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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Gal Fridman: The First Israeli Gold Medallist

The modern Olympic Games and Jewish athletes have not had the best of relationships. Unfrtunately, due to some very un-Olympic attitudes towards race and religion the efforts of the Jewish athlete have not been always marked with acceptance and reward. For example, in the 1936 Olympics at Berlin two American sprinters (Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller) were dropped at the last minute by the coach and team management of the US 4x100 metres men's relay team. Whilst there was no definitive evidence they were dropped because of their Jewishness, it certainly left a bad taste in these two competitor's mouths and marred the success of Jesse Owens (winning his fourth gold medal of the Berlin Olympics after entering the team as a replacement). At those same games German Jewish athletes were either banned, ostracised or made Aryan by tacit approval (in the latter case the German female fencer Helen Mayer is the prime example), whilst Avery Brundage fought any moves for a pro-Jewish protest boycott of the Berlin Games in part due to his own anti-semitism. Under that same Nazi regime one of the first gymnastic multiple gold medallists Alfred Flatow (a prominent Jewish sports administrator immediately prior to the games) was killed at the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Even after the establishment of the state of Israel Jewish athletes have not fared well. The Munich massacre in 1972 has left a sad and shameful stain on the modern Olympic movement, and the 11 Israeli victims of that tragic affair can be considered the most unfortunate recipients of the most un-Olympic hate ever to have spoiled what is ideally aimed as an event that celebrates youth and peace through sport. Putting aside the politics of the background issues, with those deaths in 31 Harold Connellystrasse and at Furstenfeldbruck airstrip in 1972 the Olympic Games was again the setting for unacceptable anti-semitism, and this in turn could be argued to have contributed to Israeli attitudes to the games.

Yet whatever the political and social cost, the discrimination and the mistrust, Jewish athletes have attended the Olympics year after year, and Israel itself has been to every summer games from Helsinki up to Athens (except for Moscow) since 1952. However in all those games not one gold medal was ever won by an Israeli athlete. It took until 1992 and Barcelona, when female judoka Yael Arad won silver in the women's half middleweight final, for an Israeli Olympian to win even a medal of any type. Therefore with such a sad history of maltreatment for Jewish athletes and little success for the Israeli Olympic teams over history, the achievement of Gal Fridman at Athens must be considered as one of the great moments in Olympic history.

Fridman was already successful as an Israeli Olympian going into the men's sailboarding regatta at Athens, having previously won a bronze at the Atlanta games in the same event. Unfortunately a lack of success in the lead up to Sydney saw him not participate there. Almost quitting the sport and even turning to sports like cycling, he returned to the Mistral sailboard by 2002. He then went on to medal at world championships leading up to 2004, thus entering the Athens games he was one of the favourites. Amongst his lead challengers were Niklos Kaklamanakis, the Greek gold medallist in 1996 and lighter of the cauldron at the Athens opening ceremony, and the Brazilian Ricardo Santos. In Fridman's favour was the fact he had trained regularly at the Agios Cosmas sailing venue, plus perhaps superstitiously Gal's name in Hebrew means 'wave'.

The mistral sailboarding event in Athens consisted of 11 faces, with one result to be dropped from the overall competition assessment. Fridman sailed consistently, and prior to the final race was in second place behind the Brazilian Santos, having had two first places and only one recorded placing lower than fifth. To win gold he needed to finish five places above Santos, whilst keeping an eye on Kaklamanakis. Appropriately, Fridman's tactics meant he kept pace with Santos until, utilizing a wind change the Israeli bolted from the Brazilian, surging into second place. Santos tried to then stay with the Greek, but Kaklamanakis also outpaced the young Brazilian, with the three leading contenders now behind British sailboarder Nick Dempsey.

At the final post of the eleventh race of the Mistral event in Athens Dempsey came in first, which did no harm to Fridman's or Kalklamanakis's rankings and actually promoted the British sailor into the bronze position. Fridman came in second, waving his arms in the air celebrating his overall victory on points before diving into the waters with his coach, brother and the female Israeli Mistral entrant Lee Korvits. Gal Fridman had snared the gold coming from behind Santos, with an overall result 10 points better than silver medallist Kaklamanakis.

