- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
There were prices to pay: the terrible oxygen debt that swimming in Mexico City demanded, the drug test that often kept swimmers waiting for hours backstage, guarded by medical authorities waiting for them to calm down enough to provide a urine sample. "After each event," said Charlie Hickcox, who won three gold and one silver medal, "we would have to go and lie down on a cot in some little back room while a Mexican medical guy sprinkled sugar into our open mouths. It was supposed to make you bounce back quickly or something. But mostly he sprinkled sugar into our eyes."
Early in the week, after Hickcox had led an American sweep of the 200-meter individual medley, 19-year-old John Ferris, who had finished third, could not rally quickly enough for the award ceremonies, a rite upon which Olympic officials place great store, sugar or no sugar. Ferris wobbled as he marched around the pool toward the victory stand with Hickcox and teammate Greg Buckingham, clutching his stomach as he went. He tried manfully to stand at attention during The Star-Spangled Banner, but about the time they got to "bombs bursting in air" he leaned toward Hickcox, whispered, "Look out, here I go," and fainted. Hickcox patriotically held Ferris at semi-attention through the last few bars, then let him slump gently away.
Next night Doug Russell beat 18-year-old Mark Spitz in the 100-meter butterfly dropping that overscheduled, haunted, upset young man from his expected gold medal to a silver and out of the medley relay. And the night after that a marvelous young Mexican named Felipe Mu�oz churned his way through 200 meters of furious breast-stroking to whip the most surprised Russian in the world, Vladimir Kosinsky, who had held the world record in the event. The triumph set off what must have been one of the loudest, happiest, most sustained ovations in Olympic history—it was Mexico's first swimming gold medal ever—and there was hardly a person in the house who would argue that Mu�oz should not have been awarded Kosinsky's ears and tail for the kill.
The rest of the swimming belonged to California's Mike Burton, who moves with the power of a pocket battleship. On Wednesday night he set an Olympic record in the 400-meter freestyle, an event that is just a warmup for his specialty, which is swimming at fantastic, untiring speed for 1,500 meters. At the start of the Games Burton had gone over to watch the 10,000-meter run, an event that is not unlike swimming's 1,500 meters. "After four laps a guy dropped out," he said, "and it really scared me to see it."
He was kidding. Burton has never been scared in his life, and last Saturday night, in the climactic event of a watery week, he destroyed his top rival, Mexico's Guillermo Echeverr�a, who finished a stunned sixth. Burton won by almost 20 seconds, in 16:38.9, for another Olympic record. After the race he turned a pair of tired pink eyes on the press and said, "The thing to do is go out fast and hang on."
Even in defeat there was a touch of elegance about the swimmers. Don Schollander, hero of Tokyo four years ago, lost the 200-meter freestyle to the young Australian, Michael Wenden, who also won the 100 and who is described by his coach as "that basher." A few moments after the meet Schollander sat looking at his silver medal, with his mother sitting beside him, occasionally patting him on the knee. He said it was his last competitive swim. It was all over and he was glad. And what would he do now? He shrugged. "I am going to write a book," he said. "About my philosophy of swimming, what made me go. That sort of thing."
As the hot-sauce Olympics drew to an end, it was time for two other emotion-wreckers—the finals in basketball and boxing. In a spectacular copper-roofed Sports Palace out near the airport on the outskirts of town nightly crowds of up to 22,000 had watched the basketball eliminations come down to the inevitable pairing: the United States against somebody for a gold medal. It turned out to be Yugoslavia, a team that had beaten Russia 63-62, an event that was followed by a great deal of manly kissing and hugging, rolling around on the floor and general Slavic dramatics. On Friday night, although a stunning Czech dish, Vera Caslavska, was putting on a gold-medal gymnastic-show at the other end of Mexico City (she won four in all, to thunderous applause, even from her competitors, who tossed her triumphantly in the air), everybody else in town, it seemed, was jammed cheek to mustache into the Sports Palace to see the showdown—Hank Iba and his boys against Ranko Zeravica and his gang.
There was a lot at stake. The U.S. had never lost a game in Olympic basketball and had run up 74 consecutive victories. Further, the Americans had come into the Olympics haunted by the specter of players who were not there. For one reason or another that list of absentees included Lew Alcindor, Elvin Hayes and Westley Unseld. The American press insisted on calling the team ragtag or patchwork, labels that stung the players, all of whom can read quite well. And what many had overlooked was the fact that the gravel-voiced old (64) Iba was coaching at Oklahoma State about the same time Zeravica was born, and he somehow manages to pump his players up to roughly 100 pounds beyond their normal pressure.
Still, in the final confrontation, the U.S. team started slowly enough to scare everybody on the bench—especially Coach Iba, who kept yelling, "Cut that out!" It was obvious the players had closing-night jitters. Through the first half they had trouble holding as much as a three-point lead, while the Mexican spectators cheerfully whistled—which is booing in Mexico City, as in much of the world. When the half mercifully ended, at 32-29 for the U.S., Iba took his boys somewhere underneath the stands to talk about fundamentals.
"He just told us to forget about the first half," said Jo Jo White, the superb playmaker who in calmer times picks defenses apart for the University of Kansas. No team ever followed orders better. When the second half began, White and company started a fire-wagon, steal-the-ball offense that ran off 17 straight points while the Yugoslavs remained scoreless. The burst gave the U.S. a 49-29 lead, with White getting eight points and 19-year-old Spencer Haywood, who would like to be an actor but who is first destined to become a Bill Russell for a few years, getting another eight. After that, Iba played everybody except the team doctor, who was not feeling too well, and the usual visiting movie actor, who crowded onto the bench in a tight tuxedo. The game ended 65-50 U.S., and the most un-ragtag team of them all got gold medals all around while the Yugoslavs cut down the net for a souvenir.