Today I highlight three Olympians, across 36 years, who demonstrate humility and dignity and have made me go “wow”.
Munich 1972: Dave Wottle – Out of nowhere
I love this race. Here is a quiet, unassuming man wearing a baseball cap that was nothing to do with the US team’s sponsors, way, way behind the pack for the first minute of the 800m.
Then, from last in the field, out of nowhere, he just pulls them back one-by-one in the space of about 45 seconds. Have a watch. It’s fabulous.
The main favourite to win the 800m in 1972, Soviet runner Evgeny Arzhanov, fell dramatically across the line in the exciting final strides. In a photo finish, it took a while for the winner to be posted, but Wottle won by the peak of his unauthorised, all American, cap. He was stunned when his name appeared first.
Munich 1972 was Wottle’s only Olympics.
Mexico City 1968: Bob Beamon – Sport’s greatest leap
Bob Beamon went into the long jump at Mexico City in 1968 as the favourite but no-one – including Beamon himself – could predict how he would take a giant leap into the record books. Take a look.
His jump of 29 feet 2½ inches (8.90m) still stands as the Olympic long jump record at the time of writing, although American Mike Powell broke the world record in 1991. What is astounding is that Beamon bettered his previous personal best by a massive 21¼ inches, whereas each previous occasion the long jump had been bettered since 1909, had been by way of an incremental improvement of between one and two inches.What is even more compelling about Bob Beamon is his backstory. Have a read of it here, then re-watch the video. You’ll go “wow” with me.
Berlin 1936: Jesse Owens – Superman
The 1936 Olympic Games were played out against a backdrop of enormous world turmoil.
Germany hadn’t long lost the First World War; German people lost confidence in their government; and the charismatic, slick-talking, populist nationalist Adolf Hitler became the country’s leader on the promise of a better life for those who were disenfranchised from the ‘middle class’. (Does that sound a little frighteningly contemporary?).
The Olympic Games were awarded to Berlin in 1931, two years before Hitler came to power. The idea was that it would help bring Germany back into the global community following the war. However, with Hitler and his propaganda chief, Goebbels, in power, the Berlin Olympic Games became a means of reinforcing their position and waving the flag – literally and metaphorically – to the world at large.
One man spoiled the party. Jesse Owens, the youngest of ten children from Alabama, son of a sharecrop farmer and grandson of slaves, crushingly dealt with Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy singlehandedly.
With his superb four Gold Medal haul in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and long jump, Owens transcended athletics and put issues of race, culture, belief and politics into public discourse globally. He also broke an Olympic record and two world records.
The Nazi propaganda machine may have hated the idea, but Owens was popular with the German people who cheered him wildly at all his events. The German Silver medalist in the long jump, Luz Long, had helped Owens correct his run-up in the heats of the event and they openly congratulated one another after the final.
However, whether or not Owens himself felt snubbed by the German leader – and doubts have been cast on whether this was so – he also made the point that it wasn’t much different at home.
“When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.”
Yes, the architect of the ‘New Deal’, Franklin D Roosevelt, did not honour Owens; he did honour white Olympians. At a tickertape parade in Owens’ honour in New York following the games, Owens and his mother were forced to ride in the freight lift as the ‘real’ lift was reserved for white people.
Jesse Owens was the defining face of Berlin 1936, yet he maintained a detachment from all that was going on around him. He became emblematic of one man’s dignity, grace and courage despite the eyes of the world being focused on him. In his own words:
“The only victory that counts is the one over yourself.”