Past Olympians Recall The Tears and Triumphs
Chris Huffins has not yet participated in the Olympic Games, but like many other athletes he has felt their unmistakable pull.
Just making the Olympic team, as he did last weekend in sweltering Atlanta at the United States track and field trials, brought a sense of fulfillment for this fast-rising decathlete from Indiana.
"As a kid I wanted to be a basketball player," Huffins said after taking third to Olympic favorite Dan O'Brien and Steve Fritz. "But since I started doing track and field six or seven years ago, I wanted to be an NCAA [college] champion and I wanted to be an Olympian. Now no matter what happens the rest of my life, I'm an Olympian."
Being an Olympian is something that stays with you forever, as former participants attest. Whether winning or losing, they gained a permanent status that has left an indelible mark on their lives. The centennial Games beginning July 19 will usher in its own series of dreams and memories.
To catch a glimpse of what it means to the roughly 10,000 athletes who will step through the Olympic gates in Atlanta, the Monitor turned to past Olympians who know firsthand the meaning of the Olympic creed: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part."
American cyclist John Allis says that, when he first competed in the Games in 1964, the Olympics were less important in cycling than cycling's world championships. Nonetheless, Allis determinedly made his way to two more Olympics, drawn at least in part by what he describes as "a tremendous feeling of community that totally disregards political, social, and religious boundaries."
Few Olympians return home with medals, yet all are placed in a position to benefit from the heroism the Games call forth. Commenting on the charged atmosphere, Pius Ochieng, a Kenyan weightlifter at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, says, "There's an intensity and an immensity to the experience." This experience, and its impact on later life, differs from person to person.
In the short profiles that follow, athletes before and after World War II open their mental scrapbooks. Together they represent every region or continent symbolized by the five Olympic rings - Asia, Africa, Europe, America, and Australia.
CANADA, TRACK & FIELD
It was 1936 and Hilda Cameron was the fastest woman in Canada when she set out from Montreal to the Olympic Games in Berlin.
She vividly recalls opening day 60 years ago, marching with her 95-member Canadian team into a huge stadium with neat rows of black-and-red swastika banners. And how the master of ceremonies, Adolph Hitler, rose to give his trademark stiff-armed salute to open the Games of the 11th Olympiad.
"I remember there were 100,000 people, all of them shouting 'Heil Hitler,' " says the sprightly white-haired woman whose married name is Hilda Cameron Young. "It was deafening and it went on for half an hour before we could even begin."
Germany had been pouring money and manpower into fine-tuning a huge contingent of German athletes for the Games. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels wanted the Games to be a tribute to Hitler - and to the Nazi belief in the superiority of the "Aryan race."
It was not to be. Young remembers how a young black athlete named Jesse Owens, from the United States, upset Hitler's plans by winning four gold medals in track and field.
"He wasn't a close friend, but I'm glad I knew him," Young says, turning in her scrapbook to a snapshot she took of Owens in Berlin, posing in a white sweater and slacks. "We didn't find out until later all the things the Nazis were doing to try to disrupt his performance."
Young herself failed to get beyond the first heat in the 100-meter dash. But she and three teammates did well enough in the 4-by-100-meter relay to make it to the finals against the US, Italian, German, and British teams.
Running the final curve in the race's third leg, Young handed the baton off to her friend Eileen Meagher, who was anchor.
"We all made good handoffs, but we came in two-tenths of a second behind the Brits - who came in second to Helen Stevens and the Americans," she says. "It was a fine moment for us though. We won the bronze and it made us feel very proud to be there representing Canada."(The Canadian women's relay team's bronze medal was one of just nine Canadian medals: one gold, three silver, and five bronze.)
Young quit running after the Olympics, got her teaching certificate, and taught grade school and eighth-grade English in Ontario for 42 years before retiring. She now lives in a tidy, modern efficiency apartment in a Toronto high-rise.
But on occasion, as happened unexpectedly when a local municipality recently honored her on the 60th anniversary of winning the bronze, Young can be cajoled into opening a closet and pulling out her opening-ceremony red blazer with Canadian maple-leaf insignia, her scrapbooks - and her medal. "Someone offered me $5,000 for it - but I would never sell it."
Memories flit by along with the pages of the official 1936 Olympic yearbook, until finally, she arrives at the first page - a large black-and-white picture of Hitler saluting the athletes at the Games.
"There's that old devil," she says with a laugh, then pauses. "The Olympics were a wonderful experience for me. But you sure knew a war was coming."
Los Angeles 1984
WEIGHTLIFTER Pius Ochieng knows the Olympic spirit can push across the cultural divide.
