The best and the worst of the Olympics, I've seen it all
Alan Hubbard has been covering the Games for nearly 50 years – something of an Olympian feat in itself
Sunday 22 July 2012
They say you always remember your first. Mine was Tokyo, Games that remain etched in the consciousness as the last of the "pure" Olympics, untainted by drugs, terrorism, boycotts, security overkill or rampant commercialism.
No one played politics, and perhaps for the last time competitors seemed to reflect the Olympic ideal that it is not so much the winning, but the taking part. Baron Pierre de Coubertin was surely smiling down on them benevolently.
I still sometimes hum the catchy jingle that woke us every day: "Good morning, Tokyo, happy to be greeting you." These really were happy Games, especially for Britain, which collected 20 medals overall with long-jump golds from both Lynn "the Leap'" Davies and the original Golden Girl, Mary Rand.
No hype, no hassle, and for me a moment when I almost changed the course of sporting history. I was wandering through the Athletes' Village – it was possible to do so unhindered then – when hurtling around the corner on a bike came this large American with the biggest thighs I had ever seen. He swerved to avoid me and crashed. Thus I became the first man to put the late "Smokin" Joe Frazier on the floor.
Fortunately he wasn't hurt or looking for a fight. "Sorry man," he grinned as he picked himself up and rode off to become the Olympic heavyweight champion and subsequently the heavyweight champion of the world. But what might have happened, I wonder, had he broken an arm or leg – or worse?
There was music in Mexico City from the wonderful mariachi bands that serenaded us in the thin air of the first Games to be held at high altitude. "There will be those who die," the late Chris Brasher had warned – and hundreds did. Not from the lack of oxygen but the hail of bullets fired by government troops in helicopters hovering above young demonstrators protesting about the Olympics being given priority over basic human needs in their impoverished nation. Three weeks later a new phrase entered the Olympic lexicon: Black Power. American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood defiantly on the rostrum, heads bowed and each with a fist encased in a black glove. They were to be ostracised and vilified for this brave protest against racial prejudice in their homeland.
After Black Power came Black September. That terrible Tuesday when Palestinian terrorists invaded the Games Village, took hostage and finally murdered 11 Israeli athletes. The Olympics had been scarred for life by the Munich massacre. The appalling drama unfolded on the longest day I have ever known. I felt then, and still do, that those Games should have been abandoned because sport is not worth the shedding of anyone's blood in the name of political insanity.
But at least Munich was partially uplifted by the human dolphin Mark Spitz, who struck gold a record seven times; the wrecking-ball punching of Cuban heavyweight Teofilo Stevenson, whom I dubbed "Castro's right hand man"; and the coquettishness of cute gymnast Olga Korbut, who became the engaging face of Soviet sporting womanhood in an era of butch Amazons.
Because of what had happened in Munich, security was intense, and at times stifling. And the French-speaking Canadians weren't particularly welcoming unless you made some attempt to "parlez-vous". African nations boycotted because of the New Zealand rugby tour of South Africa;
British athletes had a pretty dismal time with only one medal on the track, Brendan Foster's bronze, and Princess Anne fell off her horse. But swimmer David Wilkie and Jim Fox's modern pentathlon squad came good with gold. We also savoured the Romanian Nadia Comaneci's perfect 10 on beams and bars, and the sumptuous grub at the famed Moishe's Steakhouse, once in the company of Princess Grace. So it wasn't all bad.
We were warned it would be all bad in Moscow. But it wasn't. Margaret Thatcher had ordered GB to stay away over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan but Sebastian Coe was among those who defied the Iron Lady. Just as well, as he collected the first of his two 1,500m golds in that Chariots of Ire duel with Steve Ovett, having lost out in his specialist 800m.
I had interviewed Coe for a magazine which had a cover depicting the Olympic rings being incinerated by Soviet flame-throwers. This was confiscated at Sheremetyevo airport as "bourgeois propaganda". As it was an International Olympic Committee obligation that journalists should have access to any material required for their work when covering the games, I made a formal protest.
Next day I was summoned to a windowless room in the Kremlin where the magazine was handed back to me with a curt nod by a grim-faced apparatchik. Returning to my hotel I found I had been upgraded to a very comfortable suite, big enough to hold a farewell party on the last day. As Georgian champagne popped a colleague suggested that the room might be bugged. Jokingly we raised our glasses and said: "To all our listeners – Cheers!"
