THE FLAG-WAVING comes before the races, at Opening Ceremonies, and afterward, for the medalists. But while running on the Olympic tracks and roads, the athletes compete for themselves and against each other. They have enough to worry about without carrying the weight of their countries on their shoulders.
Nationalism, carried too far, interferes with the competition. We see this by who’s missing from the Opening Ceremonies.
In 1972 it was the white-ruled southern Africans. In 1976, most of black Africa. (And in the next two Games it would be the American-led boycott of Moscow in 1980, then the retaliatory Soviet bloc absence from Los Angeles in 1984.)
The last time before 1976 when I wasn’t in an Olympic Stadium for Opening Ceremonies was 1964. That year the ceremonies were televised live in the United States, at two o’clock in the morning in my time zone. I woke up to watch.
The latest ceremonies from Montreal started at noon on California TV. Instead of watching I went to the zoo with my wife and daughter.
My change of heart about these ceremonies in just 12 years wasn’t a rejection of the sport and its athletes. If anything I was more excited than ever about their part in the Olympics.
I would be in Montreal to see that part. But the other part, the political part that marches out most obviously on opening day and later for the victory laps and medal-giving, had lost its allure.
Twenty-six holes appeared in this latest opening parade where athletes from that many nations, mostly African, should have been. Among the absent were at least a dozen runners picked by Track & Field News as medal contenders, and dozens more who should have followed human pace-setters at the Olympics instead of their national leaders away from there. We’re taking these Games too seriously if we and they think that athletes can change the course of world politics by running or not running.
Jim Murray, the witty and wise columnist for the Los Angeles Times, wrote before the Montreal Olympics opened, “Do teams refuse to play Notre Dame in football because of the Pope’s stand on birth control? Does Notre Dame cancel a series because a rival coach is an atheist? Does Michigan refuse to play Ohio State because [that state] voted Republican?”
He concluded, “Sport as an instrument of international policy is spitballs against a battleship.” As messy and as futile.
Olympic athletes in this boycott-ridden age don’t so much separate into winners and losers as survivors and victims. The survivors who marched into Montreal’s stadium to open these Games survived the political shenanigans.
Now they could run as free agents, not as nationalities. Now, finally, they could start winning and losing on their own, the right way.
THE CLOSEST I ever came to running on an Olympic track was 33 years after the fact, in Tokyo when I ran a token lap while vacationing there. At the three Games I attended, a concrete moat topped by spikes separated the runners from the viewers in Mexico City, and my seats at Munich and Montreal were at least 50 rows removed from the action.
I didn’t get much closer to the marathon courses at my first two Olympics. Mexico City’s route was too crowded to run any other time. Munich’s streets were too far from my housing.
In Montreal, though, marathon road ran right past the house where I stayed with RW tour leaders Bob and Rita Anderson. I ran often along the blue line, including race morning.
Loud slapping sounds woke me before dawn that day. Below the bedroom window I saw a truck, flashing emergency lights, moving slowly down the street. Workmen dropped no-parking signs onto the shoulder. Another crew followed, washing the roadway.
The marathon wouldn’t start for another 12 hours. By then this street would be closed to traffic and guarded every 100 yards against intruders. Tables and chairs now awaited the officials. A TV platform sat empty at a nearby corner.
Here was my chance to run on the Olympic course on marathon day, before the Olympians did. I ran back from the “5K” painted in front of our house, past Olympic Village, through Olympic Park, down the ramp to the locked Marathon Gate of the stadium. Then I ran up the long and steep ramp, taking the same route as that the marathoners would see in their early kilometres.
That evening I watched the runners disappear out marathon gate. Inside the stadium we heard little about what was happening along the blue line for the next two hours.
Then little-known East German Waldemar Cierpinski broke the suspense by returning to the track first, just as his national anthem for the women’s 4x400 team ended. He relegated defending champion Frank Shorter to silver medalist. My favorite runner here, Don Kardong, ran the race of his life – coming within three seconds of the bronze medal that went to Karel Lismont of Belgium.
Later I walked back to our house along what had been the marathon course. The no-parking signs, barricades, tables, chairs and platforms were gone. Rain and darkness left the blue line invisible. Traffic was back, and this was only a city street again – except in the memory of anyone who had run here.
Photo: Don Kardong runs through the Montreal rain toward his near-medal finish.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]