The Kenyan athlete found out how, at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles where he met a young volunteer security guard checking credentials at the Olympic village gates. She didn't first strike him as the woman of his dreams.
"These Americans! She really thought people from Africa lived in trees, and didn't drive cars. She didn't even think some of us spoke English, much less several languages. But we got to talking,...." he says with a chuckle, and a far-away look. "Over time we became very close. She learned all kinds of things about Kenya. We even thought about getting married."
The muscle-bound Kenyan lifter finished 10th in the 100-kilo division in the 1984 Games. He traveled to Seoul, for the 1988 competition, and ranked 15th.
"The atmosphere is very tense when you're competing. Really, nobody wants to talk to each other because you're trying to get your mind together. You need room for mental preparation," he says.
"But afterward that breaks down. We sit together just like one family. Somehow the competition, in the end, creates a harmony."
When Ochieng first stepped into the Olympic ring, Kenyans didn't have coaches. He says that's why he returned for the 1992 Games in a new role.
"Coaching presents the greater challenge," he says. "You can't do it yourself, but you have to prepare your lifter, you have to plan. It is very, very taxing."
Ochieng recalls a young athlete he coached in the 1992 Games, who arrived in Barcelona unable to lift what he had back home.
"In the warm-up room, the day of competition, the boy tells me, 'Coach, I can't do it. Coach, I'm nervous,' " he says. "This is the time you talk to him, and bring his mind together. In the end, he broke the Kenyan record."
Ochieng says the emotional peak of the Olympics allows an athlete to excel.
"There's an intensity, and an immensity to the experience - the crush of people, the multitiered platforms, the closed-circuit TVs, the judges, the jury..." he says. "There are about 6,000 pairs of eyes in the gym alone watching you. You can feel they're all sending you moral support. You have to give them your best."
Ochieng grew up on Mfangano Island, in a remote fishing village on central Africa's Lake Victoria. He says local residents spend much of the day canoeing and fishing, but don't think of the activities as sports. Twelve years after his first Olympic experience, Ochieng's most enduring memory remains the American woman who, for a moment, captured his heart.
"We corresponded for years and met again. I wanted to take her to Kenya, she wanted me to live in America," he says. "Still, for an instant in time, we had come to understand one another. That's the spirit of the Games."
Adhemar Ferreira da Silva
BRAZIL, TRACK & FIELD
HE'S the only Brazilian ever to win two gold medals and perhaps the first modern Olympic athlete to celebrate the now-common victory lap with flag in hand.
Adhemar Ferreira da Silva won gold medals in the triple jump at the 1952 Games in Helsinki and in 1956 in Melbourne.
His finest hour occurred in Helsinki, where he dazzled a crowd of 70,000 spectators by breaking the world record four times in six jumps. After he received the gold medal, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. "They yelled 'Da Silva, Da Silva,' and someone handed me flowers and a Brazilian flag," he recalls. "A judge then urged me to acknowledge the cheers by running around the track. I still find it difficult to explain the emotion I felt that day."
In 1993, Da Silva returned to Finland and received another standing ovation upon entering a Helsinki track event. "It was like I had never left. "Every Finn that I've ever met remembers me as the Hero of Helsinki."
Today, Da Silva lives quietly in the same modest So Paulo home he was born in, in the middle-class neighborhood of Casa Verde.
Since his track days ended, Da Silva has worked at a variety of jobs, including sports reporter, physical education teacher, and as a lobbyist for a foundation that seeks government and private assistance for Brazil's Olympic athletes.
"It makes no sense that a country with 150 million people has won only nine gold medals in its entire history," laments Da Silva. "Young athletes don't have the support here that they do in the United States."
This year, Da Silva has spoken out over the skewed budget for Brazil's world champion "dream team" soccer squad, whose Olympic $3 million equals the entire budget for Brazil's 280-member Olympic delegation.
"When you think that there are athletes going to Atlanta without any money, it's a great disparity," he says.
Finally, Da Silva advises Brazilian athletes not to rest on their Olympic laurels.
"I always tell young athletes to continue their studies and not become a future social problem," he says. "Glory is temporary."
One of Japan's best and most-remembered weightlifters, Yoshinbu Miyake won gold in Tokyo in 1964 and in Mexico in 1968. Thirty years later, Miyake, president of the Physical Training School of the Self Defense Forces (Japan's Military), helps his students to become Olympians.
Clad in a white shirt uniform with colorful badges of merit, the quiet, energetic Miyake recalls his days as world featherweight champ.
"Winning a gold in the Tokyo Olympics has changed my life," he says. It was an experience that determined his conduct and view of people thereafter.
