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Frank Deford
August 02, 1976
Olympians were performing marvelously in Montreal, but on screens at home the prime-time concern was prettiness
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August 02, 1976

High Wide And Handsome

Olympians were performing marvelously in Montreal, but on screens at home the prime-time concern was prettiness

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At an outdoor cabaret in the Olympic Village one night last week, folk singer Gordon Lightfoot was entertaining the athletes. After a few songs, he noticed a commotion to the side of the stage. Spotlights were flashed on and the former junior senator from California, the rotund Pierre Salinger, materialized in his grapefruit-yellow ABC blazer. ABC has "experts" for just about every competition, and Salinger intrudes on the Games, Winter and Summer, as the resident expert on matters international. He samples foreign foods and local color and whatnot. "I think we're on TV," Lightfoot said.

The athletes, feeling their oats as well as exploited, immediately attacked, pelting Salinger with candies, fruits and hors d'oeuvres. Despite this bombardment of edibles, Salinger, ever game, did his stint. Then the lights went down and, to loud huzzahs, Lightfoot went on with the show.

It was a symbolic victory for the athletes, because only a few days later, after several more African nations pulled out in the continuing protest over New Zealand's sporting liaison with South Africa, the single most significant record of the 21st Olympiad went into the books: the number of athletes competing in the Games of 1976 had been exceeded by the number of journalists covering them. The score: 10,863 for the press corps, 8,408 for the competitors.

The Montreal Olympics has had the predictable quota of kissy-face, hands-across-the-sea, true romance stories emanating from the Village, where the athletes all seem programmed to prattle on about how if only the whole world could just be like this, there would never be any wars (although much tedium, to be sure). Olympic Villages are always portrayed as humanoid versions of It's a Small World at Disneyland, with the many-colored athletes holding hands and singing in falsetto. But gee, Moms and Dads, you should see some of the graffiti the children are leaving behind. Also: "Very shy English boy seeks girls to talk to him. Please contact Room 202, D Block."

And always, much unnecessary ado is made about the host city. This crush of heavy analytical background—inscrutable Tokyo, emotional Mexico City, bustling Munich, divided Montreal—regularly comes midway in the Olympics when those 10,863 (in or out of grapefruit-colored blazers) can no longer stand having to watching one more American boy or East German girl win one more 100-meter butterfly medley. In fact, what is worth knowing about Montreal vis-�-vis the Olympics can be transmitted in a postcard. "Dear Pen Pal: This Olympics is spread out more than others! There are still some hotel rooms left! Canada is second only to Italy in going out on strike, and the liquor stores, nurses and electric-company workers have all been out! Luckily, the liquor stores are open again! The taxi drivers are mad, but they aren't going to strike! They are going to tie up traffic instead! The scalpers and streetwalkers are doing a real good business! The new McDonald's, across from the Forum, serves 6,000 hamburgers a day! When the police beat people up they explain they have to because of 'security!' The weather is lovely!"

Montreal is teed off because it has the shorts and has lost a certain amount of revenue—wildly estimated in the millions of dollars—because the protesting nations pulled out. Since the Canadians were getting paid for room and board at the Village, they were in no hurry to evict teams that declared themselves out, nor were the hosts very good about making partial refunds on some programs, such as the boxing, that were watered down by African forfeits. (The most intriguing forfeit came in basketball, when Egypt pulled out just before it was to play Italy. To win by the requisite 2-0 score, the Italians had to line up, tip-off and score an unopposed basket. Luckily, Renzo Barivieri made it; if he hadn't, can you imagine the Italian-joke fans working that one over?)

Actually, once the Games began and Nadia Comaneci became the world's sweetheart, the boycott was no longer front-page. All told, 684 athletes departed. James Gilkes, a Guyanese sprinter who attends Southern Cal, petitioned the International Olympic Committee to let him run unattached, as a citizen of the world, so to speak, but the request was turned down. "You lose enough contenders and the Olympics becomes just another San Diego Invitational," said one jaundiced runner—but it was hardly a subject anybody dwelt on.

For the Olympians who stayed, there were the usual controversies. One involved Boris Onischenko, the silver medalist in the modern pentathlon in 1972 and the favorite this time. It wasn't enough: Boris wanted a lock on the gold, so he touched up his �p�e to make it record hits even when he missed. He was caught, expelled from the Olympics and sent home—or somewhere—in disgrace.

On the other hand, the Russian water polo team was obviously playing it straight, because the gold medalists from '72 tied and lost their first two games. Then they tried to withdraw, claiming mass illness, and forfeited to Cuba. (For forfeit freaks, a water polo forfeit is 5-0.)

There were the usual complaints from Westerners that the Russian judges were cheating, which made it all the more amazing that Peter Kormann, a student at Southern Connecticut State College, won a bronze in floor exercises, the first American male to win an individual gymnastics medal since 1932.

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