Now before you think that my Olympic medal winning exploits had passed you by, let me clarify at the outset that I haven’t even attended a Games, let alone competed in one, but cynically entitled this piece as I have to grab your hopefully more than fleeting attention. This is an account of my evolving connection with the Olympics over the past half century.
As I start this article the official website ( http://www.london2012.com ) informs me that it is one day, twelve hours and seventeen minutes to go to the Opening Ceremony of the XXX Olympiad in London, the precise details of which, including the identity of the individual lighting the Olympic cauldron, remain a surprisingly well guarded secret.
I leapt from the blocks at the Rome games of 1960, or rather sat on the living room floor with my legs, and, due to my proximity to the new but tiny black and white television, eyes, crossed, cheering on Great Britain’s two gold medallists, Anita Lonsbrough in the women’s 200 metres breaststroke and the diminutive Don Thompson, waddling hilariously for 50 kilometres in sunglasses and mum made white hat.
Great Britain doubled its gold medal tally in Tokyo in 1964 with victories for Ann Packer in the women’s 800 metres (whom of a certain age could forget David Coleman’s hysterical television commentary as she took the lead in the home straight and broke the world record?), Lynn Davies and Mary Rand in the men’s and women’s long jump respectively, and Ken Matthews in the shorter form (20 kilometres) waddle. The glory was accentuated by the fact that the television had grown a couple of inches in the intervening four years.
Don’t worry – this article is not a list of British gold medal winners over the last 50 years, but rather an account of how the Games have, or, on occasions, not, touched my life at various stages.
What is interesting about my childhood Games watching is that, bedtime regime permitting, I watched all of it, not just the glamorous events like the men’s 100 metres, pole vault and high jump (well ok, the 100 metres then), but everything – from fencing and water polo to weightlifting and graeco-roman wrestling.
And I loved it! There was never a chance that a British competitor would stalk the podium in the majority of sports, but it was the Olympics, the original “greatest show on earth” and it was on television! My only reservations at the time, as a prepubescent and then fully pubescent boy in the sixties, were that neither synchronised swimming nor beach volleyball had been invented as Olympic sports for another 20 and 30 years respectively.
(one day, eleven hours and thiry six minutes).
It was the athletes from behind the iron curtain, particularly the Soviet Union, that fascinated me most. Perhaps it was their exotic names (the brilliant ice dance pairing of Lyudmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov still raise a juvenile titter), or the fact that we knew so little about their society, or the allegations that most of their women were actually men, or the suggestion that they took performance-enhancing drugs, or that they received massive state sponsorship (there was still an expectation that competitors should be amateur) Or it may just have been because they were so bloody good.
The most notorious case was that of the Press sisters, Tamara (shot put gold in 1960 and 1964 and discus gold in 1964) and Irina (80 metres hurdles gold in 1960 and modern pentathlon gold in 1964), who were effectively hounded from the Games after Tokyo in the wake of persistent Western mockery and, more pertinently, the introduction of gender testing in 1966. They never took the test and their sudden disappearance was explained by Soviet officials as enforced retirement in the Ukraine to care for their ailing mother (or was that father?).
Before I move on, I must make it clear that, in the interests of political correctness and indeed accuracy, many of the most attractive women from that era bore the bibs of eastern European nations.
(one day, seven hours and fourteen minutes).
Leaving home and going to university in the Moscow Olympics year of 1972 put a virtual end to my slavish scrutiny of the Games, as I discovered other interests, or rather enjoyed the opportunity of exploiting those interests to the full. I will leave it to you to consider what they might have been.
As those interests, as well as responsibilities, expanded over the next thirty years, I became much more selective in what I watched, focusing largely on the track and field events. The rivalry of Sebastian, now Lord, Coe and Steve Ovett over 800 and 1500 metres in the Moscow and Los Angeles Games of 1980 and 1984, probably stands out, not least because it sparked endless arguments between my mother, who adored the smarmy, former Loughborough University graduate Coe, and myself, who cheered on the Brighton bruiser, Ovett.
Memories of summer Games over that period centre on remarkable individual performances. The most notable for me included the four times gold medal winner at 200 metres (Atlanta 1996), 400 metres (Atlanta and Sydney 2000) and 4 x 400 metres relay (Barcelona 1992), Michael Johnson, pole vaulter Sergey Bubka, who, despite ten world championship golds, won just a single Olympic title in Seoul in 1988, Mark Spitz’s seven swimming golds in Munich in 1972 and Nadia Comaneci who, at the age of 14, won three gymnastic golds in Montreal in 1976 (and a further two in Moscow four years later). There are many others but these are my particular favourites.
(one day, three hours and twenty seven minutes).
But let’s not forget the Brits who have momentarily captured the imagination of this increasingly wearied Olympic follower – (Sir) Steve Redgrave’s extraordinary five rowing gold medals, almost matched by (Sir) Matthew Pinsent’s four, Linford Christie becoming the oldest 100 metres champion in Barcelona in 1992, the hockey team that won gold at Seoul in 1988 and (my mother’s influence here), Torvill and Dean’s sublime ice dance routine to Ravel’s Bolero in Sarajevo in 1984. But, for me, the greatest achievement is that of Kent girl (Dame) Kelly Holmes who won double gold in Athens in 2004 (800m and 1500m) at the age of 34 and after years of injury heartache in major championships.
(one day, one hour and eighteen minutes).
With my discovery of skiing in the late eighties, I became more interested in the Winter Olympics over the next few years, modelling my own technique on that of Purmin Zurbriggen, downhill champion in Calgary in 1988, and Alberto Tomba, winner of slalom and giant slalom in both Calgary and, four years later, Albertville. If you’re wondering, the “modelling” extended no further than being able to stand upright on two skis.
They are my fondest memories of a truly global spectacle. My feelings about the only Olympics to be hosted in my country in my lifetime can be found in the following article entitled “Let the Games Begin”.
(eleven hours and forty two minutes).