Belfast Telegraph

James Lawton's Olympic memories

They come and they go, shedding glory and disillusionment, touching the stars and scraping the barrel, but always the appetite is renewed because it is the same one we have for life, the best of it and the worst.

The Olympics cover all of that terrain. They give you the brief starburst of an Olga Korbut, the angel of Munich, the perfect 10's of a Nadia Comeneci, Coe against Ovett and also Ben Johnson greeting a Korean dawn knowing that he had destroyed not only his career and much of his life but the ability of millions to ever again believe implicitly in the greatest of athletic achievement.

Yet the faith, like layers of fresh skin, returns every four years and if we doubted this we had only to be in the Birdnest stadium in Beijing four years ago when Usain Bolt seized the imagination of the world so magnetically.

He reminded us, as he ate up the ground, that few ideas are quite as enduring as the unique potential of the Olympics not only to suspend doubt but also ignite the world.

Montreal 1976

It was not the most encouraging time to embrace the Olympic experience because Montreal not only inherited the nightmare baggage, and new security demands, of the massacre of Israeli athletes and coaches in Munich but also accumulated quite a bit of its own.

The memory of Montreal is as much of army snipers scuffling in the eaves of a stadium which came in at improbable cost and evidence of corruption as the unforgettable power of Cuba's Alberto Juantorena, the winner of 400 and 800 metres gold and a world record.

There was also the killing factor that as the opening ceremony played out – to the music of Wagner – the athletes of 22 African nations, many of them weeping, were flying home after a politically enforced boycott. At the airport, the great boxing world champion Archie Moore, who had been coaching the Nigerians said, "I never knew I would ever see such despair in so many young people."

There was another kind of angst when Boris Onischenko, a hero of Soviet sport, a colonel in the Red Army, was smuggled through the same airport a few days later after being exposed as a cheat in the modern pentathlon when his épée was found to have been rigged to register non-existent hits.

It happened against British captain Jim Fox, who led his team to gold, while Onischenko was said to have taken up employment as a taxi driver in his native Kiev.

Lasse Viren, a Finnish policeman, won double gold at 5,000 and 10,000 metres but under the shadow of blood-doping suspicion – and while ushering in the age of super-commercialism by brandishing not the flag of his athletically brilliant nation but the brand of his running shoes.

Olga Korbut, a forlorn waif four years after her gymnastic glory in Munich, was encountered on a balcony of the athletes' village, in the company of one Soviet security man, tearfully measuring the extent of her decline against the brilliance of her Romanian schoolgirl rival Nadia Comaneci.

Yet even these embattled Olympics offered something that was beyond, utterly, even a hint of ambivalence. It was the sight of an athletic goddess, Poland's 30-year-old Irena Szewinska winning her seventh Olympic medal, and third gold, in the 400m. She also broke the world record. Her spirit and her grace were more than merely redemptive. They touched, in all the circumstances, the miraculous.

Moscow 1980

Some feared in those sultry days designed to glorify the Soviet empire that politics, more intrusive than at any time since the Hitler Games 44 years earlier, had finally done for the Olympics. US president Jimmy Carter's call for boycott after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan brought a positive response from 65 nations and the recommendation from Mrs Thatcher that British athletes should not attend.

Fortunately, among the defiant were the supreme duellists of the middle distance, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett.

Coe lost when he was expected to win in the 800m, then carried the 1,500m with a panache and an assurance that had been unimaginable a few days earlier if you had seen him leaving the Lenin Stadium in the most extreme distress. He was virtually carried down the steps by his coach and father Peter and this, it seemed, was not so much a beaten superstar as a broken man.

Without the Americans, the Soviets piled up their medals in the gym and field events and the East Germans, huge from their state-sponsored drug factories, cleaned up in the swimming and the rowing, if you will forgive the expression.

The Daily Mail columnist Ian Wooldridge, who was staying in the next room at the giant Rossiya hotel, enlivened our lives, and his own, by writing of the ease with which president Leonid Brezhnev might have been assassinated at the opening ceremony but, to his disappointment, he was not promptly frogmarched through the airport and dispatched back to some of his favourite London watering holes.

After that ceremony, there was an unforgettable image which seemed to speak of an unbreakable empire. It was, stretching down an apparently endless street, a line of Red Army trucks. But it was, we would know soon enough, the Olympics that were beyond challenge.

Los Angeles 1984

Daley Thompson won his second straight gold medal for the decathlon – and another for execrable taste. The athlete of the games was neither Thompson nor Coe for his brilliant repeat win in the 1,500m, but the sublime Carl Lewis with golds in the sprints, the long jump and the 100m relay to match Jesse Owens.

Thompson's reaction to Lewis's feats was to lap the Olympic stadium in a t-shirt bearing the legend: "Is the world's second greatest athlete gay?" He considered this as humorous as his stated ambition to father a child with the Princess of Wales.

All in all, Britain's performance was better than its public relations with another Daily Mail initiative – the buying up of South Africa's ill-starred Zola Budd – going seriously amiss when she not only failed to win a medal but also tripped up the American sweetheart Mary Decker, who milked her tragedy as if she were in the movies.

