My father absolutely loves track and field. For him, it’s all old school, Olympic motto stuff: Who can get from here to there fastest? (“Citius”) Who can jump the highest? (“Altius”) Who can throw the farthest? (“Fortius”) If you have the time, my pops can tell you what every single knuckle in the throwing hand index finger does when a spinning behemoth correctly releases a discus. To this day, he’s the only person I ever met who has a subscription to “Track and Field News.”
Because both my parents were public school employees, our family had lots of time together in the summers (occasionally too much time together, but that’s an ongoing conversation with my therapist). In 1984 we scored tickets to the boycott Olympic games in Los Angeles, and in 1996, we packed up the RV trailer and headed to Atlanta. The only events we watched at both Olympics were track and field. No gymnastics; no basketball; no swimming; just athletics. Like I said, my Dad was hardcore. The way he saw it, why fill up on bread and salad when your steak is on the way?
Los Angeles, as you recall, was a predictable nanny-nanny-boo-boo response by the Soviet Union to Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow games. We didn’t go to their Olympic games to protest the fact Communist troops were indiscriminately slaughtering Afghan civilians with attack helicopters – you know, before Rocky “Expendable” Rambo used a rag for a head sweatband and kicked the crap out of them.
In return, Moscow and several of their cronies – East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Cuba, and Hungary (which, surprisingly, is a Slavic country in eastern Europe, not a restaurant) refused to attend our 1984 Olympic games. Obviously, the Soviet Union and East Germany were the heavy hitters, and their absence badly affected the quality of the competition. Other countries, like co-boycotter North Korea, not so much. Having North Korea boycott your Olympics is like having Gary Busey cancel on your fancy dinner party at the last minute.
In L.A., we were watching the 4×100 relay preliminaries. My family was sitting side by side, watching the festivities. Just as I had done my entire life, I picked one relay team and dutifully wrote down the splits for each leg of the race.
Dad was sitting next to the aisle when a “Prune Picker” (my mother’s term of art for people from California – which she referred to as “The Land of Fruits and Nuts”) in a black turtleneck walked down the steps with his hands full of concessions. Mind you, it was Los Angeles in the summer and hotter than a kennel in College Station on a Saturday night. Why a doofus would have the affectation to wear a black turtleneck in the middle of the summer is beyond me, but there he was, a little Steve Jobs clone, toting his tofu, yogurt and other sundries.
“Pardon me,” said Black Turtleneck, wanting to move past my family to his seat on our row.
“No,” said Dad, scowling.
Black Turtleneck looked confused. “Excuse me?”
My father never looked up, and focused on his ever-present stopwatch. “We’ve driven 2,000 miles to watch this footrace. You stand there until it’s over.”
It was barely the second leg of the race, which meant there were almost three minutes left.
I don’t know if it was Dad’s Texan accent (maybe Black Turtleneck thought my father was packing heat) or the coach’s disdain in his voice for people who know and care so little for the sport he loved that they would go to the concession stand in the middle of a race instead of between heats, but Black Turtleneck did exactly as he was told.
After the race was over, Dad politely stood and let the guy through.
I love my pops.
Anyway, Los Angeles was great. I saw my all-time track hero, intermediate hurdler Edwin Moses, win gold. I screamed as Carl Lewis equaled Jessie Owen’s mark of four gold medals in the 100, 200, 4×100 and long jump. I listened as the Australian girl next to me sing the loudest “God Save the Queen” I had ever heard after Great Britain’s Sebastian Coe became the first person to win the 1500 meter run in successive Olympics. I was there when a heat-stroke-impaired Gabbie Anderson-Schiess stumbled like a drunk across the finish line of the first marathon ever run by women at the Games; the crowd was on it’s feet as one person, cheering as she refused help from officials which would have disqualified her, willing her across the finish line.
The 1996 Atlanta games began with an explosion in Centennial Park – where my family had been just 12 hours before the blast. To raise money for the Games, enterprising American officials sold commemorative bricks, inscribed as the donor wished. My father’s elementary school faculty pitched in and bought a brick with Dad’s name on it, and naturally, we wanted to find my pop’s brick among the thousands there and take his photo with it. The bricks were used to decorate the water fountain at the center of Centennial Park. Daddy’s brick is there in Atlanta to this day.
The track and field in Atlanta was wonderful. Baylor’s Michael Johnson won the 200 and 400, and our 4X400 relay team smoked the rest of the world. But what I remember most from Atlanta is the people, not the competition.
Waiting in line for a security check, I found myself next to three really cool, backpacking Irishmen. At that time, I had not yet explored my Irish heritage, but I was curious. I asked about the colors of the Irish flag – green, white, and gold. “The orange is for Protestants,” my line-buddy explained in a perfect brogue. “The green is for Catholics, and the white …”
The Irishman had an emotional pause. “The white is for peace.”
The favorite to win the 5,000 and 10,000 meters runs in Atlanta was a tiny speedster from Ethiopia, Haile Gebrselassie. After he held off the Kenyans in the 10,000, Gebrselassie announced the track was too hard, he didn’t want to risk injuring himself, he had won his gold medal and he was going home. It left the field wide open in the 5,000, with everyone assuming the Kenyans would win and possibly sweep the event.
In one of the best athletic events I have ever witnessed, a relative unknown from Burundi, Venuste Niyongabo, played cat and mouse with the three Kenyan runners who alternatively boxed him in and made him pass wide on the outside. In a dramatic finish, Niyongabo clipped Kenyan Paul Bitok at the wire, winning gold by 0.2 seconds.
After the race, Niyongabo was asked questions about his native country. Racked with decades of ethnic bloodshed between the Tutsis and Hutus, Burundi is one of the poorest, most impoverished counties on the planet. Through an interpreter, the reporters asked Niyongabo what his win meant to his country, how it felt to beat the heavily favored Kenyans, etc.
Finally, a reporter asked, “Are you Tutsi or are you Hutu?” Niyongabo, tears streaming down his face, paused and looked directly at the camera.
“Today, I am Burundi.”
THAT is the Olympic spirit.
A 1986 graduate of the University of Texas, Jeff Conner has held many jobs in his life: husband, brother, uncle, son, oil field roustabout, short-order cook, sandblaster, irrigation pipe mover, musician, retail assistant manager, attorney-at-law, public school teacher, preacher, cartoonist and writer. While he does have a hot, young wife, Conner is neither as clever nor as good-looking as he believes himself to be. Jeff is currently teaching 8th grade math and G.T. algebra in Taylor, Texas, the home of the Fighting Ducks. Conner’s regularly submitted commentary appears in InsideTexas.com and Inside Texas Magazine. The opinions presented do not necessarily reflect the views of the Inside Texas editorial staff.