Greetings From the Gulf: Here’s to our local Olympians, and to the memory of a bygone era

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By John Morton

Yes indeed, Mark Spitz’s accomplishments in 1972 resulted in me sporting the all-American red, white and blue Speedo.

I loved that swim suit. I once even tried to wear it to school. FYI.

Forty-nine years later, I’m still working on the mustache.

Hey, sister of mine, don’t laugh so loud. Dorothy Hamill’s success in figure skating in 1976 no doubt led to your “wedge” haircut, which I must agree went well with your cowl neck sweater, painter pants, and clogs.

And I have a photo of this. You’ve been warned.

The Tokyo Olympics have come and gone, without much fanfare if any at all, and that’s a shame.

Especially because our area saw six athletes compete: skateboarder Jake Ilardi, swimmer Emma Weyant, rifle shooter Mary Tucker, rower Clark Dean, and golfing sisters Nelly and Jessica Korda.

And there were some mighty successes, as Tucker and Weyant won silver and Nelly Korda gold. Let’s hope their accomplishments make them local legends, and that they don’t fade into obscurity.

On the national stage, however, they’ll likely be mere footnotes. That’s because, sadly, the Olympics have been a non-story for a while.

This time around, a one-year COVID-19 reset hurt a lot, as did a pandemic resurgence that resulted in no fans in the stands.

Then there’s the fact that America’s biggest name, gymnast Simone Biles, made the headlines in the most popular event for what she didn’t do.

So did members of Norway’s beach handball team for what they wouldn’t wear.

These games came on the heels of a Rio de Janeiro Olympiad that was an unorganized mess of dirty water for rowers and a scandal for swimmers who claimed they were mugged.

Meanwhile, Beijing is on deck for the Winter Games just a few months from now. Between COVID-19 concerns and worldwide condemnation for alleged human-rights violations, I can’t see this going very well. If at all.

Remember when the Olympic events were a huge deal? I come from the golden age of the games, when the silver screen and bronze statues awaited our sports stars.

Both the grand and glorious (think gymnast Kerri Strug landing on one foot in 1996, or 1980’s Miracle on Ice) and the disturbing and dramatic (think 1972’s terrorist attacks on the Israeli team, or the 1994 Tonya vs. Nancy saga) captivated us. And we had the voices of Jim McKay and later Bob Costas to bring it all to life.

Mike Tirico, you are fine, but it’s not the same.

Then there were the global tensions of the Cold War. Knowing that the Olympics gave us a few weeks every few years to put mankind’s differences aside was very cathartic for me. Remember Nadia Comaneci? The 14-year-old Romanian came from the Communist country of Romania, but we cheered for her like she was one of our own. She must have felt the love, because in 1989 she would become one of our own when she defected to America.

Nadia, you were the first perfect 10. Sorry, Bo Derek.

By the way, I think it was a mistake for Jimmy Carter to boycott the 1980 Moscow games. The Soviets would return the favor in 1984 when the Olympics were held in Los Angeles. The games are always supposed to bring the world together.

As a teenager in Madison, Wisconsin, I watched wide-eyed and starstruck as speedskater Eric Heiden won five gold medals in Lake Placid, and while hockey player Mark Johnson led the Stars and Stripes in scoring. These were two hometown guys I used to chase on frozen ponds.

They, and many other athletes, literally helped our country feel better during a time of inflation and a hostage crisis. We were a mess.

Today, you still hear the “U-S-A!, U-S-A!” chants for most anything. I busted it out at Denny’s not so long ago when an extra flapjack fell my way.

Then there were the boxers. Olympic gold launched huge careers for the likes of Joe Frazier, Cassius Clay, Ray Leonard, and Oscar De La Hoya.  The boxers were larger-than-life gods.

Now, U.S. boxers haven’t seen the top step of the podium since 2004.

The title “Dream Team” came out of the Olympics. It’s outrageous to think it would next be used to describe O.J. Simpson’s defense team.

Mary Lou Retton became a household name, thanks to the Olympics. So did Greg Louganis, Michael Phelps, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Florence Griffith Joyner, Edwin Moses, Gabby Douglas, Peggy Fleming.

Will any of our current Olympians receive the same timeless recognition? I can’t imagine. But I sure hope that changes.

Heck, Carl Lewis was so inspired by his U.S. Olympic fame back in the day that he once took on our national anthem (Google this if you don’t know what I’m talking about).

Then there were Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who took on the establishment. One of our country’s seminal moments came when they raised their fists and hung their heads in Mexico City in 1968, making a statement against racism. They would be kicked out of the Olympic Village as a result.

My, how times have changed.

Finally, the Olympic moment I remember best is when Bruce Jenner waved our flag after taking the decathlon gold in Montreal in 1976. I’d be eating Wheaties with that image on the box for months to come.

That sport required such range, such an ability to change gears, such an ability to go in a different direction.

I can’t wait to someday tell my grandkids all about … ah, um … that person.

(John Morton is managing editor of the Siesta Sand.)


John Morton
Author: John Morton

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