Sport, like art, has the ability to lift us out of our mundane lives. In that spirit, Liam Day offers 10 moments of transcendent Olympic moments.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Olympics and the impact of the decline in Division 1 college wrestling and men’s gymnastics programs on the United States’ ability to compete in the future. I questioned the semi-professional nature of our system of college athletics and argued that both athletes and the institutions that support them need to reconsider why it is we compete athletically.
Last week, in a different post, I offered a paean to Roger Federer’s artistry.
I now realize the two posts are related. The beauty of Roger Federer’s tennis game is, in effect, an answer to my previously posed question of why we compete and, more appropriately, why we watch others compete. Roger Federer is an artist—to watch him play tennis is to observe a work of art—and art, no matter the genre, has the ability to lift us, even for just the moment or moments we experience it, out of our otherwise mundane lives.
When I was 15, I went on a school trip to France and Spain. One of the stops on the itinerary was the city of Toledo, the final home of the painter, El Greco, one of whose finest works, The Burial of Count Orgaz, adorns the church of Santo Tome in that city. The painting is a massive, floor-to-ceiling work, 15 feet high and almost 12 feet wide, overflowing with spectacular detail, both terrestrial and celestial.
I don’t remember how crowded the church was when we visited or what else was on the itinerary for our one day in the city. So I can’t tell you how quickly it was that I was either pushed out of the side chapel where the painting is located by tourists shuffling in behind me, or dragged out by one of my chaperones who was frustrated that I was lingering when all the other kids were already back on the tour bus growing were restless. I only remember that I stood for a time that could have been 5 minutes or could have been an hour, rapt in the beauty of the painting that towered over me. It was the first moment of transcendence I remember experiencing.
That is, it’s the first moment of transcendence I remember experiencing off the basketball court or cross-country trail. Though it may seem odd to you, at 40 I still remember plays I made on the court when I was 10, like the time I jumped out at a kid on the right wing, blocked his shot and raced the length of the floor to lay the ball in the basket at the other end. It was, for me, a transcendent moment and, therefore, one etched in my memory.
If transcendence is then—like art—the goal of sport, I thought I’d offer, as prelude to the Olympics, which begin today in London, 10 truly transcendent Summer Olympic moments. They are listed here in chronological order.
1) Spyridon Louis (1896) – The first Olympic games of the modern era were held in 1896 in Athens. At them, the first competitive marathon was held to commemorate Pheidippedes, who, the story has it, ran all the way to Athens from Marathon to inform the citizens of the ancient Greek city-state that the Persians had been defeated in battle and their invasion repelled. For historical reasons, then, it became a matter of national pride that a Greek win the first Olympic marathon and, though, as they comprised 13 of the 17 entrants who ultimately finished the race, the odds were pretty good that a Greek runner would cross the finish line first, it in no way tampered the crowd’s enthusiasm when Spyridon Louis entered the stadium ahead of the other runners.
Without radio or television to record it, we must rely on the official report of the Games (I am indebted here to Peter McKenzie-Brown.) “Here the Olympic Victor was received with full honour; the King rose from his seat and congratulated him most warmly on his success. Some of the King’s aides-de-camp and several members of the Committee went so far as to kiss and embrace the victor, who finally was carried in triumph to the retiring room under the vaulted entrance. The scene witnessed then inside the Stadium cannot be easily described, and even foreigners were carried away by the general enthusiasm.”
2) Jim Thorpe (1912) – Jim Thorpe won both the pentathlon and the decathlon at the 1912 Games in Stockholm. Of the 15 individual events that comprised the two overall competitions, Thorpe won 8 of them. He defeated the silver medalist in the decathlon by more than 700 points. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by his dominating performance. This, from his Wikipedia entry, citing his New York Times obituary, which, unfortunately, you need a subscription to access: “He could run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds flat, the 220 in 21.8 seconds, the 440 in 51.8 seconds, the 880 in 1:57, the mile in 4:35, the 120-yard high hurdles in 15 seconds, and the 220-yard low hurdles in 24 seconds. He could long jump 23 ft 6 in and high-jump 6 ft 5 in. He could pole vault 11 feet, put the shot 47 ft 9 in, throw the javelin 163 feet, and throw thediscus 136 feet.” He was, indeed, a one man track team.
