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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B is for Badminton

England’s Sam Parsons perfecting the through-the-legs badminton shot. Still photo from this highly-recommended Youtube medley of amazing badminton shots.

At some point, most of us have played badminton in some form, likely as children, batting the shuttlecock over the net, into the net, or into a tree. That stately version, like most games that are pastimes rather than sports, bears little resemblance to the speedy free-for-all that is Olympic badminton.

As the second choice in my A to Z challenge, my 26 days of blogging about the Olympics, I openly warn you, gentle reader, that I prefer to look towards the “little sports.” Too much of American Olympic conversation centers on the big six–basketball, swimming, gymnastics, diving, sprints, and beach volleyball. While I won’t ignore those topics entirely, you should not expect to see a post about the Dream Team or the Perfect Ten.

Instead let us turn our attention to things we know less about–canoeing perhaps, keirin, field hockey, epee… oh, here we go… BADMINTON.

A to Z challenge, day 2

The English Sport that Probably Came from Asia

If your history of badminton only has one sentence, it probably says: Badminton was invented in 1873 when the duke of Beaufort introduced the game at his country estate in Badminton. Credit is always given to the wealthy and prominent. I’ve always found it hard to believe that the 4th Earl of Sandwich was really the first person who thought to put meat between pieces of bread. That was fiction.

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