L is for Louganis

Greg Louganis in 1980s Olympic form. Photo by Sadayuki Mikami.

Among the list of legendary American Olympians, the greatest profile in courage for me is Greg Louganis. Greatest diver of all time? If you factor in a troubled childhood, surviving past the boycott, breaking world records, fending off outstanding younger challengers, winning with a concussion, oh, and living with HIV throughout much of it… plus the five medals? No contest.

Scared of So Darn Many Things

Louganis has one of those histories so full of adversity that it’s amazing he ever stepped on to a diving board. Yet everything seemed only to contribute to success. His teenage birthparents gave him up for adoption to loving but stern birthparents. He stuttered. He had terrible asthma and seemed to be allergic to everything. School was a nightmare; along with his halting speech, the dark skin inherited from his Samoan father caused the kids to call him all sorts of names. “I got beat up at the bus stop a lot.” He started smoking and drinking before middle school. As his body matured, his knees didn’t grow properly and developed a gap that doctors thought might alter his walk.

But, as the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Because of the asthma, his parents entered him in sports early to develop his lungs, in gymnastics and dance at 18 months. He was good at it, completing solo routines by age three. Afraid of speaking in public, Louganis poured his energy into physical pursuits. When his parents bought a trampoline, then moved to a house with a backyard pool, Louganis started trampolining on the diving board. Terrified Mom decided then that a coach would be a good idea for the eight-year-old. The gap in his legs that had developed as a “deformity” enabled him to see through his knees, even in a tuck, which turned out to be an advantage.

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I is for Ippon

Shoshei Ono upending Ugo Legrand on his head. Photo by Jack Willingham, official judo photographer.

There is a country that is more passionate about judo than Japan, even though “the gentle way” was crafted by Japanese educator Kano Jigoro. The Japanese martial art was designed to be about control rather than combat, defeating an opponent by knocking him off balance rather than beating him senseless. In judo, the ippon is the match-ending throw or pin, like a pin in wrestling, although such a move in judo is about orchestrating a series of techniques rather than exerting dominance through force, strategic as much as physical:

In this sport, you search for the ippon (winning throw) and I like this because it’s difficult, it’s not an easy sport.

Teddy Riner, three-time Olympic medalist and ten-time World champion in the 100kg+ class in Judo.

Six-foot eight-inch Teddy Riner is in the running to become the Greatest Of All Time, as we Americans would say. Riner just lost his first match in ten years this past February, wherein he tweeted to his thousands of followers:

Merci à tous 🙏🏾🙏🏾
On ne lâche pas et on se remet au boulot

Teddy Riner, after his win streak of 154 ended at the Paris Grand Slam.

Yep, that’s right. Teddy Riner is from that judo-crazy country, France.

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H is for Holm

Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.

Dorothy Parker

Eleanor Holm, gold medalist and world record holder in the backstroke, was a modern woman. Or a disgrace, take your pick.

She was the Ryan Lochte of her generation, guilty of conduct unbecoming to an American Olympian. Or she was the Megan Rapinoe of her day, unstinting in her sense of self and forthright in demanding the right to be treated fairly. However history judges Eleanor Holm, she was a hell of a gal.

Eleanor Holm, far left, with the team at 1932 Los Angeles before winning gold in the backstroke. Photo from Seattle Museum of History & Industry.

Oh, Is It Really Bedtime?

Holm was a teenaged swimming phenom of 14 when she placed fifth in the backstroke in the 1928 Amsterdam Games. She went on to earn a gold in the 100 meter backstroke in Los Angeles 1932 and, with world records in the 100 and 200 under her belt, she seemed poised for more gold in Berlin. She had not lost a race for seven years.

In July 1936, she boarded the ship crossing the Atlantic with her team and her husband, bandleader Art Jarrett. Already intrigued by what they used to call “show business,” Holm sang with Jarrett’s band (in a skimpy bathing suit) and acted in tiny parts in early Warner Brothers movies. She hung with the in crowd and was invited to parties with Helen Hayes and other A-list celebs.

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G is for Greenspan

Bud Greenspan is my personal Olympic hero. I would not be writing posts (or a book) about the Games if Greenspan had not looked at sport in a way never done before. 16 Days of Glory: Los Angeles changed how the Olympics were viewed because more than any other filmmaker, Greenspan translated de Coubertin’s visions of the competition–not the triumph but the struggle–on to the screen.

Olympic documentarian Bud Greenspan. Photo in LA Times.
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F is for Fiji

For sixty years, Fiji proudly marched into the Olympic stadium, fielding teams of four or five athletes with no hope of winning a medal. Even as recently as London 2012, the plucky team of nine competed in archery, weightlifting, swimming, and judo, finishing below practically every other country in the qualifying rounds. This is what it’s like to be one of the other 207 smaller nations, unable to field teams fat with television viewing or corporate sponsorship money. Countries participate for pride and personal bests against those who bring technologically-superior equipment and the state-of-the-art training. Until the time comes when their national sport gets added to the lists. So it was when Rugby Sevens finally made it to the Games in Rio 2016.

Tevita Waranaivalu scores again for Fiji at the 2016 Olympics. Photo at Olympic.org.

The Pain in the Neck History of Rugby

Rugby has a long history, at least in its most basic form. Throwing around an inflated pig’s bladder was written about by the Romans as Harpastum:

Harpastum… Great are the exertion and fatigue attendant upon contests of ball-playing, and violent twisting and turning of the neck. Hence Antiphanes, ‘Damn it, what a pain in the neck I’ve got.’ He describes the game thus: ‘He seized the ball and passed it to a team-mate while dodging another and laughing. He pushed it out of the way of another. Another fellow player he raised to his feet. All the while the crowd resounded with shouts of Out of bounds, Too far, Right beside him, Over his head, On the ground, Up in the air, Too short, Pass it back in the scrum.’

Written by Athaneus of Rome, cited in wikipedia.

The British Rugby School gets credit for creating the sport in the form played today. Rugby school was formed in Warwickshire as a free grammar school for local kids by a man who made his wealth as the grocer to Queen Elizabeth I. Somewhere along the way, the school threw out the riffraff, focused on paying customers, and catered only to the children of aristocrats. That’s when the name got slapped on the game.

What Is Rugby?

As far as how rugby is technically played, I am contrite in trying to even write about it. Wikipedia tells me that rugby could include any of the following *deep breath*: rugby union, rugby league, rugby football, rugby sevens, rugby-15, rugby internationals, Super Rugby, the Commonwealth cup, the Premiership, the World cup, and the IRB sevens. Most of the descriptions start with the disclaimer…”not to be confused with…” and I have noticed British acquaintances often start their social media posts with “…c’mon Channel One, show the real game, not this fill-in-the-blank other rugby nonsense…”

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