Lord Sebastian Coe, double gold and double silver medalist.
The idea of an unbreakable Olympic record may seem contradictory. As one announcer paraphrased Lord Coe, World records are borrowed, but medals are forever.
Yet there do seem to be some records that will never be broken, and others which seem to last a lifetime. As I near the alphabet in this A to Z Olympic Challenge, it’s time to celebrate these incredible achievements.
Twenty-Eight–Count ‘Em–Freakin’ Medals
*yawn* Oh, is Michael Phelps winning again? Bor-r-r-ing! I’m sick of hearing about Michael Phelps. You’re sick of hearing about him. Want to know why? Because he’s won more medals than anyone will ever get close to winning. I’ve disparaged it myself mentioning that he had opportunities to swim in so many different races, including relays. Which means he could beat everybody at everything, as good on a team as by himself. He even just missed out on a medal in Sydney 2000 at the tender age of 15.
In Athens, he was compared to Mark Spitz, so when he “missed” Spitz’s golds by one, the tagline was “he didn’t do it.” He did pass Spitz in Beijing, winning eight golds in his third Games, an incredible accomplishment that likely no one will match. Then he came back–two more times. Joining Carl Lewis and Al Oerter, he won gold for the fourth consecutive time in the 200m medley in Rio, making him untouchable for twelve years. Those records–all his records–will be untouchable forever.
Today’s A to Z challenge entry was originally a chapter in my Olympics book, cut for brevity’s sake (more info on Triumphs You Didn’t See here). I still had the notes though; never throw away all your edits! Because the Women’s Triathlon in Rio remains one of the most memorable races I’ve seen.
Gwen Jorgensen, American Olympic triathlete, was doing tax work as an accountant at Ernst & Young when she got the call.
For the record, there have been other accountant athletes — Ray Wersching, champion kicker on the 49ers and Craig Counsell, second basemen for the Brewers, to name a few. Accountants take the CPA exam to get employment, a set of professional tests after college, a tough, exhausting exam. At two and a half days long, it covers four separate sections, fourteen hours of seat time. Most people don’t pass it the first go-round, and it takes months or years of preparation, typically with coaching.
Claressa Shields would be considered a Cinderella story, if Cinderella could be described as a brutish annihilator who liked “to make the girls cry.” Whose nickname is T-Rex. Who talks trash like crazy and is dismissive of anyone who dares challenge her. Still, Shields overcame odds just to make it into the Olympics, then accomplished what no American had ever done, winning back-to-back gold medals in boxing. Even now, with a lifetime record of 87-1, she could be considered an underdog. Because Claressa Shields is from Flint, Michigan.
Though some people chose to focus on my hair, my body and the way I talked, I couldn’t care less about a hairstyle or the way I spoke. If you asked me about college, family and my upbringing, I was mute. I didn’t want to talk about anything I didn’t understand or anything that was hurtful. Now, if you asked me about boxing, we could have a conversation.
Shields, “A Letter to Boxing Fans,” in TheUndefeated.com.
Let us export rowers, runners, and fencers; there is the free trade of the future, and on the day when it is introduced within the walls of old Europe the cause of peace will have received a new mighty stay.
Pierre de Coubertin, quoted on heartheboatsing.com
I just read that Pierre de Coubertin was an avid rower; of course, he was. He was a French aristocrat mesmerized by the English public (for Americans, that means wealthy private) school system. I’m kind of surprised the modern pentathlon didn’t end up with rowing rather than swimming.
The Boat Races
If you think the Olympics are old, dating back to 776 BC, consider that the earliest boats from Finland and the Netherlands go back much further, to 5800 and 8000 BC, respectively. If there were boats, there were races. The Egyptians and Phoenicians established civilizations with cultures trading across the Mediterranean, and, of course, the Vikings dominated with their plundering er … trading in the north. Don’t forget the Polynesians, Chinese, and Indonesians; obviously, there have been lots of seafaring cultures around the globe. (I wrote about such sailing history when I was crossing the Atlantic last year.)
