The brilliant Shirley Povitch did not overlook the amusing coincidence of a man named Cassius, competing for a gold medal at the Rome Olympics. He wrote “Cassius has come back to Rome. He is an esteemed member of the U.S. compound in the Olympic Village. But ‘yon Cassius is not out of Shakespeare. He is out of Louisville, Kentucky, and on him the lean and hungry look looks good.”
Before he won his ticket to Rome, Clay TKO’d Allen Hudson in the third round in the finals of the Olympic trials at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. The bout was not a cakewalk for Clay. Hudson knocked him down earlier in the round. But Clay came back and nailed Hudson with a pair of rights to the head, and the referee stopped the fight.
On September 5, 1960, Clay won the gold medal defeating Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland in the final. On the way to facing Pietryzykowski, Clay had to win three fights in the qualifying rounds.
For a good part of the fight for the gold medal, it appeared that Clay, and not Pietrzykowsi would be the footnote to history. Povitch wrote that Clay “was taking a beating from Ziggy, a good puncher who has 292 fights, and Clay was seemingly the most over-rated of all the U.S. finalists…Clay could salvage this fight only by a knockout, or close to it, and that last is exactly how he did so. All of a sudden Ziggy had a bloody nose, and it seemed that Clay could hit harder than it appeared, and then the Pole had a bloody mouth, because Clay had hit him again, and then Ziggy’s whole face was a bloody mask.”
The Pole managed to stay on his feet until the final bell, but when the judges announced their decision, it was 5-0 in favor the 18-year-old Cassius Clay.
Dave Wottle always wore an old golf cap when he trained and competed, and this made him immediately recognisable in the opening rounds of the 800m at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich (see photo above). In the final, Wottle immediately dropped to the rear of the field, and stayed there for the first 600m, at which point he started his characteristic late drive, passing runner after runner up the straight, and finally grabbing the lead in the final metres to win by just 0.03sec. At the victory ceremony, Wottle had unconsciously forgotten to remove his golf cap. This was interpreted as a form of protest, which drew a tearful apology to the American people from Wottle when he was questioned about it at a press conference. Read more, sporting-heroes.net.
Peggy Fleming won the gold medal in Women’s Figure Skating on February 10, 1968. She was the only American to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France.
The New York Times described Fleming’s win as “a victory of the ballet over the Ice Follies approach to figure skating.”
Women’s figure skating became an Olympic sport in 1908, but no American woman was able to take a gold medal in the event until Tenley Albright did it at Cortina, Italy in 1956. The U.S. followed up its win in Cortina when Carol Heiss, who had been the silver medalist in 1956, stepped up and took the gold medal at Squaw Valley, California, in 1960.
Disaster struck a year later when all 18 members of the U.S. team were killed in a plane crash in Belgium. They were on their way to the World Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia.
Still in the throes of its rebuilding phase, Peggy Fleming at the age of 15, led the U.S. women skaters by placing 6th at the 1964 Winter Olympics at Insbruck, Austria.
Coca Cola Commercial Promotes the 1980 Olympics (The One We Boycotted)
Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, Spawns Olympic Boycott Talk.
Russians start invasion Christmas Day, 1979
The Soviet Union began its invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Day, 1979. On New Years Day, 1980, with already more than 10,000 Russian troops engaged in heavy fighting near Kabul (eventually the Soviets would have more than 100,000 personnel deployed in Afghanistan), the New York Times reported that “West Germany’s representative at an emergency meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization raised the question of whether the Western Allies might want to withdraw their participation in the Moscow Olympic Games this summer as a result of the Soviet Union’s intervention in Afghanistan, a NATO official said.”
Or did he say that?
The next day, The Washington Post disclosed that “a West German government spokesman denied newspaper reports that its NATO ambassador was the one who had suggested the boycott. In the same article the Post reported that Lord Killanin, head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), “vowed to resist any political interference with the Olympics”.
On January 3, the New York Times reported that France did not support the idea of an Olympic boycott.
President Jimmy Carter in a nationally televised speech on January 4, outlined his plans for forcing the Soviets out of Afghanistan, he hinted at the possibility of an Olympic boycott.
Saudi Arabia became the first nation to officially withdraw from the Moscow Olympics. On January 6 the LA Times reported that a spokesman for the Saudi Royal made the announcement, citing Soviet aggression against the “friendly and brotherly Moslem nation of Afghanistan.
Day by day, more and more editorials were written, interviews were given, and opinions taken on the not yet officially proposed Olympic boycott. For the most part, politicians favored the boycott while athletes and Olympic officials opposed it.