A few second later the phone rang and a Russian voice chuckled: "And cheers to you too, tovarich [comrade]!"
Who says they don't have a sense of humour!
Los Angeles, 1984
Inevitably the Soviet bloc stayed away as a reprisal, so it was left to Coe and Ovett to headline the Hollywood show with a repeat of their Moscow matinee. Daley Thompson arguably established himself as Britain's finest all-time Olympian (even his pal Seb says so) with his second gold in the decathlon, afterwards donning a T-shirt that asked: "Is the world's second greatest athlete gay?" Who could he have meant?
We also drew breath at the multi-medalled brilliance of Carl Lewis, and an opening ceremony that was pure Tinseltown.
And pretty soulless it was too, with a depressing overture that again saw protesting students under siege, this time by tear-gas tossing police. Sportswise, all else was overshadowed when we learned in the early hours following the 100m that red-eyed Ben Johnson's "unbelievable" 9.79 seconds was literally that – the result of a steroid-fuelled rage.
A pleasant change of atmosphere which marked an apartheid-free South Africa and a united Germany. For ambience and friendliness it was among the best, with true translation of the Olympic ethos and finally a golden Games for Britain. Chris Boardman re-invented the bicycle wheel and Linford Christie, who in Seoul had been lucky to escape a ban after overdosing on ginseng tea, won the 100m at 32, while 400m hurdler Sally Gunnell impishly reminded us that "Essex girls do come first".
The only Games I missed in almost five decades of Olympic reporting as I was deskbound, sports editing another Sunday newspaper. Colleagues say I was the lucky one, with the organisation a shambles, Gone With the Wind country providing the antithesis of southern hospitality, and catastrophe when a crazed loner planted a bomb that killed one woman and injured more than 100. Miserable Games that are remembered for the quivering hand of Parkinson-stricken Muhammad Ali lighting the flame, a moment so poignant it even had President Bill Clinton in tears.
Of the 11 Olympics I have attended Tokyo was the most charming, and Sydney was simply the best, from every aspect: organisation, atmosphere, weather, facilities and above all the touchy-feely friendliness of the Aussies themselves.
Every Olympic visitor was greeted with a cheery "G'day", and a welcoming arm around the shoulder from volunteers who were genuinely proud to be hosting a family show. Of course, it helped that everyone spoke English, but for sheer getting-it-togetherness Sydney surpassed any previous Games.
Sydney is one of the world's great sporting citadels, and unlike in many other places, packed crowds had a true appreciation of what they were watching. If they didn't always know the nuances of taekwondo, Greco-Roman wrestling or artistic gymnastics, what the heck, they cheered anyway. And the women's beach volleyball on Bondi was a sight to behold. Especially from behind.
I have always carried a torch for the Olympics, and for these historic Games I was privileged to do so literally, invited by the Greek organising committee to run a leg when it passed through London. By coincidence it happened to pass my birthplace in Lambeth, where I handed it to Ian Botham outside the Oval.
The return of the Olympics to their cradle after 108 years was special. There was a warmth that you only get from familiarity, and the Greeks offered a traditional hospitality, taking the flame from Sydney with great panache, despite the construction and financial hiccups along the way.
The last lick of paint had barely dried on the refurbished Olympic Stadium before the Games began but in the end they were superbly orchestrated by Gianna Angelopoulos, a millionairess diva of striking beauty and political astuteness who later became her country's foreign minister. Athens was hot and hectic, but you departed feeling that the Games had come home, if only briefly, and that this was where they deserved to stay.
And so to Beijing, where money was no object. No city could have staged a flashier, more expansive extravaganza, and to witness Usain's lightning bolt was breathtaking, but you still felt you were trapped in a sanitised, politicised Olympic bubble.
I had again been invited to run with the torch but this time a moral debate raged in my mind, recalling those protesters over human rights who had been jailed, and that the Chinese had threatened to shoot any demonstrators during the most controversial leg of the relay in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa.
However my decision to run with the torch in the city of Xi'an in northwest China, ancient capital of the Tang Dynasty, was because it is supposed to represent Olympic values and not be symbolic of the host country. It was certainly no endorsement of the Chinese regime, as I have always believed it wrong to have awarded the Games to Beijing.
The Beijing torch now rests with that from Athens among my Olympic souvenirs, destined for my grandchildren along with the replica of the London 2012 torch I am due to receive during a Games I believe will provide a gloriously memorable finale to my own Olympic odyssey.
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