Regattas developed formally in Venice, another great water-based society, and they still hold races today. As does Cambodia, whose Water & Moon Festival is centuries old. Today, they still race 44-men crews. That’s Boys in the Boat times five!
De Coubertin did manage to get his beloved Rowing inserted into the 1896 Games, although bad weather forced cancellation due to choppy seas. Apparently, the breezes were so strong that dust clouds blew through the city, and some of the launch spots were thrown up on to the shore.
Even so, a pair of German scullers said they entered the race, though no one else showed up. The Germans rowed; they won; they got medals from the Prince of Greece. Or so Berthold Küttner and Alfred Jaeger later claimed in 1936, the year of the Berlin Games, and there isn’t enough evidence to prove them otherwise. The official history of 1896 says the rowing was cancelled, but Küttner wrote a detailed account, including how the prince’s entourage laughed at his modest clothing. Someone took a picture of them in Greece. Whether it was during the Games or not, who’s to dispute?
That wasn’t the only crazy occurrence in the rowing contests. Going in to 1920 Antwerp, Jack Kelly (USA) had won 126 races straight, when he was barred from competing at the famous London Diamond Sculls at Henley over a dispute with his famous Vespers Boat Club. He went on to take revenge on his British rival, Jack Beresford, in the Olympic race. At the end, the two men were so exhausted, they couldn’t shake hands. Or refused, hard to say. Still, Kelly went on to win another gold in the double sculls a half hour later. His son, John Jr., was also a winning Olympic and Henley rower, although it was his daughter who became even more famous: Grace Kelly.
Sabotage, Heart Attacks, and Kids Off the Street
All Olympic events are fraught with unusual incidents, but rowing seems to take more than its share. In Los Angeles 1984, for example, one of the oars in the French eight broke during the repechage (redemption round). Closer inspection found that the oar had been intentionally weakened. A spectator named S. Nidely Whiplash was questioned.
Rob Waddell, a New Zealand sculler, had to switch out of coxless fours in 1995 because he developed a heart condition that caused him to lag mid-race. He didn’t want to bring down the team. But medication two years later helped him back into contention, and he won the gold in single sculling in Sydney 2000. I’ve heard of athletes with asthma, but rowing with a heart condition seems kind of crazy.
Then, there was the Unknown Coxswain. In the first official Olympic contest of 1900–never mind what Kuttner and Jaeger claim–one event was a paired shell with a coxswain. Three Men in a Boat! The Dutchmen Brandt and Klein expected to win but were upset in their heat by the French. They realized that while their cox was 132 lb. Dr. Hermanus Brockmann, the French were using children, getting away with much less weight. The Dutchmen then brought in a local Parisian kid whose 72 pounds was apparently so light that they had to add weight to the rudder in order to keep the cox’s end in the water. After winning the race, the young unnamed cox disappeared, after posing for a photo. Speculation for years suggested he might have been the youngest Olympic competitor, though he looks older than a ten-year-old gymnast from the Greek team in 1896.
The Elf With a Truck-Driver’s Vocabulary
The cox plays an interesting role in the rowing competitions. In theory, the cox isn’t an athlete in the sense that they don’t do any rowing. But this is like claiming that an equestrian rider doesn’t do any of the work. As we’ve seen, in fact, the rider is considered an athlete and actually gets more credit than the horse. Similarly, the cox will get credit or blame for the results of the race because the cox runs the boat.
On the water, the cox is captain, manager, coach, play-caller, and motivational speaker all rolled together. Since the cox faces forward, the cox is the only one who sees where their boat, and everyone else’s boat, is going. A five percent degree error can cost a race, so directing the steering–and setting the pace–is the difference between winning and losing.