"[Being a popular gold medalist,] I've lost freedom in my private life, but 70 percent of my successful life is due to my performance in the Olympics," he says.
Compared with other major athletic events, the Olympics is special because "it is competition among countries, among super 'first class' athletes in all disciplines from all over the world.
Olympians compete for the honor of their native countries, and countries in return should offer to a gold medalist special rewards, such as a condominium, land, and permanent employment with national athletic organizations."
The Japanese Olympic Committee started in 1992 awarding Olympic medalists - with 3 million yen ($27,500) for a gold; 2 million yen ($18,300) for a silver; and 1 million yen ($9,200) for a bronze. Asked if he felt special pressure to excel in the 1964 Tokyo Games, Miyake says, coupled with an unyielding spirit and 'hungry spirit', his pre-Tokyo career as a world top weightlifter helped him in overcoming such pressure. Miyake had won the silver (bantamweight) in Rome in 1960, and captured international championship several times.
One of Miyake's most unforgettable memories about the Olympics is that the current Emperor and the Empress (then Crown Prince Akihto and Crown Princess Michiko) came over to watch his performance.
He writes in a memoir that the appearance of the imperial couple before him amid fierce battle with a US rival, Isaac Berger, was really inspiring and enabled him to renew his resolve to "make it."
The 5 ft., 1 in. Miyake was often dubbed "small giant" or "small ironman." He declares, " 'small' is unnecessary. Just 'Miyake, the Ironman' would suffice."
USSR, TRACK & FIELD
IT is the day after round one of the Russian presidential elections, and, like other members of Boris Yeltsin's campaign, Tamara Press knows the hardest part is yet to come. "I was certain we would win in the first round," she says to a fellow Yeltsin voter over the phone. But even as she speaks of her disappointment, her voice betrays her confidence for the upcoming run-off between the incumbent president and Communist Gennady Zyuganov. "I'm sure he will win," she says to the visitors in her office.
Political scientists may not be as certain, but Press, having smelled victory more than once, is somewhat of an expert in these matters.
In 1960, Press went to the Olympic Games in Rome and won the gold for shot put and the silver for the discus throw. In Tokyo in 1964, she won gold in both events.
Winning meant everything to her "Only those who have moral strength are able to gain victory," she says. "The moral idea [of the Olympics] is to make the homeland glorious in the world."
In spite of her democratic leanings today, Press still takes very seriously her role in bringing glory to the former Soviet Union. "It was a victory of our country," she emphasizes. "Communism - that's another question."
Press cites the pride she felt on seeing the Soviet flag hoisted after her victories as the most important thing she gained from her Olympic experience.
"Materially, I'm sure we received 10 times less than the American athletes," she says. Still, she admits that her moderate fame has helped, "solve a lot of problems today." Her main work is serving as vice president of the Physical Culture and Health Fund, a charity that provides material assistance to promising athletes.
Press also lobbies for greater government funding of sports and athletic training. It is essential, she contends, that the state provide formal schooling for athletics such as she received.
"No matter how talented you are, if you have no schooling to learn the skills and techniques, you will not be able to do anything serious in sports."
She gives her coach, Victor Alexeyev, much of the credit for her victories. "He was a genius," she says. "All of his students should understand that 50 percent of our success is [due to him]." The other 50 percent perhaps can be credited to Press's unwavering sense of purpose.
"In Tokyo, my main competitor in the shot put dropped it on my thigh," she recalls. "There was so much tension that I didn't even notice. After the competition I saw a black mark on my leg, and thought, 'What's this?' "
As she chuckles at the anecdote, she is quick to point out its moral. "As soon as you get distracted, as soon as you begin to doubt, that's the end of you. That [intensity] is the psychology of the champion."
AUSTRALIAN swimmer Dawn Fraser's Olympic memories are very different from those of other Australians, who remember equally her Olympic battles with Australian swimming officials and her amazing prowess in the pool. She collected three consecutive gold medals for the 100 meters freestyle, first at the Melbourne Games in 1956, then in Rome in 1960 and in Tokyo in 1964.
As for Australian swimming officialdom, the Olympic memories are downright contradictory. Despite being Australia's greatest swimmer, Fraser was banned for 10 years after creating Olympic history for "misbehavior" at the Tokyo Games.
Although her official "crimes" were never published, media reports at the time said Fraser had climbed into the Imperial Palace to steal a Japanese flag, swam in the palace moat, visited the men's section of the Games village, competed in an unofficial team swimsuit, and marched in the opening ceremony in defiance of Australian Olympic officials.
