this apparently had a positive effect, for Saneyev rose to the heights once again, coming through with a leap of 17.24 meters. It wasn't quite enough for the gold (teammate Jak Uudmae got that with a jump of 17.35), but it captured the silver medal, which was a lot more than most people expected.
For Fuchs, winner of the javelin in both 1972 and 1976 and "Female Athlete of the Decade" in that same magazine poll, the ending wasn't such a happy one. She was second in the qualifying with a throw of 64.26 meters, but in the finals the best she could do was 63.94 -- good only for eighth place.
Viren, the Finnish distance running machine who had doubled in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at Munich in 1972, then broken all precedent by repeating those triumphs at Montreal, also didn't fare quite as well this time. He ran with the leaders almost all the way in the 10,000, but fell victim in the end to the closing surge of Ethiopia's Miruts Yifter and dropped back to a fifth-place finish. He still has another chance, however, on Friday's closing day of track and field, when instead of the 5,000 he is expected to run in the marathon.
Juantorena, the long-striding Cuban who won both the 400 and 800 in Montreal, is still working his way back after relatively recent surgery and elected to try only the shorter distance here. He breezed through his first two heats with relative ease on Sunday and Monday, advanced again via a third-place finish in the semifinals Monday night, and now gets a welcome day of rest today before Wednesday night's final.
And these are just a few of the people whose past feats and/or tribulations make their presence here noteworthy.
Irena Szewinska, the amazing Polish runner whose records already include most individual medals won by a female track and field performer (six) and most consecutive Olympics winning medals by any runner of either sex (four), came here at the age of 34 to try the totally unbelievable feat of adding to those marks. She got through her first heat of the women's 400 easily enough and appeared en route to qualifying for the final when she pulled up with an apparent injury. She still could make one more try for at least a team medal, though, in the 4X100 or 4X400 relays later this week if her injury is not too serious.
John Aki-Bua is another name out of the past who showed up here with hopes of recapturing some of the old glory. Few athletes have looked more ecstatic than this great Ugandan hurdler as he leaped high with joy throughout his victory lap after winning the 400-meter hurdles in 1972. But things have not been so happy for John since that golden mometn eight years ago.
Aki Bua went to Montreal in hopes of defending his laurels, but Uganda was one of the African nations that walked out of those games. Caught soon thereafter in the web of violence in his strife-torn nation during the rule of Idi Amin, John was, in his words, "virtually a prisoner in my own country" for several years. Several members of his family, including five brothers and a sister, were killed. Eventually, in March of 1979, he was able to escape. Since then he has been living in West Germany and trying to regain some semblance of his old form.
Obviously not in his old form, Aki-Bua managed to squeak through his first heat as one of the last qualifiers, but finished next to last in the semifinals in 51:10 seconds -- a sad peformance compared to the world record 47.8 he clocked at Munich. And at 31, with all he's been through, it would appear that his Olympic days are over.
Sprinter James Gilkes, who tried unsuccessfully to compete as a "man without a country" in Montreal after his Guyana team joined the African boycott, was another political victim still hanging in there in pursuit of a medal (in his case it would have been the first one). He won his first two heats in the 100 but just missed qualifying for the final by an agonizing 1/100th of a second. His last hope was in the 200 and again he breezed into the semifinal, before once more falling out of the medal chase.
Finally there is Nikolai Andrianov, the Soviet gymnast who earned a record-tying seven medals in one Olympics at Montreal but was reported to be over the hill and less of a factor here. Andrianov did have to take a back seat to the great performance of his countryman Alexandr Dityanin, who dominated the men's events, and of course the absence of the boycotting US and Japanese teams watered down the competition, but still the record books will show that the star of Montreal added to that harvest with six more medals -- two gold (one individual and one team), two silver, and two bronze.
Certainly for most of these athletes, this was the last hurrah -- or at least the last realistic shot t winning performances. But given the staying power and determination they have exhibited in the past, don't be surprised if some of them manage to show up in 1984 for still another bid.