3) Khadr El Touni (1936) – The 1936 games in Berlin are remembered for many reasons. They were the first to be televised (locally in Berlin). They served as propaganda for the ruling Nazi regime, as geopolitical tensions were building on the European continent. Jesse Owens won four gold medals, embarrassing Der Fuehrer’s Aryan athletes. Just this week in Slate, Michael Socolow excavated America’s 8-man crew team that took home the gold by less than a second.
But perhaps the most transcendent performance of those Games was given by an Egyptian weightlifter, Khadr El Touni. So dominating was his performance in the middleweight class, that he continued competing for 45 minutes after he had already outlifted his competition. He would finish by lifting 35 kg more than the silver medal winner. So dominating was his performance that Hitler renamed a Berlin street for him.
4) Cassius Clay (1960) – Like Roger Federer, Cassius Clay was the epitome of athlete as artist. As he liked to boast later, he did dance like a butterfly and sting like a bee. But, by the time he made that boast, he was heavyweight champion of the world. What’s easy to forget is that at the Rome Olympics in 1960, Cassius Clay was a rather skinny 18-year old kid who had been so terrified of flying he contemplated skipping the Games entirely. In the light-heavyweight final he defeated the heavier, more experienced Pole, Zbigniew Pietrzykowsky, who was a southpaw, a fact to which Clay struggled to adjust in the fight’s first two rounds. In the third and final round, however, he dominated. Here is footage of the fight.
5) Billy Mills (1964) – Quite frankly, Billy Mills was not supposed to win the 10,000 meters at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, but the Native American runner from Kansas beat his best time by almost 50 seconds, taking everyone by suprise, including the announcers, one of whom Dick Bank, started shrieking uncontrollably as Mills surged into the lead down the final stretch. Video of the race’s final two minutes can be found here. They are well worth watching.
6) Bob Beamon (1968) – Most world records are set in increments. A runner shaves a second or a tenth of a second off the previous record or a jumper jumps an inch above or beyond the height or distance any human had ever jumped before. Not Bob Beamon. Bob Beamon not only set a world record at the Mexico City Games in 1968, he shattered it. By almost two feet. Yes, Mexico City’s thin air helped and, yes, he had a wind at his back. Still, the prevailing conditions don’t explain the full measure of the man’s achievement. The jump was so long it exceeded the limit of the machine used to officially measure the jumps. The video of it appears below.
7) The Soviet Men’s Basketball Team (1972) – Yes, there are questions surrounding the legitamacy of the win. Yes, the last three seconds of the game were replayed not once, but twice. Yes, the American team refused to accept their silver medals, which lie, to this day, in a safety deposit box in a Swiss bank. But what gets lost in the controversy surrounding the game is that, for the Soviets, beating an American team that had never lost in Olympic competition, en route to winning every gold medal since the sport’s Olympic inauguration in 1936, was as celebrated a victory as the American hockey team’s victory would be for the United States 8 years later. Here is a useful recap, with video footage, of the events that unfolded during the game’s final moments.
8) Nadia Comaneci (1976) – Some sports, such as running, lend themselves easily to gripping moments – two atheletes, neck and neck, sprinting toward the finish line. Perfection, however, speaks for itself. 14 years old, Nadia Comaneci achieved perfection at the 1976 games in Montreal. Her routine on the uneven bars was the first in the history of the Olympics to receive a perfect score of 10 from the judges.
9) Florence Griffith-Joyner (1988) – Florence Griffith-Joyner set not one, but two world records in the 200 meters at the 1988 Games in Seoul. She set the first record in her semifinal heat, running a 21.56, then beat it in the finals with a time of 21.34, despite cruising to the gold medal.
10) Rulon Gardner (2000) – Perhaps it’s because Greco-Roman wrestling isn’t as popular as hockey, or maybe, with the end of the Cold War, defeating the Russians didn’t rally the country the way it did before the Berlin Wall fell, but Rulon Gardner’s gold-medal winning match against Aleksandr Karelin was the equal of the American hockey team’s upset of the Russians at Lake Placid in 1980. Karelin had not lost a match in 13 years and hadn’t conceded a point in 6. Here are two videos of the match. The first is the better footage and is unedited, but the commentary is in, I believe, Japanese. The second is the NBC feed, but the quality is not as good and it is heavily edited.
Also read Liam Day’s Roger Federer – Sport as Art
Lead Photo: AP