Track drama sustained Olympics despite boycott
The dramatic duels of Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, the incredible distance running of Miruts Yifter, the overall dominance of the host Soviet Union -- and of course the absence of the United States and other boycotting countries -- were among the many memorable aspects of the first Olympics ever held in a communist nation.
Alexander Dityatin dominated men's gymnastics with eight medals, the most ever by any competitor in any sport in a single Olympics, while the women's spoils were divided among Montreal heroine Nadia Comaneci and a group of other acrobatic Eastern Europeans. Teofilo Stevenson became the first man to win he prestigious heavyweight boxing gold medal three times, while in other nottable achievements Vladimir Salnikov led the soviet Union to its first taste of men's swimming glory; East Germany's Waldemar Cierpinski matched Abebe Bikila's historic 1960-64 feat of winning the marathon twice in a row; and Yugoslavia took the men's basketball gold in a major surprise as the heavily favored Soviets lost twice in the preliminaries and had to settle for the bronze.
Even all that only scratches the surface of the usual two weeks of exciting, often record- breaking competition among some 6,000 athletes representing 81 nations. There were 36 world and 62 Olympic records set (compared with figures of 36 and 68 at Montreal), including six world marks in the glamour sport of track and field and the usual flood tide of both types of records in the pool by East Germany's women's team. But there were many sad moments here too in the failures of such past heroes as Lasse Viren, Alberto Juantorena, weightlifter Vasily Alexeev, and others to repeat their former triumphs.
Then too, of course, there was the boycott. The Soviet press played down the effect of the absence of the United States and 35 other nations in protest over the USSR's intervention in Afghanistan, noting correctly that the level of competition was nevertheless generally high. There's no doubt it would have been even higher, though, with everyone here -- especially in swimming, men's gymnastics and track and field, boxing, basketball, and several other sports.
The absence of so many Western athletes -- especially the fun-loving Americans -- was felt outside the arena too. "The Olympic Village is just not the same without the Yanks," was a commonly heard remark by competitors from Britain, Australia, and other countries. Add to this the overall rigidity of Moscow and the Soviet regime, plus the continuous inhibiting presence of large numbers of police and security men, and the result was an Olympics with less spark and spontaneity than usual. There was nothing wrong with the facilities, services, and organization, though. All of these were first rate for competitors and the entire Olympic entourage.
As for medals, with not only the United States missing its first games ever but such other relatively strong athletic nations as West Germany and Japan also absent, it was preety much an iron curtain show all the way. The hst nation dominated the unofficial overall standings as expected, with East Germany second by another wide margin, and everyone else pretty much along for the ride except for scattered individual triumphs.
The final tally showed the Soviets with staggering totals of 80 gold and 195 overall medals -- figures not ever likely to be equaled unless another Olympics comes along in which one of the top powers stays home (the previous highs, also set by the Soviets had been their 50 golds at Munich and their 125 medals at Montreal). East Germany was second in both counts, with Eastern European nations also taking the next four places. Britain was the top-scoring Western country with five gold (four in track and one in swimming) and 21 medals overall.
There were the usual disputes in sports requiring judging, such as gymnastics , boxing, and diving, plus some very questionable rulings favoring Soviet athletes in track and field, where all the judges were from the host country. Otherwise things ran pretty smoothly.
The crowds at some venues, however, were very badly behaved -- often whistling and making noise in an attempt to unsettle non-Soviet competitors in contrast to the polite and respectful receptions usually given foreign athletes, including the Soviets, at other Olympics. The Soviet fans also demonstrated a "what have you done for me lately" attitude toward their own heroes, jeering the basketball team when it lost and failing to give their 38-year-old ex-weightlifting champion Alexeev even the slightest applause in recognition of past achievements.
In track and field, the "Battle of Britain" between Coe and Ovett in the middle distance events got top billing, but in the end it was Yifter who stole the show. The little Ethiopian captivated the crowds with his amazing late bursts in both the 5,000 and 10,000 to emerge as the only athlete to win two gold medals in this sport, which is always the centerpiece of the games.
Ovett had a shot at two gold after beating Coe in the 800, the race Steve had been considered less likely to win, but Coe came back to run away from his archrival before a capacity crowd of 103,000 in Lenin Central Stadium on the closing day of track and field competition, inflicting the first defeat on Ovett at this distance since 1977 and leaving the two holders of many world records with one gold medal apiece. Their long-awaited first meeting since 1978 thus ended in something of a standoff, though with an edge to Coe via his victory in the featured metric-mile event plus the fact that he got the silver medal in the 800 while Ovett finished only third in his losing effort.