Carter Goes on Meet The Press and Makes Olympic Boycott Threat Official
Finally, on Sunday Morning, January 20, Carter appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press. Bill Monroe led off the interview by asking Carter, “Mr. President, assuming the Soviets do not pull out of Afghanistan any time soon, do you favor the U.S. participating in the Moscow Olympics, and if not, what are the alternatives?”
To which Carter replied, “No, neither I nor the American people would favor the sending of an American team to Moscow with Soviet invasion troops in Afghanistan. I’ve sent a message today to the United States Olympic Committee spelling out my own position that unless the Soviets withdraw their troops, within a month, from Afghanistan, that the Olympic Games be moved from Moscow to an alternate site, or multiple sites, or postponed, or cancelled. If the Soviets do not withdraw their troops from Afghanistan, within a month, I would not support the sending of an American team to the Olympics.
World Watches Nancy Kerrigan Attack in Disbelief
On January 6, 1994, Nancy Kerrigan had just completed a practice session in Cobo Hall in Detroit. She was preparing for the U.S. Women’s National Figure Skating Championship which was going to be held there, the following day.
As she was leaving the ice, an unidentified man struck her on the back of the knee with a club like object, causing her to fall to the floor, writhing in pain. As paramedics were getting her ready to be taken away in the ambulance, Kerrigan gave out her iconic wail, Why? Why? Why?
Kerrigan’s arch rival, Tonya Harding, won the competition (without Kerrigan of course), earning a position on the Olympic team. Even though she had not been able to compete in Detroit, on January 8, Kerrigan was given the second position on the team
On January 9, while the world was pondering who could have done such a thing, Jere Longman wrote in the New York Times,
This was only Act 1 of a great unfolding soap opera. Harding the talented but troubled champion, versus Kerrigan, America’s darling, the victim of a chilling assault. Muscular power versus swan-like grace. Harding has more technical skills, Kerrigan has elegance and the sympathy of an entire country. Everything about them is being compared, their hair, their costumes, their figures, their make up. One usually has to see a John Waters Movie to witness this sort of high camp.
Five Days Later the Soap Opera Takes a Wild Turn
The high camp soap opera took a bizarre turn on January 11, when The Oregonian reported that the FBI was investigating an allegation that the attack had been orchestrated by Harding’s body guard Shawn Eckardt, her ex-husband, Jeff Gilhooly; and a friend, Shane Stant.
The following day Eckardt confessed and implicated Gilhooly, Stant, and another friend, Derrick Smith. He also named Harding as a co-conspirator.
Tonya Insists She’s Innocent
On January 18, Harding met with investigators for ten hours. Her story, which she repeated at a nationally televised press conference on January 27, was that she only learned that her ex-husband and body guard were involved, after the attack. At the press conference Harding said. “Within the next few days, I learned that some persons that were close to me may have been involved. My first reaction was one of disbelief, and the disbelief was followed by shock and fear. Although my lawyers tell me that my failure to immediately report this information is not a crime, I know I’ve let you down, but I have also let myself down. I have devoted my entire life to one objective, winning an Olympic gold metal for my country.”
Both Girls Go to the Olympics
On February 5, the U.S. Figure Skating Association met, in order to decide what to do about Harding. Five days later Harding sued the U.S. Olympic committee in an effort to stop them from conducting a hearing to determine whether or not she should be allowed to compete in the Olympics. She dropped the suit two later after the committee agreed to cancel the hearing. Tonya Harding was given the green light to go to the Olympics in Lillehammer.
She placed 8th in the competition, but in typical Tanyaesque fashion, her Olympic performance will long be remembered almost entirely for the drama involving the laces on her skates. She was almost disqualified for not appearing on the ice in a timely fashion, and her skating was interrupted for an “equipment mishap”. The Judges generously allowed her to return to the ice and she managed to skate well enough to rank among the top third of all the competitors.
Meanwhile, Kerrigan recovered and was also able compete at the Olympics. On February 25 she won the silver medal (in a close and controversial competition with gold medal winner Oksana Baiul). Sadly Kerrigan is known much more today for her anguished cries after the brutal attack, than for winning Olympic bronze (Albertville, 1992) and silver medals.
The Melodrama did not quite end at the Olympics in Lillehammer. On March 16 in Portland, Harding plead guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution. She was put on probation for three years and was fined $160,000. She also agreed to resign from the U.S. Figure Skating Association