The Olympic spirit
The much-anticipated 30th Olympiad begins today in London and the British, at least, are eagerly awaiting the revelation of who will be afforded the honour of lighting the Olympic Flame to signal the official commencement of the Games. It may well be one of the two bookmakers’ favourites and contenders for the title of greatest British Olympian ever, Daley Thompson, the two-time decathlon gold medallist, or Sir Steve Redgrave, the five-time rowing gold medallist. But don’t rule out a wild card pick, for the spirit of the Olympics is supposed to transcend having won precious metal.
Ever since the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, the quadrennial gathering of the world’s finest athletes has exerted, with the improvements in accessibility offered by broader media coverage, an increasingly powerful pull on the imagination of people around the globe. The exploits of Olympians are writ large in the lore of the Games and since the historic Berlin Olympics of 1936, the first to be televised, albeit only to local audiences, the popularity and scale of the event have grown exponentially.
Many of us have our particular Olympic heroes and our favourite Olympic moments. Aided by television and the Internet, the names and the feats roll by in our memories, a veritable parade of athletic glory and fabulous images, many of them transcending sport and entering the annals of history.
Recall, for example, Jesse Owens putting paid to Adolph Hitler’s notions of Aryan superiority, with his four gold medals in the 100 metres, 200m, 4x100m relay and the long jump; or Abebe Bikila, the first great African marathon runner from Ethiopia, conquering the cobblestones of Rome barefoot in 1960 and repeating his victory in Tokyo in 1964; or Wilma Rudolph, who triumphed over childhood polio and segregationist America, to win the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay in Rome; or Bob Beamon’s monstrous leap in the long jump in the rarefied atmosphere of Mexico City in 1968, taking him almost out of the pit and beyond the range of the electronic measuring equipment; or Tommie Smith’s world record run in the 200m, the first sub-20 seconds time ever, and his defiant, Black Power salute on the podium, along with bronze medallist John Carlos, in support of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, and the silver medallist, white Australian Peter Norman, who wore a human rights badge in solidarity with them – Smith and Carlos were suspended from the US Olympic team and banished from the Olympic Village, and all three suffered years of ostracism in their respective countries.
Then there was Mark Spitz’s unbelievable haul of seven gold medals in the swimming pool in Munich in 1972, only bettered in Beijing four years ago by Michael Phelps’ astounding eight; or Hasely Crawford of Trinidad and Tobago, coming out of nowhere in the outside lane to snatch the 100m gold in Montreal in 1976, closely followed by the great Don Quarrie of Jamaica, who went on to win the 200m; or Nadia Comaneci’s unprecedented perfect 10 in the gymnastics, also in Montreal; or Sebastian Coe’s twin 1500m gold medals in Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984; or Carl Lewis emulating Jesse Owens’ four gold medals in Los Angeles; or the glamour and glory of Florence Griffith-Joyner in Seoul in 1988; or mas man Peter Minshall bringing the magic of Trinidad’s Carnival to the Opening Ceremony of Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996; and Muhammad Ali, with full-blown Parkinson’s lighting the Olympic Flame in Atlanta in 1996. And the list of legendary Olympic performances and iconic Olympic images goes on and on.
But it’s not all about glitz and glory. It’s guts as well, though not always rewarded with gold, that makes the Olympics ultra special. And, arguably, one of the greatest Olympic moments, a performance that sums up what the Games are all about, may well be Briton Derek Redmond’s pain-filled “run” in the 400m semi-final in Barcelona. Redmond, one of the favourites, started well, but as he hit the back straight, pulled up lame with a hamstring problem. As the cameras covered the rest of the race, they suddenly panned back to Redmond, who had got to his feet and was hobbling on one leg, intent on completing his race. Every step was pure pain, as anyone who has torn a hamstring will tell you. But the physical pain would have been nothing compared with the mental anguish of knowing that his Olympic dream was dashed.
Yet he limped on. And the crowd sensing that they were witnessing something special cheered him on. As he rounded the last bend, the whole stadium was collectively willing him to the line. Suddenly, a man burst from the stands, brushing off the officials and placed one of Redmond’s arms over his shoulders. It was the athlete’s father, there to support his son, telling him that he could do it. And the tears flowed – from Redmond and from many of the spectators in the stands and watching on television – as Redmond completed his race and crossed the finish line, dead last but a winner in every other respect.
The tears still come to people’s eyes today, as they reprise the drama on YouTube. It is one of the most remarkable testimonies to human courage and determination and it perfectly captures the Olympic spirit.