Since the cox needs to motivate, coxes over the years have become infamous for using colorful turns of phrase. In 1928 Amsterdam, correspondent Wythe Williams described US cox Don Blessing as follows:
[It was] one of the greatest performances of demonical howling ever heard on a terrestrial planet…He gave the impression of a terrier suddenly gone mad. But such language and what a vocabulary!…One closed his eyes and waited for the crack of a cruel whip across the backs of the galley slaves.
In the Olympic replays from London 2012, the cox for the women’s eight was Mary Whipple, a 5’3″ double medalist from the University of Washington, one of America’s great college rowing powers. Whipple’s force of personality and language causes half of her comments to be deleted, although if you listened to them live, she was a dead ringer for Sam Jackson.
The Most Dominant Rivalry You’ve Never Heard Of
Whipple helped the American women’s eight rise to be one of the most dominant athletic teams in the U.S., although they hardly got the credit. While the men’s eight have had rough times since their early winning Olympic years, the women’s eight rose out of nowhere to win four consecutive medals, three-peating with gold in Rio 2016. In fact, by the time they were racing in Rio, they hadn’t lost a race in 11 years.
Under coach Tom Terhaar and cox Mary Whipple, they went from a whisper of a loss in Athens 2004 to preeminence in the following decades under what Terhaar called the “Beijing plan.” Their loss in Athens dethroned the team who also hadn’t lost much in their reign of the women’s eight, from 1980 through 2004. The great rivals? Romania.
Romania won eight consecutive medals between 1980 and 2008, including their own three golds from Atlanta to Athens. Nicolae Gioga, their famous coach, had developed a unique style of rowing that others called “deadly effective,” and some of his winning athletes remained on the team for decades. Like their better-known gymnastic counterparts, the Romanian team had grown out of state-sponsored sports, but unlike the gymnasts and coaches, the rowing team kept going even after the fall of communism. Still, by 2012, turnover in the coaching and team staff had put them on hard times, and they fell off the podium entirely in London.
Just as the US completed their continued sovereignty in Rio 2016, with a third consecutive gold medal, guess which team had crawled their way back into the medals? Romania came in a surprising third, a suggestion of what may be things to come. In the Championships in 2017, the Romanians displaced the Americans at last, winning Worlds. By 2018, however, the USA took their revenge and reclaimed the title. The Romanians were contenders but mismanaged their race into fifth place. In 2019, the New Zealanders finally managed to take out both USA and Romania, though the Americans edged to a third place.
Back and forth, like a contest of sluggers, the American and Romanian teams have continued the punch and counter-punch. The 2020 races have been cancelled, although both these teams have qualified for Tokyo based on their 2019 finish. Of all the sports rivalries, I can’t remember one that has gone on for over two decades. Lakers-Celtics, Cowboys-49ers? those were hardly a decade of head-to-head contests. Maybe the Yankees-Red Sox. Except that these two teams don’t hate each other, and the crowds don’t throw beer bottles.
Imagine if you were the most talented athlete in your town, your college, your country. You could qualify for the Olympics, but you have fathered a child, which in this alternate reality disqualifies you as an athlete. So you hide the fact that you have a child, for decades, until after your competing days are over.
Imagine you are excessively tall, as a sprinter. You win race after race, but as talk about your future Olympic performance rises, an athlete from another country complains about unfairness. The IOC passes a rule that limits the height of sprinters so that no one can take advantage.
Imagine that you are a male diver who competes with grace and stamina unparalleled among your peers. You started ballet with your sisters at age three, just so your parents didn’t have to drive you to a separate day care, but you thrived. Now, your dance background has helped you excel at your sport. However, because of your fondness for pastel, others begin questioning your gender, and competitors claim you might have hyperfemigenism, which would give you a competitive advantage. The IOC subjects you to invasive medical screening, then decrees that you must take hormones, despite any evidence that hyperfemigenism is an advantage.
Welcome to being an LGBTQ athlete.
Hiding Your Whole Self
These scenarios may sound farfetched, but gay athletes compete in a sporting environment that is unwelcome at best and, at worst, hostile, invasive of privacy, or criminalized. The first few athletes whose sexuality was revealed faced insults, rumors, death threats, and even worse.