As the whole of Israeli watched that final race, then celebrated Fridman's victory the memory of past sadness and the fate of Jewish Olympians was still present, adding more meaning to the gold medal than even its status of being the first for Israel. Gal Fridman made certain that the victims of the Munich massacre were in his thoughts:

"I hope they are happy up there...When I return to Israel I will go to their memorial place and show them the gold medal."

Later in the evening of August 25th, 2004 Fridman, Kalkamanakis and Dempsey were presented their medals. Alex Gilady, long time IOC delegate from Israel was there to hang the gold around Gal Fridman's neck and then, for the first time in Olympic history Israel's national anthem the Hatikva was played and the blue Star of David flag raised above those of Greece and of the United Kingdom. After 52 years of waiting, after 11 tragic deaths and 108 years of mistrust, anti-semitism and minimal acceptance from an Olympic movement which supposedly has higher ideals, a Jewish Israeli Olympian had won gold.


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bob Beamon: The Event Destroyer

At every Olympic Games during the modern era there have been athletes who stamp their mark on their events imperiously, silencing critics and shrugging off rivals. At the 1988 Seoul Olympics for example, Florence Griffith Joyner was such a complete athlete that she was never chalenged over the 100 or 200 metres, and the US women's 4x100 metres relay team only had to hold their baton to win. In 1960 Herb Elliot ran the perfect 1500 metres, winning in such a style that the silver medallist from France, Michel said that "Elliot was from another planet". And then there was Jim Thorpe, attributed the accolade by King Gustav V as the greatest athlete in the world after obliterating the decathlon world record at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Yet none of them have soared as high and as long over their competitors nor over Olympic history as Bob Beamon, gold medallist at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics in the long jump.

The Mexico City games, held during October 1968 were controversial both politically and environmentally. Ten days prior to the opening ceremony a massacre of students at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco area of Mexico City gave the IOC some pause in actually staging the games, but this was quickly resolved with the 1968 games starting as planned. Then, during the 200 metres medal presentation the Olympic champion Tommie Smith and bronze medallist John Carlos bowed their heads and made the Black Power salute, immediately receiving the wrath of the Avery Brundage-led IOC as well as the USOC. All the while there was the issue of Rhodesia's non-participation in the Olympics, as well as Czech displeasure at the Soviet suppression of the so-called "Prague Spring".

Concerns about the high altitude also made sure that much of the sporting perfromances were buried underneath distracting headlines. In one notorious incident Australian 10,000 metre world record holder Ron Clarke almost died when he collapsed after finishing his event, won by Neftali Temu in a time nearly two minutes outside Clarke's record. On the other hand, shorter distance track events benefited, with all men's world records for distances equal or lower to 400 metres being lowered in Mexico City. The 1968 Summer Olympic Games had a lot of controversy to shrug off if it was going to be remembered for pure athletic brilliance. Yet Bob Beamon made sure this historical mission was fulfilled, and in a way that could arguably be considered the greatest one sporting moment at any games.

Considered to be the favourite prior to the long jump in Mexico City, Beamon was up against three outstanding challengers. Lynn Davies of Great Britain was the gold medallist at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, whilst Ralph Boston (USA) had won silver behind Davies, then went on to hold the world record jump of 8.35 metres with Soviet long jumer Igor Ter-Ovanesyan. However one thing that Beamon possessed that none of his rivals did was explosive speed. Over 100 yards Beamon could run the distance in 9.5 seconds, and this was definitely an advantage in the rarefied air of the Estadio Olimpico Universitario in Mexico City.

Prior to the final however, Bob Beamon almost failed to qualify and have his chance for Olympic glory. Like his famous precessor Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Games, Beamon was unable to set a qualifying distance until the last of his three initial jumps. Thanks to the advice of rival and mentor Ralph Boston Beamon adjusted his run up and with some ease set a qualifying mark. Set to begin the final round of jumping in fourth, Beamon was still challenged by Davies (twelfth), Ter-Ovanesyan (thirteenth) and Boston (seventeenth).

