Moments and memories

Jesse Owens -- The man who ruined Hitler's party!

As a kid, James Cleveland ‘Jesse’ Owens used to fall sick frequently. His parents had a tough time nursing him through one chilly winter after another. He was down with pneumonia for weeks once and a little later, big boils showed up on his chest and legs. Since his parents could not afford to take him to hospital, his mother cut out the boils with a red-hot kitchen knife even as the little fellow screamed in pain.

Life had been a struggle for little Owens. But despite the brushes with death, he emerged stronger. So strong, that he became track and field’s most dominant figure years later. And on May 25, 1935, in probably the greatest 45 minutes in sport, he broke three world records — in the long jump, 220-race and 220-yard low hurdles — and equalled a fourth in 100 yards, all this despite suffering from a bad back!

A year later at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which the German Chancellor Adolf Hitler hosted to prove to the world that the Aryans were a superior race, it was Owens who emerged as the king of the Games by winning gold medals in the 100 and 200m, the long jump and the 4x100m relay. The black American, the son of an Alabama sharecropper, became a legend that day.

The 22-year-old won the 100m with a dominating performance but ran into some early trouble in the long jump the next day. He had two foul jumps in the qualifying session and had just one chance to make the grade of 7.15m.

At that stage, German Luz Long, Owens’ chief rival, pointed out what was wrong. He advised the American to push back his run-up marker by about a foot, so that Owens could be sure of recording a legal jump. That helped, and Owens cruised to the final.

The long jump final was a close battle between Owens and Long but the American won the gold with an 8.06m leap in his final attempt. The sporting German was the first to congratulate him and they did a lap of honour around the stadium together.

“It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler,” Owens said years later. “You can melt all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz at that moment.”

The 200m came with an Olympic record and Owens led the American team to a world record and gold in the 4x100 relay.

Six months after Berlin, Owens turned professional which disqualified him, under the Amateur Athletics Union rules, from competing in the Olympics. Later, he ran against horses and greyhounds and became something of a circus sideshow. He wore various hats after this and became a successful motivational speaker and ambassador for various companies. He died of lung cancer in 1980 at the age of 66.

Stan Rayan * * * Fanny Blankers-Koen -- The Flying Dutchmam

When Fanny Blankers-Koen said she wanted to compete in the 1948 London Olympics, many scoffed at her. She was 30. They said she was too old to run. Others said that she should be sitting at home, looking after her two children.

Blankers-Koen stunned them by winning four Olympic gold medals at the London Games. It is still the highest individual collection by a woman athlete in a single Olympics. Hailed as ‘Flying Dutchmam’ and ‘Flying Housewife’ in Holland, she was named by IAAF in 1999 as the female athlete of the 20th century.

As a child, Francina Elsje Koen would run at full speed and jump over the garden gate when sent on errands. She excelled in swimming, skating and tennis. But her father Arnold Koen, a farmer, a shot putter and discus thrower, encouraged her to take up athletics.

In her maiden Olympics in 1936 in Berlin, where she met Jessie Owens, she managed just a sixth spot in the high jump and a fifth in the 4x100m relay. Twelve years later, she emulated Owens’ four-gold haul in London.

When Blankers-Koen set her first world record in 1938, running the 100 yards in 11 seconds the Dutch media predicted that the 1940 Olympics, scheduled in Helsinki, would be her stage to fame. Unfortunately, Helsinki did not happen. World War II dashed all hopes. She married her coach, Jan Blankers, a former national triple jump champion in 1940. She trained secretly during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Between 1942 and 1944, Blankers-Koen set six world records, in the high jump, long jump, 80m hurdles, 100-yard dash and two sprint relays, all coming after the birth of her son.

As the athletes were allowed to compete in only three individual events then, Blankers-Koen was forced to leave out the high and long jumps at the 1948 London Games despite holding the world records in both.

After winning her maiden 100m Olympic gold comfortably, she wanted to return home to be with her children. But persuaded by her husband to continue, she collected three more golds — 80m hurdles with a new world record, the 200m with a 0.7s margin over Britain’s Audrey Williamson (still the largest margin of victory in an Olympic 200m final) and anchored the team’s gold in the sprint relay.

Stan Rayan * * * Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) -- A star is born

Cassius Clay, or Muhammad Ali, is arguably the most outstanding athlete of all time. Sports enthusiasts all over the world have often heard stories of his legendary fights against Joe Frazier, George Foreman et al. However, before the start of his professional career, Clay had already made a name for himself as an amateur boxer during the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Though Clay was considered to be a genuine medal prospect, there wasn’t much hype around him before the Olympics. Rather, his participation in the event was doubtful after he contemplated withdrawing due to a bout of pteromerhanophobia.

Clay had never been comfortable travelling by air and a rocky flight to California for the Olympic trials only worsened his fears. After being told that he couldn’t go to Rome either by train or sea, Clay decided to withdraw from the Games. It wasn’t until his trainer, Joe Martin, told him “if he wanted to be the world heavyweight champion, then he had to go to Rome and win the Olympics”, Clay decided to give in and board the plane to Rome.

Once in Rome, Clay began to wander in the Olympic Village and introduce himself to anyone who crossed his path. He soon earned the nickname ‘the mayor of the Olympic Village’ and one of his teammates said, “If they’d had an election, he would have won in a walk.”

Clay’s popularity continued to soar as boxing fans took an instant liking to his unorthodox style. Clay reached the semifinals without much trouble. But his semifinal was anything but easy. Facing Australia’s Tony Madigan, Clay had to bring his A-game to the ring and prevailed in controversial circumstances. To this day, some observers feel that Madigan was hard done by the judges.

In the final, Clay was pitted against the Polish boxer Zbigniew Pietrzykowski. After a poor opening round, Clay fought back, delivered a torrent of punches which brought him close to a knockout win. This time, at the final bell, there were no doubts regarding the victor. Clay had won the gold medal in light-heavyweight.

However, the global media was slow to realise that. It wasn’t until a year after Clay’s triumph that the media began to hail him as a special talent.

“I didn’t take that medal off for 48 hours,” Clay said. “I even wore it to bed. I didn’t sleep too good because I had to sleep on my back so that the medal wouldn’t cut me. But I didn’t care, I was Olympic champion.”

Priyansh * * * Bob Beamon -- Beamonesque!

The 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico produced many new records and amazing feats but the man who stole the show in track and field was Bob Beamon whose record breaking long jump was later called “The Leap of the Century”. A new term was coined in sports parlance — Beamonesque — to describe similar feats in later years.

Bob Beamon was born in New York in 1946 and was raised by his grandmother. While at school his talent for the long jump event caught the eye of Larry Ellis, a well known coach who helped him polish his technique.

Beamon later obtained a sports scholarship to study at the University of Texas. He also became a member of the All American track and field team. He went to the Mexico Olympics as the favourite for the event having won 22 out of the 23 meets he had competed in, that year. But even then he was quite unprepared for what happened during the event.

In the qualifying rounds, after fouling his first two jumps, he managed to get his third attempt legal, to make it to the final. He came up with a stupendous jump of 8.90 metres in the final which erased the existing record by 55 cms! The officials couldn’t believe it and took quite a long time to re-measure the jump till they were sure of what had happened. When they finally announced the distance, Beamon was initially calm as he was not familiar with metric measurements and did not realise what he had done.

When a fellow athlete brought to his notice that he had broken the world record by nearly two feet, Beamon collapsed and had to be helped to his feet by his teammates.

After the Mexico Olympics, Beamon switched to basketball and played for the Phoenix Suns team. Later he graduated with a degree in sociology and worked at the Chicago State University.

Abhijit Sen Gupta * * *

U.S. - USSR Basketball final -- That final minute...

Tragedy struck the Munich Olympics of 1972... and it struck American basketball too. If 11 Israeli participants were massacred by a Palestinian terrorist group, it was the Soviet Russia, then USSR, that ambushed America’s pride and monopoly in Olympic basketball.

Controversy and confusion marred the final moments, but that failed to dent the sheen of the Soviet success. Unbeaten for over seven Olympics since 1936, the much criticised coach Henry Iba, who fetched gold for the U.S. team in the previous two Olympics, guided it to its eighth final on the trot.

“It’s a 50-point game,” said the coach, renowned for his defensive tactics.

And so it was. The USSR defeated the youngest side to sport U.S. colours (with an average age of 20 to 26 years) 51-50 amidst much drama and chaos.

Powered by Sergei Belov’s outside-shooting, the Soviets enjoyed a five-point lead and extended it to 10. With just 10 minutes to go for the hooter, the U.S. led by the mercurial Kevin Joyce came tantalisingly close. With less than a minute on the clock and the Soviets leading 49-48, the towering Alexander Belov, instead of playing out time, attempted a shot which the Americans intercepted.

Kevin Joyce put the darting Doug Collins through and the ‘gifted’ forward, going for a lay-up, was fouled, with barely three seconds to go. A packed but stunned gallery waited with bated breath and Collins converted both the ‘free-throws’.

The U.S. bench had reasons to smile, but then the scoring table erred, the clock ticked away and the hooter sounded soon after. With the Soviets protesting that the time remaining was three seconds when the foul was committed, the clock was reset.

In working the clock backwards, the on-court referees handed the ball to the Russians for play and the high cross pass to the offensive board saw the lanky Alexander Belov collect and sink a basket much to the joy of the Soviets and to the utter disbelief of the U.S. team.

“We were not beaten… but cheated,” said U.S. forward Mike Bantom, but the Soviets walked away with the Olympic gold.

The U.S. till date has not claimed the silver which apparently is lying somewhere in the vaults in Lausanne (Switzerland).

Avinash Nair * * * Nadia Comaneci -- Perfect 10

On July 18, 1976, when Romania slept, Nadia Comaneci, a little elastic legend, made the rest of the world sit up and watch her in awe as she recorded the first perfect 10 in the history of Modern Olympics.

The 14-year-old pony-tailed wonder leapt like an early season salmon and landed like a nimble butterfly on the uneven bars for the perfect score during the team compulsories at the Montreal Games.

The four-feet, 11-inch little star, who was trying out the ‘cartwheel’ frequently in school did the routine with ease and grace. The others in the line, inspired by her, twinkled as well. But in the end, it was Nadia who emerged the brightest star.

When the scoreboards flashed 1.00 instead of 10, the crowd was taken aback. It was not aware that the board was not equipped to flash a four-digit number. But when the announcement came, the crowd stood up to applaud the world’s ‘perfect gymnast’.

Nadia, who perfected the art of flexibility, working quietly with her coach Bela Karolyi at the experimental school of gymnastics, gets emotional even today reminiscing the golden moment. “The history of the perfect 10 is really a 1.”

Nadia, which in Russian means Hope, enjoyed six additional 10s, four of which came on the uneven bars, on her way to the all-around, beam and bar titles. It was a world record for the most 10s scored at a single edition of the Olympics. The World Records Academy declared the day as ‘World Records Day’. And the little girl returned home as a national treasure.

Rayan Rozario