For example, Otto Peltzer, a German runner holding world records in the sprints, competed in the Games of 1928 and 1932. However, when the Games came to Berlin in 1936, instead of running for the Fatherland, he was arrested for being gay and sent to the Camps. Or consider Stella Walsh, a Polish-American who won sprinting gold and silver. When she was murdered in an Ohio parking lot 40 years later, the press learned that she was intersex (had characteristics of both genders). Instead of lamenting her tragic death, editorials suggested her medals be stripped. It’s no wonder that athletes for decades kept their private life hidden.
In the 1980s, the negative consequences for gay athletes intensified with HIV/AIDS. When people joked publicly that gay stood for “got AIDS yet?” they made it clear that being gay was a death sentence. It’s no wonder that diver Greg Louganis hid his HIV status for seven years after winning back-to-back double golds. When Magic Johnson announced in 1991 that he had tested positive for HIV, his popularity helped shift attitudes about the disease. Yet when he planned to take part in Barcelona 1992 with the Dream Team, there were absurd and uninformed suggestions that Johnson might infect other players with a particularly aggressive post up maneuver.
What’s the Big Deal?
One old argument is that the LGBTQ athlete should focus on their sport, rather than their personal life. Why say anything about it, when it’s just going to be a distraction? Just compete and shut up. My response is to suggest you look up a photo of decathlete Ashton Eaton. Half the photos are of Ashton with his wife, Brianna, also an Olympic medalist. Athletes are also people who have families. For an athlete to be unable to go into the stands and hug their husband or wife after a win is a kind of discrimination. That was why it was a joy in the 2016 Rio Beach Volleyball tournament when Brazillian Larissa Franca was shown giving her wife a big kiss after advancing to the semifinals.
Up until very recently, homosexuality was also illegal in many countries (still is, in 73 of them). Athletes could be jailed, in theory. Even if their country supported them in competitions, athletes often had to sign a morality clause. When Canadian Olympic swimmer Mark Tewksbury wanted to come out in 1992, his agent warned him not to ever mention it again. He was a highly-sought, highly-paid motivational speaker who agonized between living a lie and his career. Ultimately, he came out when a sponsor cancelled a lucrative tour because closeted Tewksbury still just seemed “too gay.”
Given the hostile environment, very few athletes are public about their LGBTQ status while competing. Many come out years later or after the bulk of their Olympic career is over. The most recent disclosure of Kerron Clement, gold medalist in the 400 m hurdles at Rio, marks him as the first Track and Field athlete to be gay in public. But he did it seventeen years into his track career.
My new favorite athlete of the week has to be Robert Dover, who I did not know until today was the first openly gay Olympian. Dover won four bronze medals for Team USA in Dressage (yes, it’s a valid sport, see letter “E” for Equestrian). He came out in 1988, even during the middle of the AIDS hysteria and media frenzy over Billie Jean and Martina. He was simply matter of fact about it: I’m the token Jewish gay boy on the U.S. Olympic team. It likely attracted less attention because it was dressage, but all the more reason to help open the closet door for others.
The most decorated openly LGBTQ athlete today has to be speed skater Irene Wüst of the Netherlands. Wüst has eleven Olympic medals–five gold–and was the highest medal winner in the entire 2014 Sochi Games. Most of her medals were won in the three Games after she revealed that she had a girlfriend. Still, she has been irritated on the constant focus on her sexuality rather than her athletics, saying: “You are not asking [ Dutch skater] Sven Kramer about how his relationship is going. So why would you ask me? If I would’ve had a relationship with a guy, you wouldn’t have asked me either.”
Some “out and proud” sites have started keeping lists of LGBTQ athletes, with the list having more than a few names in 2008 and getting longer every year. It’s phenomenal that winning athletes like Adam Rippon and Megan Rapinoe have even used their visibility and success as a platform to take on their critics and to advocate for fairness. But there’s still one area where opinion and prejudice–prejudging–still looms large over sport, and that’s the subject of gender testing.
