Moments and memories

Wilma Rudloph - Triumphing over all adversities

Her story was fit for Hollywood script-writers. Who would have imagined that a baby prematurely born and later struck by polio would one day become an Olympic sprint champion at the age of 20!

Wilma Rudolph, 20th of 22 children to Ed, a Railway porter, and Blanche, a maid, in a Tennessee family, was down with infantile paralysis at the age of four, suffered scarlet fever and pneumonia and wore brace on her left leg and foot till the age of nine.

Her left leg was crooked and foot turned inward. Running must have been far removed from her mind and that of her parents during those days when her parents took her to hospital for treatment and massaged her leg regularly.

Despite all the handicaps, Wilma took to basketball and sprinting as she grew up, wearing an orthopaedic shoe past the age of nine to support her crooked foot. While in school, the Tennessee track and field coach Ed Temple discovered her talent. She joined Temple’s summer programme and before long she had developed into a fine sprinter.

At the age of 16 Wilma made the U.S. Olympic team to the Melbourne Games, as a member of the U.S. 4x100m relay team. She had a bronze on her Olympic debut but she was to make history in the next edition of the Games in Rome.

After having watched Betty Cuthbert take the sprint double in Melbourne, Wilma told herself that she would emulate the Aussie at the next Olympics. She bettered that in Rome, winning three gold medals including the one in the shorter relay. It was the first time an American woman was winning three gold medals in an Olympics. No one could have thought that a polio-stricken girl would be able to perform such a feat.

She had suffered an injury a day before her 100 heat in Rome. Yet, she equalled the world record of 11.3 in her semifinal. In the final she ran a wind-aided 11.0 to beat Britain’s Dorothy Hyman by two and a half metres. She won the 200 final by four metres from Jutta Heine of Germany, in 24.0 running into a headwind. After having set a world record of 22.9 earlier that season, Wilma was expected to better that, but the winds spoilt her attempt. The U.S. team set a world record of 44.4s in the heats on way to the relay gold. It was a story of the indomitable human spirit triumphing over all adversities. When Wilma returned home, at her request, her victory parade was the first fully ‘integrated’ event in Clarksville. She was to later become a civil rights activist. Wilma died of brain cancer on November 12, 1994 at the age of 54.

K. P. Mohan * * * Dick Fosbury - Revolutionary technique

The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City was a feast for track and field fans. As many as 13 world records were created in the 36 events. But with almost all these records now having been put into oblivion through the years, the lone symbol of the Mexico Games alive now is the revolutionary technique of the American high jumper Dick Fosbury who claimed a gold medal with an Olympic record.

At that time, there were only two styles of clearing a bar. The scissors jump, where the athlete threw first one leg and then the other over the bar, modelled by the 1920 Antwerp gold medallist Richmond Landon. The other was the straddle and its variant, the western roll, which saw the athlete flinging himself over the bar face down, as demonstrated by the 1964 Tokyo gold medal winner, Valery Brumel.

The scissors jump was considered old since the end of the 19th century when the straddle mode took over. And though the technique had changed a bit over time, there had been so significant alterations since 1936, when the IAAF first decided that athletes need not clear the bar leg first.

Fosbury was only an average athlete and his new style involved the athlete pivoting and sailing head first, with his back to the bar, and then kicking his legs over. The new style, initially, was viewed with scepticism prompting Payton Jordan, the U.S. Olympic coach, to comment: “Kids imitate champions. If they try to imitate Fosbury, he will wipe out an entire generation of high jumpers, because they will all have broken necks.”

Though experimenting with his new style to emerge as NCAA champion in 1967, Fosbury barely made it to the Mexico-bound U.S. team, finishing third behind Ed Caruthers and Reynaldo Brown in the U.S. trials.

However, on October 20, as the finals warmed up, Fosbury was a changed man completely as he slipped into medal contention. A gripping contest evolved as only the trio of Fosbury, Caruthers and Russian Valentin Gavrilov remained as the height of the bar was raised to 2.20m.

The Russian went out of the fray at this stage and at 2.22m Fosbury cleared it on his first attempt. Caruthers could only make it on his third. Fosbury, after two unsuccessful attempts at 2.24m, sailed over on his final trial and sealed the gold.

A. Vinod * * * Mark Spitz - Astonishing feat

Before the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, American swimming sensation Mark Spitz announced that he would win six gold medals. His coach George Haines expected seven.

But Spitz failed to win a single medal. Though he accounted for a couple of relays, the nadir was reached when he came last in the 200m butterfly final.

Four years later came the zenith. At the 1972 Munich Games he won a record seven gold medals, an astonishing feat made even greater by the fact that all the victories were in world record times.

Mark Spitz was born on February 10, 1950 in Modesto California. His family moved to Hawaii when he was two. It was here, at the Waikiki beach, that his fledging career took shape. Four years later he was back in California for training.

By the age of 10, he possessed 17 national age-group records and one world record. Under the wings of George Haines at the Santa Clara Swim Club, he held national high school records in every stroke and in every distance.

His first international competition was at the age of 15 at the Maccabiah Games in 1965. He won four gold medals and was named the most outstanding athlete. In 1967, he won five gold medals at the Pan American Games in Winnipeg, and set a record that remained unsurpassed for 40 years.

Spitz’s conquests in the 1972 Games began with the 200m butterfly final. He beat his nearest rival by over two seconds. He anchored his team to two golds in the 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle relays. He also bagged the 100m butterfly and the 200m freestyle golds.

But before his last race, the 100m freestyle, self-doubts arose in Spitz’s mind. Jerry Heidenreich, his main competitor was no pushover.

