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Tuesday, September 19
Olympics weren't always made for TV

It's a sure sign of aging when you find yourself complaining that "things weren't always this way." It doesn't matter if you're talking about music, traffic, kids nowadays, or the Olympics.

Times change. Business marches on. Inevitably, that progress has affected the Olympic Games, the huge-money concern that still manages to pass itself off as a non-profit celebration of amateur athletics. We see more hype about the Olympics than we do actual news reporting. We have heard more about Marion Jones -- who has won no medal yet -- than we have heard about 99 percent of the gold medalists who have graced the Olympic podium in the last century.

Of marketing we have seen much; of modesty, little. But this is not a sermonette on Olympic etiquette. Actually, today I bemoan the lack of colorfulness that we see among our current crop of Olympic heroes-to-be. They're too much about business, it sometimes seems. Too serious. Too professional. Too -- I hate to say it -- boring.

Marion Jones
Marion Jones was the subject of much pre-Olympic hype.
The margins for error at the top have grown too small to allow for the individual quirks that characterized many of our stars of past decades. That's certainly apparent to me as I read about Archie Williams, who won the 400-meter gold way back in 1936.

Williams was one of many gold medalists interviewed by authors Lewis Carlson and John Fogarty in their great book, Tales of Gold, published in 1987. Modeling their book after Studs Terkel's classic, Working, Carlson and Fogarty put together a fascinating set of interviews with Olympic heroes about their work -- the Olympics.

Williams, who died in 1993 at age 78, not only made a good story, but he told a good story. He broke the world record in the 400 with a 46.1, and later that year won the gold in the Berlin Olympics. He faced the discrimination of the Nazis, a burden that too often we place solely on Jesse Owens' shoulders as we gradually forget the names of his African-American teammates.

Williams graduated from Cal-Berkeley with a degree in engineering and went on to become a World War II flight instructor. During the Korean conflict he flew B-29 bombing missions. Not bad for a guy who, when he told his college counselor he wanted to study engineering, was told, "Be serious. You ain't got a chance."

Back in those days, a world-record holder could actually be a student-athlete. With a PR of 46.8, Williams dropped down to 46.1 for the world record in a trial heat at the NCAA meet. "Right out of the clear blue sky," he said. "I still don't believe it."

In recalling his friends and competitors, Williams brings to life the names that grace the record books. As he remembered hurdler Spec Towns: "He'd wear these ol' GI boots. He's the only guy in the world who would take his cigar, put it down on the starting block, run a race, and then come back for it."

Towns demolished the world record with a 13.7 after the Games, becoming the first man under 14 seconds. "That was an unheard of time then ... that night we got some guy to call him on the phone and say, 'Mr. Towns, we're very sorry to tell you that your record will not count because there were only nine hurdles on the track.' For a while he was really shook up, but the next day somebody told him the truth."

Of shot putter Jack Torrence, he said, "There's a guy who, if they'd make the shot put ring about a foot bigger, or if they had let him have a six-pack before the meet, would have thrown that ... thing 100 feet."

Heartening, perhaps, to Marion Jones, would be Williams' memories of Jesse Owens: "Jesse never trained for the long jump. He'd go out and run through the pit a few times ... I'm glad he didn't try the 440. I was always reminding him what a tough race it was. I kept telling him, 'It'll kill you'.

"Jesse was such a phenomenon that after the '36 Games they decided to do a physiological profile on him. Guess what? He turned out to be Norwegian."

Williams, too, would bemoan the all-business attitude of today's athletes: "One thing about the whole thing was that we were having a lot of fun. We were serious, of course, but it didn't seem to me, and not to the other guys either, that it was going to be the end of the world if we didn't win. That's one thing I notice about these meets I go to nowadays. Nobody's smiling."

Bad news and good news
  • Bad -- The Jamaican theatrics surrounding Merlene Ottey. Sure, she was great once, but she didn't make the top three at the Trials. Then she said she wouldn't run the relay unless she was named to the 100 team as well. No wonder her male and female teammates picketed to protest her inclusion on the squad. Team officials say the conflict is resolved now. The lesson? Tantrums work.

  • Good -- Dieter Baumann losing his doping appeal; the toothpaste defense just wasn't enough to save the 1992 Olympics 5000 champ.

  • Bad -- Injuries have cost us the Olympic participation of the always classy Frank Fredericks, who won the 200 silver behind Michael Johnson in Atlanta. We have also lost Moroccan distance star Salah Hissou. Even more worrisome is the fact that 10,000m defender Haile Gebrselassie is saying that he is not fully recovered from his injury problems.

  • Good -- Despite NBC's attempt to blockade live coverage of the Games, it looks like there will be plenty of sources to get Olympic coverage from faster than the NBC tape delay.

  • Bad -- Donovan Bailey is still struggling, clocking 10.26 in his latest outing. The 1996 champ has shown such dismal form that only his staunchest backers feel he has a solid chance to make the 100 final, let alone win. I'm not sure I'll miss him as much as I'll miss the Canadian vs American bickering that Bailey's ascendancy in the 100 precipitated.

  • Good -- The first competitor in the men's shot qualifying will loft a 16-pound ball into the air at about the same time Friday that the gun goes off for the first heat of the women's 800 meters. Forget the opening ceremony. This is when the Olympics really start.

    The Mailbag
    Bill Laubenheimer: "It's fine not to show much of a 10,000 of the sort Mr. McGowan describes (last week), because nothing much is happening -- dropping in from time to time if a world record is still in the picture is probably coverage enough. What's unfortunate, and I think a big part of the reason why the 'general public' has a hard time coming to appreciate the (distance) events, is that this is the same sort of coverage handed out when something actually is happening. NBC -- or any other organization covering track and field -- may think that they can't get numbers for showing more detailed coverage of events that unfold over more time, but is this the fault of the event, or of the coverage? I would vote strongly for the latter ... How about looking for the drama instead of getting lazy? How about putting some technology to work to make it more obvious what's going on -- electronic lines like the first-down lines from football coverage at key places in the long-jump pit and on the throwing fields, for example, so it's possible to see at a glance whether that last effort was any good?"

    Ramsey Piazza: "I would certainly agree with you that Suzy Favor Hamilton is a premier athlete who has worked hard and deserves a great deal of respect. The one thing that perplexes me is I don't feel that Regina Jacobs has received anywhere near the attention that Favor Hamilton has. Jacobs has a good shot at being a double medalist at the Sidney Games. She set an American record at the trails in the 5,000 and beat Favor Hamilton in the 1,500. Granted , Favor Hamilton's performance in Oslo could very well foreshadow the kind of performance she is ready to unleash on the Olympic stage, so she deserves the attention and accolades she receives. But to me it has always seemed that Favor Hamilton has been embraced as the favored daughter and Jacobs is the forgotten sister who quietly has continued to perform over the years in the background. Favor Hamilton is attractive and fits the all-American girl profile. Jacobs is an African American woman who competes in events that most people think the only Americans in the event are white and everyone else is African. My point is not that Favor Hamilton should receive less attention but that Jacobs should receive just as much, and should have a long time ago."

    Response: I would agree that Regina Jacobs has gotten the short end of the deal in the national media, and it certainly could be argued that the perceptions of "marketability" that have caused this may be racially driven. Unfortunately, now that Jacobs has withdrawn from the team due to a viral infection, we will never see get the coverage that she might have earned in Sydney. And if Favor Hamilton comes through with a gold medal -- in an event where no American woman has won a medal of any color -- she will most likely be the story, and the magazine cover, of the Games.

    Jeff Hollobaugh, former managing editor of Track and Field News, is a regular contributor to He can be reached by e-mail at


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