The Unfair Advantage Argument
I should note that my own views on the topic of transgender or intersex athletes in sport is evolving. If my expertise (or lack thereof) on the topic wades into ignorance, forgive me. I myself long took it for granted that the Olympics should compete on a level playing field, and that any athlete with something “extra,” such as extra male hormones, would have an unfair advantage over others. However, that argument is wrong on several fronts.
First off, when athletes have body types that give them an advantage, the Olympics have not banned them but embraced them. Usain Bolt has been able to dominate in the sprints–in part–because he has legs longer than other people. He doesn’t have to take as many strides. Michael Phelps (as German swimmer Michael Gross before him) has unusually long arms that help him dominate at the butterfly.
Moreover, when it comes to the case of women (or men) having different chromosomes, differing hormones, or different muscular structure, the assumed scientific link between the “different” and the “better” just isn’t there. We know this because of Dutee Chand.
The Bravery of Dutee Chand
Chand was an Indian sprinter who rose to prominence for winning 100 and 200 sprints at the 2014 World Junior Championships, hoping to work her way towards an Olympic berth in Rio 2016. However, in 2014 the IAAF determine that she failed “gender testing.” After subjecting her to a battery of additional (invasive) tests, they declared her ineligible to compete due to hyperandrogenism. She fought back through the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), arguing in part that: 1) there was no demonstrated relationship between women having high testosterone and enhanced athletic performance; 2) there were no scientific studies linking hyperandrogenism to athletic performance; and 3) factors other than hormone levels could account for improved performance.
She won her case, forcing the IAAF to lift the ban and allow her to compete. At Rio, she became only the third Indian woman to compete in the sprints, although she did not move past the heats. Strangely enough, the loss seemed to prove her point. If hyperandrogenism would turn every female into Wonder Woman, shouldn’t she be beating everybody?
Yet, while fighting the case, Chand was submitted to constant criticism in the press and social media, who put every detail of her private life under a microscope. It’s one thing to claim that athletes who hold hands in public be subject to photographs. It’s another for sporting bodies to order invasive medical tests, then leak those to the press.
Not Such a Long Way Baby
Ultimately, the problem seems to hearken back to the unevolved attitudes about women in sports, period. Recall that de Coubertin himself said that women competing would be “unaesthetic and improper.” Since the Games was reestablished in 1896, the IOC has treated women as second-class citizens, first limiting the opportunities for them to compete, then subjecting them to differing standards. Under the guise of making competitions “fair,” the IOC requires women to undergo additional testing and has established an arbitrary limit to what constitutes a proper amount of hormones. As Chand and others argue, there is no upper limit for testosterone in men, though to carry through the argument, men with excess testosterone might have an advantage over others with “normal” levels.
Also, only some athletes are scrutinized–athletes from developing countries, with different skin color, or who are publicly LGBTQ–only some seem to take the brunt of the focus. When Caster Semenya, double-gold medalist in the 800m, started winning by large margins, her competitors complained that she just didn’t look female. Thus began decades of scrutiny and court fights for Semenya, whose every race is conducted practically under a spotlight of interrogation. There are plenty of other athletes who improve their times dramatically, are muscular, or are so far ahead of everyone else. No one claims that Katie Ledecky, the American swimmer who has shattered world records, or Simone Biles, the muscular gymnast who won multiple golds at Rio, are undeserving of accolades because they’re so much better.
Yet when Semenya won the gold at Rio, one racer cried foul because “there’s nothing I can do,” and the fifth place winner made a show of saying she was the “first European” to “win.” When we look to applaud the remarkable advancement of attitudes about LGBTQ athletes across the Olympic decades, it’s easy to see that the battle to end discrimination isn’t over yet.
Caster Semenya is still fighting.
This post continues the A to Z Challenge using the Olympic theme: