Political controversies, cheating and doping menace have ended the clean image of sports
The Olympic Games are so much about human excellence. The degree varies with each sport, but in essence each event provides scope for unbelievable level of perfection that often leaves one wondering if there can be a limit for ‘excellence’.
Over the years, right from 1896 when U.S. triple jumper James B. Connolly became the first Olympic champion, sportspersons from various parts of the globe have been striving for nothing but the best in various sporting events.
Some succeed, a few fail and a few others find ways to mask their shortcomings. With rising stakes the Games have come under intense scrutiny.
However, looking back, at a time when even stepping into an Olympic arena is in itself a major achievement then it can well be imagined how it must have been to be able to do well and be remembered forever. Like Nadia Comaneci in gymnastics.
Gymnasts of various hues have come and gone, left their imprints as Olga Korbut did in the 1972 Games and many more after her, but what the 14-year-old Romanian Comaneci came up with those astounding perfect 10 scores in 1976 Olympics, made one believe that greatness lay not in winning gold medals alone but in performances that can be everlasting.
Comaneci’s feat is no isolated incident.
Track and field athletes too have left imprints for posterity, each masters in their own trade, like distance runners — Paavo Nurmi, Lasse Viren, Abebe Bikila — and sprinters — Michael Johnson, Carl Lewis and many more among men, Cathy Freeman, Florence Joyner Kersee, Wilma Rudolph and several other incredible stars among women.
All of them brightened the Olympic arenas with their individual brilliance.
And yet the one performance that strikes many as something out of the world was Bob Beamon’s.
The gigantic long jump of 29 feet 2-1/2 inches that the American achieved in that thin atmosphere of Mexico in 1968 to better the record by an incredible 55cm was simply stunning. It is a different matter that his compatriot Mike Powell later broke that world mark but in the Olympic records Beamon’s name remains etched in golden letters.
Outstanding performers sprang up in various other disciplines too to make Olympics an enchanting spectacle.
Swimming, for instance was witness to Mark Spitz’s achievement (seven gold medals) in the 1972 Games in Munich. Nobody thought it could ever be bettered but Michael Phelps, another American gave a new meaning to ‘excellence’.
His eight gold-medal haul in Beijing 2008 provided a new dimension to swimming and there could be more from him at the London Games.
Many such fascinating Olympic tales exist but the common link in every incredible act is the desire to excel. When expectations mount, pressure increases, then Olympic fields will turn into stages of multiple emotions. As it happened in Beijing 2008.
The home fans cheering for Liu Xiang, the Olympic champion hurdler, were shocked when their favourite dropped out of the race in tears citing an Achilles injury.
In Barcelona in 1992, another athlete, Derek Redmond from Great Britain, a 400m specialist and the one who had several world-level marks to his credit, had the mortification of injuring his hamstring during his semifinal run.
He collapsed in pain, but what happened next is what is remembered most. Redmond’s father ran in to help his son complete a full lap of the track.
An Olympic medal was lost but the crowd gave him a standing ovation for showing the spirit of the occasion.
Olympic ambience can evoke varied feelings. It can be touching as it was watching legendary Muhammad Ali with trembling hands, affected by Parkinson’s disease, lighting the Atlanta Games flame.
Cathy Freeman too left an indelible image of her lighting the flame before winning the 400m gold in Sydney 2000.
The Australian aborigine had run for a cause and could not have capped her career in greater style. Four years later, Brit Paula Radcliffe, world record-holder collapsed, three miles from finish in the marathon in Athens.
Exhaustion shattered her Olympic dream, like it did for Mary Decker in 1984 when she tumbled in the 3000m after colliding with Zola Budd. Another Olympic hope doused.
Controversies too dogged Olympics. Political differences had calamitous echoes in the seemingly violent-free Games settings. The killings in Munich (1972) changed the Games’ perspective.
Then came the Olympic boycotts — 1980 and 1984 — triggered by Western and Eastern blocs. The bomb explosion at the Atlanta Games brought terror closer again to the benign atmosphere of sports.
In the competitions too, acrimony crept at times (the well-known U.S. and USSR basketball final in 1972 where USSR was declared winner and U.S. refused to collect the silver) and cheating too (pentathlete Boris Onishchenko in 1976 Montreal, caught cheating in fencing event, by having his sword wired and electronically triggering scores in his favour).
Then the greatest menace of doping came to light. Ben Johnson’s exit after an amazing 100m run in the 1988 Seoul Games ended the clean image of sports. But the Games must go on … for pride remains.