Spitz just hated losing. “I’d rather win six out of six, or even four out of four, than six out of seven,” he apparently said. However, he emerged out of the pool victorious. Heidenreich was beaten by 0.41secs and Spitz had his seventh gold.

The record stood for 36 years until another American swimmer, Michael Phelps won eight golds. On Phelps’ feat, Spitz remarked: “He is the single greatest Olympic athlete of all time now. I always wondered what my feelings would be. I feel a tremendous load off my back.”

N. Sudarshan * * * Vasily Alexeyev - Ultimate lifter

Vasily Alexeyev was born in Shakhty, an obscure town in Southern Russia in 1942. The 6-foot, 1-inch Russian redefined the art of weightlifting and was the ultimate lifter in the 1970s.

Alexeyev set 80 world records, and won the World championship eight times. He clinched the gold (110 kg category) in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics. The victories surprised none, given his astonishing record at the highest level.

There is a fairy-tale touch to the strength and consistency of Alexeyev, who was the first lifter to total over 600 kg in the triple event.

It all began when he was just 18. Alexeyev took to weightlifting under the Trud Voluntary Sports Society and was trained by Rudolf Plyukfelder till 1968. Then he decided to be on his own and the rest is history. Each year, he passed barrier after barrier remaining unbeaten in the Worlds and the European championships from 1970 to 1977.

In Moscow (1980) he left the huge home crowd stunned when he came up with a dismal showing — in the snatch he set his opening weight too high and then was unable to lift it, scoring zero kilograms! He retired instantly.

Alexeyev returned as coach between 1990 and 1992 to guide the USSR team to win 10 medals in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. In 1999, he was adjudged as the ‘best sportsman’ of the 20th century. Later, he was also inducted into the International Weightlifting Hall of Fame. He passed away in a German clinic in 1971 at the age of 69.

V. V. Subrahmanyam * * * Daley Thompson - Champion decathlete

Great Britain’s Francis Morgan Ayodele Thompson is considered the greatest decathlete the world has ever seen.

As an 18-year-old, he competed in decathlon at the 1976 Montreal Games. But Ayodele (Dele for short), an African name, which later became Daley, the name by which Thompson came to be known the world over, did not dazzle enough to grab eyeballs. And, true to his age, he finished 18th.

Born to a Nigerian father, a cab driver, and a Scottish mother, Daley came back stronger four years later to win the decathlon title at the Moscow Games. He opened the Olympic season with a world record 8648 points and carried that confidence with him to Moscow to wear his first Olympic gold.

The 1980s saw an intense rivalry between Daley and Jurgen Hingsen of West Germany. The duo consistently traded world records. But, Daley proved he was the best by winning his second Olympic gold with a world record tally of 8798 points in Los Angeles. However, the champion decathlete, the first to win back-to-back gold medals in the most gruelling athletics event of them all, missed scoring a treble, finishing fourth in Seoul. A good sprinter and a jumper, Daley was fortunate enough to have his favourite events on the opening day. That boosted his points tally and his confidence level too. But, he never enjoyed running the 1500m.

Despite enjoying four world records, two Olympic golds, three Commonwealth titles and wins in the world and European championships, Daley preferred to keep a low profile. He did not believe in friends or idols but decathlon was life and death.

He enjoyed every event in decathlon. “It’s like having 10 girl friends. You got to love them all,” he had once said.

Speed and stamina are decathlon’s essential pre-requisites. And, Daley, the Ambassador for the 2012 London Games and the most-favoured athlete to light the 2012 Olympic flame, had loads of them in him.

Right from his early days, he always wanted to be the first — from catching the bus to finishing lunch. And, it formed part and parcel of his life as well. His first major international win came in 1978 at the Commonwealth Games in Canada but he lost the European championship in Prague. And, that was the last time he was defeated until 1987.

Rayan Rozario * * * Greg Louganis - Never-say-die spirit

Greg Louganis is remembered as the greatest diver of all times. The American, who won the 3-metre springboard and 10-metre platform gold medals in the 1984 Los Angeles Games and defended them dramatically in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, has provided some of the biggest reasons to recall diving as a competitive sport.

Given up for adoption when he was just eight months old by his Samoan/Swedish parents, Louganis was raised by a Greek-American couple. Repeated attacks of asthma during his early years made him go through several lung strengthening exercises like gymnastics, trampoline and eventually diving.

Louganis, winner of the silver medal in platform diving in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, was tipped for a ‘double’ in the 1980 Moscow Games but he could not participate following the U.S.-led boycott. In the 1982 World championships, Louganis showed his class by winning two gold medals and became the first diver ever in a major competition to get a ‘Perfect 10’ from all seven judges.

He duly won two gold medals in the 1984 Olympic Games with record scores. But what saw him attain greatness was the sequence of events during the defence of his two titles in Seoul in 1988.

During the preliminaries of the springboard event, Louganis hit the board while performing a reverse dive in pike position. Having nursed a bleeding head, Louganis returned to the competition and earned the highest single qualifying score with his next dive. He repeated the same dive in the finals to win by a whopping margin of 25 points.

In platform diving, Louganis was on the brink of defeat, trailing China’s Ni Xiong before the final dive. He produced a stupendous one, with the degree of difficulty being 3.4, and won the gold by a margin of just 1.14 points!

Seven years later, Louganis came in for severe criticism for not disclosing to the world that he was HIV positive at the time of the 1988 incident. But the world continues to acknowledge the five-time world champion, now 52, for his never-say-die spirit seen in Seoul and making the most of a life that saw him being driven to drinking and smoking while suffering from teenage depression due to domestic abuse and rape.

Rakesh Rao