After a nervous night when he thought he destroyed all chance of an Olympic gold medal due to sexual intercourse, Friday October 18th 1968 began as a gloomy, rainy day. No one would have expected what was to follow, even Beamon wearing the number 254 on his track top, with such potentially adverse conditions. This was partially reinforced as the first three jumpers fouled their attempts. It was Beamon's turn.

Striding down the strip towards the takeoff board, Beamon's long powerful legs hurled him with great speed much like a 100 metre sprinter would hope to achieve. Then, landing perfectly and then launching from the takeoff board, Beamon soared through the thin Mexico City air, landed, frog jumped twice and then jogged with loose limbs from the pit. For Beamon it seemed a good jump, but his thoughts were of a distance around 27 feet 10 inches. Meanwhile Ralph Boston and Lynn Davies talked about the leap being over 28 feet, checking out the distance for themselves. The officals, struggling with the optical marker used for measuring the leap realised that the jump was too long for this instrument, and used an older steel tape to record the distance. Then, after a couple of tries the offical result was shown on the scoreboard. 8.90 metres, a full 55 centimetres beyond the previous world record.

Even at this point Beamon wasn't sure what he had done. It took friend and competitor Ralph Boston to come up and convert the metric figure into something Bob Beamon could understand; "Bob, you jumped 29 feet." Thereupon Beamon wondered what Boston would do or for that matter Davies from Great Britain or Ter-Ovaneysan from the USSR could achieve, but Boston capitulated. "It's over for me, I can't jump that far." Ter-Ovaneysan then spoke saying that "Compared to this jump, we are as children.", whilst Davies chimed in with "I can't go on. What is the point? We'll all look silly.". Turning to Beamon the Tokyo long jump gold medallist exclaimed "you have destroyed this event."

Yet the drama of the moment wasn't over yet. Having soared past the old world record, past 28 feet and into the region of further than 29 feet, Beamon's leap finally hit him and he collapsed in a cataplectic seizure after running to the crowd and his competitors with a broad smile on his face. Head buried in his hands, the new gold medallist and world record holder was helped to his feet by Boston and US team mate Charlie Mays, who suported him until the effects of the seizure passed.

The remaining jumps were inconsequential to the final result. Rain started just after Ter-Ovaneysan's first leap, and Beamon himself only made one more leap. Boston was able to jump long enough to win the bronze, whilst unheralded East German Klaus Beer took silver 71 centimetres behind Bob Beamon's leap. But the medal, the event and arguably the Mexico City Olympics themselves belonged to Bob Beamon. His long jump world record would hold for nearly 23 years, and in fact almost 40 years after that rainy October afternoon it still is on the books as the longest jump in Olympic history. As suggested earlier in this article, this one jump by one man at one Olympics can arguably be cited as the single most powerful and perfect moment in any Olympic event at any games.

  • "The Complete Book of the Olympics" by David Wallechinsky, Aurum Press 2004
  • "100 Greatest Olympians from 1896" by Jim Tracy, Savvas Publishing, 1983
  • Bob Beamon article in Wikipedia
  • "Australia and the Olympic Games" by Harry Gordon, UQP 1994

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Josy Barthel: Tears for Luxembourg

In the modern Olympic athletics program there are several events which will always be considered marquee, setting the identity more often than not for that specific games. The 100 metres sprint has the pure and elemental prestige of showing men and women running at their very fastest over the shortest period for a gold medal. Then there is the marathon, which goes to the opposite pole, as athletes endure over two hours of tortuous running, trying to cover in name the same distance run by the ancient Athenian Phidippides. The decathlon takes ten of the events from the track and field program and in turn provides in the form of its winner the greatest all-round male athlete at a Summer Games. For each of these events there have been iconic champions; Lewis, Flo-Jo, Morrow, Owens, Cuthbert, Thompson to name a few.

