Nearly 34 years ago I backed into the Olympic Games. I wasnt exactly naive. I wasnt exactly fully informed either. But I most definitely wanted to go. More than that, I wanted to compete, and to win.
In my sport, rowing, oarsmen sit facing the stern of the boat; that is, backwards. So if your back makes it across the finish line before the backs of your competitors, you win.In July of 1968 at my Olympic trials, my back didnt, in fact, cross the finish line ahead of our closest competitor, a very fast University of Pennsylvania crew. Only about eight inches of our 60-foot shell did! The margin of victory was 4/100th of a second (0.04 sec).
Such a narrow victory marked a fitting start to our Olympic experience. It demonstrated, oh so clearly, how slight the difference between the best of the worlds athletic efforts could be. It taught us respect for those with whom we competed. It reminded us to be humble when our fortune was good. And it raised the inevitable question: If we had finished second (or sixth, for that matter) would that have been a failure?
A well-prepared team trained to win, we nevertheless had to adjust our perspective(s) if we were to learn from a near loss. Without tarnishing the joy of victory, this strange awareness shadowed our Olympic trials victory and presented the first of several paradoxes which, for me, became the quintessential Olympic experience.
Never mind that Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, said, The most important thing in Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well. We knew better: we were to win.
Immediately after qualifying, we knew that we had become ambassadors for the motherland, America the beautiful, land of the free. While 1968 virtually exploded with domestic turmoil fueled by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and by the anti-war and civil rights movements, as Olympic athletes we were expected to keep our mouths shut and just row. The reality of our black teammates threatening to boycott the Olympics was considered off limits by members of the U.S. Olympic Committee who wanted no appearance of disharmony.
The Presidential Commission on Civil Disorder headed by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner had released its report verifying that America was becoming two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal. Flight to the suburbs, along with a widening opportunity gap between haves and have-nots, increasingly characterized these United States. As young idealists who not only rowed but who also believed the seemingly paradoxical Olympic promise of international cooperation, we felt the U.S. team should not have two non-interactive components, one white and one non-white. We wanted to represent our country by interacting openly with our fellow Americans and with athletes from around the world.
The Olympic Village experience validated much of our optimism. Despite constraints imposed by workouts and preparations for the actual competition, we were free to meet other young people from all over the globe. We quickly discovered that many athletes and staff members wanted to trade pins, clothing, bags, hats, whatever. An African runner, who called me an Oo-tah (Utah), coveted my lime green and yellow plaid Bermuda shorts, for which he willingly swapped a very nice gym bag.
However, it was also clear that powerful economic and political forces were at work orchestrating a grand theatrical production, a passion play based on the nation-state and the Cold War. Epitomizing this view of the Olympics was the medal count. In the official 1968 United States Olympic Book published by the U.S. Olympic Committee, a summary of the swimming events included the comment, The medal standings below not only show the difference of achievements among the countries, they point out also the absolute superiority of American swimmers. But the host nation, Mexico, which was listed in 6th place with three medals (one gold, one silver, one bronze), was hardly going to hang its national head in shame because nations such as East Germany (with six medals) and the USSR (with 11) had garnered more! On the contrary, Mexican citizens were thrilled at the successes of their athletes, aside from the medal numbers. And fans around the world delighted in the courageous efforts of athletes from every corner of the globe.
So as the Olympic Games come to Utah, I am filled with wonderful memories of the friendships built through my experience but also with ambivalence about the seemingly inevitable nationalistic pageantry. My wish is that we celebrate the competitors, those who play the games, and worry less about massaging national egos that demand a medal count in order to feel superior to others.
Curtis R. Canning MS73 MD73 is a psychiatrist practicing in Logan, Utah.