British sprinter Allan Wells came closest of all to matching Yifter in the gold medal department. He took the 100 in very impressive fashion, then appeared to have the 200 won also until world record holder Pietro Mennea of Italy just nipped him with a desperate surge in the final strides.
Still another Briton, Daley Thompson, made it one of the biggest track and field successes for that country in many years by winning the decathlon. As in various other events, however, his victory was diminished by the fact that his two top rivals were from boycotting nations and thus not here.
Most spectacular among the world record breakers were Wladysaw Kozakiewicz of Poland, who cleared 18 ft. 11 1/2 in. in the pole vault despite a hostile crowd, which did its best to disrupt his concentration, and unheralded East German high jumper Gerd Wessig, who leaped 7-8 3/4 despite the dual distractions of the unruly crowd and the first marathon finishers entering the stadium just as he started his approach.
In men's gymnastics, Dityatin surpassed even the feats of his Soviet teammate Nikolai Andrianov four years ago with medals in every possible category for a total of eight, eclipsing the previous high of seven shared by Andrianov and US swimmer Mark Spitz (all gold in 1972).
Dityatin won the all-around title and two other golds (one individual, one team), plus four silvers and one bronze. His feat lost some of its impact, however, because of the absence of a strong US team led by Kurt Thomas plus the perennially powerful Japanese. And in any event, as always, it was overshadowed in the publicity department by the women's version of the sport.
Yelena Davydova, a tiny 18-year-old dazzler who was a late addition to the Soviet team and was competing in her first major international competition, wrested the all-around title from Comaneci in some close and controversial scoring.
Nadia did win two individual golds (she was the only woman gymnast to do so), though she had to share one with Nelli Kim in the floor exercises. Comaneci's other victory came on the balance beam. The USSR took the team title.
The story in the swimming pool was just what everyone said it would be -- a romp for the East German women and a dominating showing by the Soviet men. Seventeen different female swimmers won medals for East Germany, which seemed to have the pool to itself in a performance which included six 1-2- 3 sweeps and a total of 26 medals compared to 13 for all other nations combined.
For the men Sergei Fesenko won the opening event on the program, the 200 -meter butterfly, to become the first Soviet male swimmer ever to earn an Olympic gold medal. It was Salnikov who was the big hero, though, winning three golds, including one in an historic 1,500-meter swim in which he became the first man ever to break 15 minutes for the classic metric mile distance, clocking 14:58.27
The Soviet basketballers, despite the presence of 7-4 center Vladimir Tkachenko, were upset by both Italy and Yugoslavia in an embarrassing home court performance. The latter teams eventually played for the gold, with the Yugoslavs prevailing.
Stevenson won all his fights with relative ease, although the last one was an unimpressive and fairly close split decision (4-1) over Pyotr Zaev of the USSR, to carve his niche in Olympic history and lead a Cuban harvest of six boxing gold medals.
Nostalgia fans had a field day at these games, with many famous names of the past vying for medals. One who succeeded was Soviet triple jumper Viktor Saneyev of the Soviet Union, who missed equaling US discus thrower Al Oerter's feat of four straight gold medals, but got a silver this time to go with his first place jumps in 1968-72-76.
Many otehr former champions, however, had sadder results. Viren, the amazing winner of the 5,000 and 10,000 at both Munich and Montreal, tried a different double here but could manage only fifth in the 10,000 and failed to finish the marathon. Juantorena, the 400 and 800 winner at Montreal, tried only bthe former race and finished fourth. Another veteran apparently reaching the end of the trail was sprinter Irena Szewinska of Poland, who already had won medals in a record four straight Olympics but who failed to extend the streak. And of course there was Alexeev, the Soviet strongman who captivated US TV audiences at Montreal but who failed in all three tries at his first weight of 396 pounds this time.
Medal standings Gold Silver Bronze Totals Soviet Union 80 69 46 195 East Germany 47 37 41 125 Bulgaria 8 16 16 40 Hungary 7 10 15 32 Poland 3 14 15 32 Romania 6 6 13 25 Britain 5 7 9 21 Cuba 8 7 5 20 Italy 8 3 4 15 France 6 5 3 14 Czechoslovakia 2 3 9 14 Sweden 3 3 6 12 Australia 2 2 5 9 Yugoslavia 2 3 4 9 Finland 3 1 4 8 Spain 1 3 2 6 Denmark 2 1 2 5 North Korea 0 3 2 5
Every other competing country won four or less total medals.