Then there is the 1500 metres. Originally run over a mile and part of the first modern games in Athens in 1896, the 1500 metres has also a proud lineage of champion athletes, who in turn have provided their games with lasting images and historic memories. Nurmi, the Flying Finn in 1924 took out the event, as did the Kiwi Jack Lovelock in 1936 at Berlin. One of the greatest Kenyans to ever race at the Olympics was Kip Keino, and his victory at the 1968 Mexico City games was memorable for on a personal level for that day his wife gave birth to their third daughter. Sebastian Coe, now a Lord and key member of the London 2012 Olympic Games committee took out the 1500 metres twice, each time at a games impaired by boycotts (Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984). Yet on each occasion his achievements reflected his amazing ability to be the best no matter who competed against him. Later, Algeria has provided some of the best 1500 metres runners, with Hassiba Boulmerka at Barcelona and Nourredine Morcelli at Atlanta showing how female and male Muslim African runners can also win gold. Yet this partial list doesn't including other great milers who didn't win 1500 metres Olympic gold. Ovett, Landy, Bannister, Cram, Bayi, Ryun and Aouita never reached the same podium position as these and other 1500 metres Olympic champions. Nor did they achieve what Josy Barthel from the small European Duchy of Luxembourg did, at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games.

Josy Barthel was not without some credentials before entering the final of the 1500 metres in Helsinki. A previous champion runner in the 800 metres and 1500 metres at various military world championships, he had also attended the 1948 London Olympics where he finished ninth in the same event. Yet there was a definitive underdog aura about Barthels in Helsinki. Some of it was due to his competition; Roger Bannister was yet to set his mark in history by running a mile in under four minutes, the first man to do so, but he had carefully worked out his strategy for Helsinki and was certainly a gold medla chance. World record holder Werner Lueg from Germany had run 3.43.00 over the 1500 metres when he set the record at his national championships, so there was great belief he would win.Rolf Lammers (Germany), Denis Johannson (Finland) and Robert McMillen (USA) were also potential winners.

Yet it wasn't just the competitors that faced Barthel at the start line for the 1952 Helsinki 1500 metres final that made him such an unlikely prospective winner of a gold medal. Barthel was also an unlikely potential medallist because he didn't come a traditional Olympic athletic powerhouse like the USA, Finland, Germany or the United Kingdom. Barthels was from the small European duchy of Luxembourg. A country that had a population similar in size to the Australian state of Tasmania, with only one nominal gold medallist before 1952 (Michel Theato, whose 1900 Paris medal is officially credited by the IOC to France), Luxembourg had not been able to provide any other athletes who would hear their national anthem after an Olympic final. Josy Barthels would change this though.

As recounted in David Wallechinsky's 'bible' for the Olympic hostorian, "The Complete Book of The Olympics", the 1500 metres final in Helsinki began with Boysen of Norway taking the initial lead, being overtaken by Lammers who held first place till the third lap. Then in the backstretch the German Lueg took the gold medal position, fighting off challenges from several others including Bannister. Successfully countering these moves, Lueg went into the final bend with McMillen and Barthel within range. Wearing the number 406 Barthel made his move in the last straight, striding past the fading Lueg as the world record holder looked over his right shoulder with McMillen strongly following into second place. For a moment McMillen's strong finish threatened Barthel, but thankfully for the Luxembourger the finish line came quickly enough for him to raise him arms in victory.

The time in itself was an Olympic record, but not close to the world record. Yet as always at the Olympic Games it is not how quick one runs to win a gold medal, but more often how one achieves that medal and then reacts to the achievement that makes history. And for Luxembourg's first official gold medallist in the modern Olympics, the result was one which made him weep with joy for himself and for his country. Crying with happiness immediately after experiencing the surprising happiness of actually fulfilling his Olympic dream, Barthel later stood on the highest step of the podium, as the red white and light blue bands of his nation's flag fluttered, his tears again falling with joy. There have been very few comparable moments in Olympic history for any country, let alone one as small and as limited in success at the Olympics as Luxembourg has been, where a gold medallist has shown such emotion after an unlikely win. Josy Barthel defined his country's Olympic history with his winning run in the 1500 metres at Helsinki in 1952, and perhaps just as importantly showed that in achieving a dream for yourself against larger or more favoured powers, the open and impassioned display of an Olympian's joy can move us all.

Josy Barthel (centre, gold), Robert McMillen (left, silver) and Werner Lueg (right, bronze)

  • "The Complete Book of the Olympics" by David Wallechinsky, Aurum Press 2004
  • "The Olympic Series: The Medal Ceremony" (Video) 2003
  • Josy Barthel in Wikipedia

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