SI Vault
John Underwood
September 30, 1968
Never has an approaching Olympics been beset by more immediate and potential problems than Mexico City's—altitude, racial and political boycotts, riots, red tape, delays—but the Olympic idea is still strong. The curtain is going up, perhaps shakily, but up
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September 30, 1968

Games In Trouble

Never has an approaching Olympics been beset by more immediate and potential problems than Mexico City's—altitude, racial and political boycotts, riots, red tape, delays—but the Olympic idea is still strong. The curtain is going up, perhaps shakily, but up

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The real glory of the Games, from ancient days to now, remains in the individual Olympian, and as long as he is not too far obscured by the issues the Games have a chance. What is an Olympian? He is Everyman. He is an Ethiopian palace guard named Abebe Bikila, who lives in a mud house and runs (and wins) marathons with the casual air of a man going for the bus; she is Debbie Meyer, a 16-year-old California girl who lives on peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches and breaks the monotony of her incredibly fast long swims by singing to herself; he is 28-year-old Alvaro Mejia, who sells aluminum ware in his native Colombia and became a long-distance runner only when his bicycle broke down (cyclists are the thing in Colombia), a headstrong man willing to spend $800 traveling to distant track meets to gain the right to go to the Olympics in Tokyo, where he finished dead last in a 5,000-meter heat, his only race.

The Olympian is a man of varied philosophies ("We have a saying in Colombia, 'To marry is to die a little,' " says Alvaro Mejia. "We are a very pampered generation," says Don Schollander, the four-gold-medal swimmer). The Olympian can take his sport seriously, or not so seriously ("What have I done?" said Fanny Blankers-Koen in 1948 as she was being driven through the cheering crowds of Amsterdam in an open coach drawn by four white horses. "All I have done is run fast. I do not see why people should make such a fuss").

For all his excellence, the Olympian is not necessarily the epitome of style and grace. Czechoslovakia's Emil Z�topek ran "as a man who has just been stabbed in the chest," head rolling, eyes glazed, teeth bared, his every step an expression of pain. Z�topek won gold medals at 10,000 meters, 5,000 meters and the marathon in 1952. "The marathon," he said, "is a very boring race." Johnny Hayes, the last American to win the marathon, in 1908, had legs that were so short he appeared to be running in a trench. The American sprint champion Charlie Paddock made flying leaps at the finish line. Bob Hayes did not run a race so much as beat it to death, his great black body seeming to come apart in a series of small explosions. This year an American high jumper named Dick Fosbury goes over the bar backward, as one who would rather see where he has been than where he is going.

The real hope of the Games remains in this medley of individual courage and ability, faults and foibles, skill and strength, as if the synthesizing of so varied a collection will promote the human respect, the "real morality," that Baron de Coubertin dreamed of 72 years ago. When it is all over, Olympians go about the business of becoming Congressmen ( Bob Mathias), cereal pushers ( Bob Richards), Tarzan of the Apes ( Johnny Weissmuller). They become heavyweight champions of the world, pro football stars, pro basketball stars. An Olympic rower named Benjamin Spock became a baby doctor. Parry O'Brien runs tours to Mexico and expertises on track on American television. Emil Z�topek is hiding from the Russians in Czechoslovakia. The last time Don Bragg was seen he was running down Walnut Street in Philadelphia with his vaulting pole, hell-bent toward a make-do box nailed down in the street, about to demonstrate for a live television audience. It was obviously a dangerous stunt, said Bragg, "but when the camera came on, it was show biz, so I did it."

Some of the greatest die broke and alone, like the Sac and Fox Indian Jim Thorpe, who had his Olympic medals taken away from him because as a boy he had played baseball for $15 a game. Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who by her own estimates excelled at everything but dolls, died fighting cancer at 42. An American 400-meter hurdler named Richard Howard was arrested for pushing narcotics and died of an overdose in a seedy hotel room. The first Mexican gold-medal winner, General Humberto Mariles, the equestrian, languishes in Lecumberri Prison. He shot a man over a traffic incident.

What is it, finally, that drives the Olympian toward Olympus, or whatever it is he seeks? Consider Hayes Jones. Hayes Jones was a hurdler. In 1962, while preparing for the Games, he got married and his coach told him he had just traded a gold medal for a bride. Jones says, "I began to lose, and I wanted to quit. I would have quit. My wife would not let me. She kept me going. But when I got to Tokyo I realized my training had not been right, that I had not done enough speed work. I was not fast enough between the hurdles.

"I finished second in the semifinals, and I remember on the last day running up and down in the tunnel under the stadium, trying somehow to develop speed at the last minute. My wife was sitting in the stands with Jesse Owens, and she began to cry because she was convinced I was going to lose. In that tunnel a coaching friend, Ed Temple, came up to me and said, 'Listen, Hayes, forget about your speed. Don't worry about it. Just run between the hurdles. Just run.'

"There were three of us right together at the tape in the finals—a Russian, Anatoli Mikhailov, Blaine Lindgren and myself. At first I thought the Russian had won because his coach came out and was hugging him and congratulating him. An Indian coach with a turban was congratulating his runner, who had finished fifth. My coach was just standing there with a cigarette in his mouth. It seemed like 45 minutes before the pictures were in and the lights began to flash on the scoreboard. Then it came: 'First Place, J...O...N...E...S...' I can't tell you the feeling, the thrill of it. I gave my medal to the kids of Pontiac, Michigan, and it's there now in Pontiac City Hall. It wasn't the medal that mattered, don't you see? It was the experience.

"When I think of the Olympic Games today I don't think of the medal. I think of my wife and Jesse Owens, sitting in the stands and crying, and me in that tunnel trying to get something I did not have, and I think of that scoreboard lighting up, 'J...O...N...E...S....' "

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