Fraser has consistently denied all the allegations. Yes, says Fraser, she did swim in a non-team swimsuit, but with permission. Yes, she and other Australian Olympians did steal a Japanese flag, not from the Imperial Palace, but from a flag pole in a street nearby. No, she was never caught red-handed up the flag-pole, but she did steal a police bicycle to get away and later crashed it into a wall.
For Fraser, the whole escapade was youthful exuberance. "It was laughable really, because there they [the Japanese and Australian officials] were all stern-faced when in walked a messenger from the Japanese palace with a huge bouquet of flowers and a Japanese flag - a gift from the emperor," Fraser recalls. "It really was a comedy of errors."
But Tokyo was not Fraser's first Olympic clash with Australian swimming officialdom. She was unofficially banned for 12 months after the Rome Games for refusing to swim the butterfly leg of the medley, despite being world record holder, after saying that she had stomach cramps.
Fraser still believes that her 10-year ban after Tokyo was punishment for her working-class attitude.
"They had been gunning for me for years. I was the only one out of three that was caught with the Japanese flag that was reprimanded for a misdemeanor," she says. The young Fraser, from a poor family of eight, saw herself as a frank, honest woman who disliked officialdom. But Australian swimming officials saw her rebellious streak as disruptive and were out to break her, she says. "That's what drove me on to never being defeated over 100 meters in my career. They tried to take things away from me, but they could never take records - could never take Olympic gold medals."
But for Fraser, Olympic memories are not of controversy, but glory - the glory of winning her first gold medal in 1956 in Melbourne when still a teenager. "They [the memories of controversy] are there, but they are not important Olympic memories to me," she says. "The important Olympic memories are of standing on the block waiting to compete, of winning and standing on the dais collecting the gold medal. The other things are not as powerful as being an Olympic champion."
Fraser says it took days for the memory to sink in. Back home in the house in which she was born - in the dockside Sydney suburb of Balmain where she still lives today - Fraser says she realized she was an Olympic champion when, "I woke up one morning at home with my mother and father and I just thought this gold medal is mine. I actually realized 10 days later that I was an Olympic champion," she recalls.
John Allis competed in three Olympics hoping to earn newfound respect for American cycling. It never happened.
"The one unifying thing I remember was disappointment that I didn't do better personally, that we didn't do better as a team," Allis says of his experiences at the 1964, 1968, and 1972 Olympics.
Allis, who is now a business partner in two Boston-area bike shops near his Belmont, Mass., home, seems uncertain about where he placed in the individual road-race event. "I finished 75th or something," he says about his Olympic debut in Tokyo.
Four years later something he ate the night before competing in Mexico City disagreed with him and he didn't finish. Then in '72 it was another nondescript, middle-of-the-pack result that did nothing for American cycling prestige.
While his Olympic experiences were "very memorable," he says they were hardly fun. "We were aspiring to achieve a level that was maybe beyond us, and that's not necessarily fun," he says.
Allis could not accept the verdict shared with him on two different occasions that Americans were patently inferior as cyclists.
"That was discrimination, something I hadn't encountered before as a white American." In retrospect, he partly attributes this notion to poor US Olympic showings.
His involvement with cycling has deep roots. His father used to commute to Boston from neighboring Cambridge via bike and the Allises would take family bicycle trips together. In the 1960s, Allis raced collegiately for Princeton University, and got a taste for European racing when he spent an "enforced leave of absence" at the University of Paris. In France he was smitten with cycling, and became one of the first Americans to win a Category 1 race.
Allis began his Olympic participation during a period of rapid, often sobering change. The most jarring event in this transition occurred at the 1972 Games in Munich where terrorists invaded the Olympic Village and massacred a group of Israeli athletes. That incident, Allis says, has turned subsequent villages into "fenced in, militarized zones that almost nobody can get into." By today's standards, Allis says the Munich village was relatively porous. In fact, he met his wife, a San Francisco radio reporter, there.
For Allis, challenges to the Games surfaced in Mexico City in 1968, when student riots, black-power salutes, commercialization, and TV money began to alter the Games.
Allis describes the Mexico City Games as "a seat-of-the-pants" Olympics, which despite their serious developments, were "very enjoyable because they were so freewheeling." By contrast, he says the Japanese made sure that everything was beautifully orchestrated in 1964 in Tokyo. One special memory occurred at these Games, where the cyclists were housed apart from the other athletes. He missed contact with the athletes in other sports, yet nightly programs at the cycling village included topics such as flower arranging, rock gardening, and Japanese theater. "I felt that I really got to know the Japanese and their culture," Allis says.