Friday, August 3, 2012

Why The Olympics

Sometimes politics aren't everything. Sometimes what counts is just people. Like in the Olympics, present and past.

I was born the year that Jesse Owens wiped Hitler's eye at the Berlin Olympics.

When I was fifteen I went to a high school track meet and got hooked forever on track and field.

When I was in college I saw Bob Richards clear 15' in the pole vault in a practice vault at the LA Coliseum in the 1956 Olympic tryouts. It was the old-fashioned pole. No whip from it as from its successor, the fiber glass pole. We all held our breath as he motioned for the bar to be raised and then started his run. He soared! No one had ever made 15' before. There were only a couple of hundred of us track and field fans in the stands that beautiful June day. Seats for 100,000 people, and we few  -  we blessed few  -  had the place to ourselves. Track and field was not widely popular then as it is now. You could go right down and talk to the athletes that day at the Coliseum. For heaven sakes, we knew some of them from school!

I knew the first American to beat the four-minute mile. Don Bowden. June, 1957. I knew him at Cal Berkeley. Every afternoon I'd leave the Daily Cal offices and walk past Hearst Field where he was running, rain or shine. We always waved to each other. At the end of that school year I was in New York as a Mademoiselle magazine guest editor when Don broke the 4 minute. There he was, front page of the New York Times. He was a very nice guy, and I was so glad for him. Besides I'd just got to New York and was homesick. Hometown boy makes good! Do people still remember this great athlete?

Little Max Truex of USC was all heart. He didn't have the height and long stride for distance running but  -  God!  -  he gave it everything. He was only 5'5".  When he made it to the Olympics in 1956 he was the smallest American ever to be an Olympic competitor in track and field. But he was sidelined with an injury before his event and had to fight his way back to the Olympics in '60 as the only American to qualify in the 10K. He finished sixth in a field of nineteen of the world's fastest, longest- stride, distance runners. Then came Parkinson's and a struggle of another kind for Max. Half a century after I watched him in collegiate races battling against the odds, I still remember him for his courage. And still borrow from his example.

There were so many who were so wonderful. Wilma Rudolph, Olympic track star who had worn braces on her legs until she was ten years old. Her story inspired my youngest son, who had epilepsy and needed all the inspiration he could get. I told him about her when we went to the LA Olympics together in 1984. That boy and I had a fantastic time! It took me a year to pay off the credit card, but it was worth every penny!

He died before the next Olympics having in the meantime become a cross-country runner. He was sixteen years old when he died. The doctor said that the running probably kept him alive longer than would otherwise have been the case. The night before he died, we sat at the kitchen table while he worked on an essay assignment: "The Thing That Changed My Life".  He told me he'd chosen to write about cross-country running and how hard it was and how he just kept going no matter what.

"I've never won a race, Mom, but I finished every one."

We put that on his tombstone: "He finished his race."

May we all finish our race and do it in good form. With the inner grace of a Jesse Owens running in a racist world, the dignity of Bob Richards, the modesty of Don Bowden, the courage of little Max Truex, the determination of Wilma Rudolph. And the sweetness of my boy, who never complained about his illness.

Enjoy the Olympics and the beautiful things they have to teach us. Ignore the schlock and commercialism. Ignore the supposed competition between nations. It's not about nations. It's about individuals  -  young people and not so young  -  doing their best and doing it beautifully, often having overcome great odds just to get there.

We are each the star of our own Olympics. We are each the hero of our own story. Life is our event. Let the games go forward!    

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