After the financial disaster of Montreal, and the political mayhem of Moscow, these were the new Olympics – and they made a profit through sponsorship of $200m. Fourteen Eastern Bloc nations boycotted at Moscow's bidding, ensuring that no one got too excited over the possibility of a new dawn.

Seoul 1988

Sir Steven Redgrave advanced impressively in his record accumulation of gold medals but there was not enough glory in any corner of these Olympics, including the stadium where the Russian Natalya Lisovskaya won the shot put with six stupendous efforts, any one of which would have taken the prize, to shut out the sound of the thunderclaps created by Ben Johnson.

The first came when he left Carl Lewis slack-jawed in disbelief with a 100m dash that smashed the world record. The second arrived with the first flecks of dawn and the news that the Canadian-Jamaican had tested positive. There had never been such a swift descent from the stars to the dirt.

You knew in that first scrambled reaction nothing would ever be quite the same, that however hard sport fought – and Olympic president Juan Antonio Samaranch announced that necessarily it would have to be a "fight to the death" there could be no outrunning of the doubt. Only a fight, the one that still goes on, to contain the poison.

Barcelona 1992

They were the beautiful games, renovating a beautiful city, of a world still coming to terms with the collapse of the Soviet empire, and Linford Christie, who had been given the benefit of the doubt in Seoul when he explained that his positive drug test was the result of nothing more sinister than some sips of ginseng tea, won the 100m gold – and kept hold of it. For the time being, at least, he was an unsullied Olympic star, along with Sally Gunnell, whose pulverising finish burned off the threat of American Sandra Farmer-Patrick in the 400m hurdles.

The Dream Team concept was born and enshrined when such luminaries as Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley engulfed the basketball hall as they averaged 117 points. Belarus gymnast Vitaly Scherbo did not quite achieve the same profile. However, he did well enough, winning six golds, including four on one day.

Atlanta 1996

The centenary games should have happened in their ancient home by the Aegean – instead they returned to America after a break of just 12 years, and catastrophically so. It was a triumph for corporate America, with Atlanta-based Coca-Cola leading the chase and Sports Illustrated had the grace and the nerve to announce that what we had was not the Olympics but a third-rate street bazaar.

Fortunately, there were a few redemptions, notably the 200 and 400m running of the upright but sensational Michael Johnson and France's imperious Marie-Jose Perez. Lewis won his ninth gold, Redgrave became the first rower to win four golds in separate Olympics and you knew you would always remember the image picked out by the searchlight in the Olympic stadium, that of Muhammad Ali about to light the flame.

Sydney 2000

In Sydney we had a triumph for the instincts of a great sporting nation, magnificent organisation and one volunteer who had flown his helicopter down from his sheep station in Queensland and asked, most politely, if anyone had a daughter who might be interested in a healthy life in the bush and a generous allowance to compensate for the fact that the nearest shop was more than a day's drive. He was, told politely, that his question would be duly processed.

Marion Jones was supposed to be the woman of the games, but it was not to be, not then and not later when her use of performance enhancing drugs was exposed quite harrowingly. Cathy Freeman, whose aboriginal heritage made her the emotional heart of the Games, lit the flame and then enchanted the nation and the world when she flew to 400m gold in the absence of the defecting French holder Perec. Freeman announced, "Running is like breathing for me."

Redgrave might have said something similar, however breathlessly, as the morning sun dappled the rowing lake and he powered to his historic fifth gold medal.

Athens 2004

When the Olympics finally came home, the Greek sprint stars Kostas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou, promptly bathed them in bathos. They were banished from the Games, at which the 2000 gold medallist Kenteris was expected to light the flame, for avoiding the drug testers. They spent four days in hospital after claiming to have been involved in a bike crash. It was a Greek tragi-comedy and British veteran Kelly Holmes, having overcome a series of injuries, did well to keep her concentration for a superbly combative double in the 800 and 1,500m.

Michael Phelps was immense in the pool, winning six golds as a prelude to the passing of Mark Spitz with eight four years later in Beijing, and for the Greeks, heading for financial perdition and suffering huge cost over-runs, there was another whiff of harsh irony. The home of the Olympics landed a late gold in synchronised swimming.

Beijing 2008

Massive, stirring in their pagan splendour and unmatchable in their vast and unaccounted resources, these were the Games which rode over everything, including human rights. If Britain, preparing for the London Olympics, must sometimes have felt as though it was in a fabulous restaurant which had a menu without any listed prices, there was plenty of evidence of what an enhanced budget could achieve, which was 47 medals, including 19 goals and three from Sir Chris Hoy.

Some things, of course, money cannot buy and one of them was the astonishing product of the unpaved streets of Jamaica, the peerless Usain Bolt.

He was the heartbeat of the most expensive Games and now he brings to London, however perilously, the same promise of the kind of achievement which has given the Olympics a capacity to survive every hazard.

London 2012

another open book, another expectant arena, no doubt, but we can be certain about its most appealing content. It will also be about the unsurpassable ambition to be the best in the world.

Belfast Telegraph


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