A Yankee Notebook

May 30, 2016


MONTPELIER – I like to say that Frank Shorter and I were on the same cross-country team; and so we were, though he came along twelve years later and ran light years faster. When he won the Olympic marathon at Munich in 1972, those of us who had toiled, as he had, over the hilly, root-tortured cross-country course in western Massachusetts rejoiced that one of us, by dint of single-minded dedication and relentless training, could go so far. After years of finishing races to crowds of fewer than ten people or, even worse, racing toward a tape on a track between a football crowd and a marching band at half-time, it was wonderful for us to see an entire stadium full of sports fans rising to their feet to cheer as Shorter entered the stadium alone and kicked to the finish.

That all seems ages ago, and in many ways it was. But even then, the Olympic Games had begun to change. Already, in 1936, the Nazi Party had openly injected politics into the Games, and perhaps at the time should have taken as omens the triumphs of Jesse Owens on the track and the University of Washington crew on the water. In 1968, at the Mexico City games, United States athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a fist during the medal ceremony. It was popularly termed a “Black Power Salute,” though they insisted it was a “human rights salute.” Silver Medalist Peter Norman of Australia, like Smith and Carlos, wore a human rights badge on his uniform. The Americans were barred for life from further Olympic games, and Norman was dropped from the Australian team.

The 1972 Munich Games were consciously calculated to remove the dark stains of 1936 and its ubiquitous swastikas. Shorter’s thrilling marathon win, however, was overshadowed by the terrorist attack by Black September that ended in the deaths of 11 Israelis, a German police officer, and five of the attackers. The Games had clearly become a setting in which to express other ideal aspirations than “Citius, Altius, Fortius” – Faster, Higher, Stronger.

The media obviously have a huge stake in the popularity of the Olympics. Ours have for months been hyping the coming Games in Rio de Janeiro. Meanwhile, Brazil, which was awarded the 2016 Games in 2009 at the height of a boom, has spiraled into a recession; its politics are in a state of chaos; and pregnant women are advised not to travel there because of the threat of the Zika virus. As if all that weren’t enough of a distraction, the news is full of disqualifications of athletes as the result of more sophisticated drug-detection technology. It’s thus almost impossible to look at an elite athlete anymore without wondering about the extent and nature of his or her enhancement. Clearly,  the slogan, “Better Living through Chemistry,” doesn’t apply to high-stakes sports.

Once the public becomes disillusioned about the presumed purity of sport, it begins to lose its attraction. Why bother to watch or cheer for athletes who are no longer extreme examples of what we may aspire to – or might once have aspired to – but instead represent the moral depravity that values victory over every other consideration. (this from someone who cannot cheat even at Solitaire). The constant drumbeat of Olympic results that counts the medals won by the competing nations – as opposed to the athletes – only reinforces the impression of corrupt corporate sports.

As a former cyclist – I often joined the 4:30 a.m., 40-mile peloton out of Hanover – I used to follow the Tour de France with some enthusiasm and rejoiced in the gritty victories of the American cyclist Greg LeMond. Then the accusations of doping began, but most of the public seemed heedless. Mother and I stopped once just below the summit of Mont Ventoux, in southern France, at the memorial to Tom Simpson, a top British Tour de France rider who collapsed and died on a blistering July day in 1967 near the end of the climb.

An autopsy revealed extreme dehydration, aggravated by amphetamines and alcohol. Simpson’s fans couldn’t care less, apparently; the stone of the memorial is surrounded by tributes of cycling gear and parts. LeMond took a stand against the unchecked use of drugs, and suffered for it. Since Lance Armstrong’s incredible string of victories was revealed to be exactly that – incredible – LeMond’s stature has revived. But the Tour de France is no longer of much interest. Prodigious though their feats may be, there’s no way to know which of the riders is clean.

The writing of Roderick Haig-Brown, a Canadian conservationist, appealed to me as a young man. He loved the salmon rivers of the Northwest. I came across an essay of his in a 1989 issue of Trout Magazine. One sentence has resonated with me ever since: “I submit first of all that there is no such thing as sport without ethics.”

Haig-Brown was writing, of course, about hunting, fishing, and conservation; but it might as well have been about competitive sports. It’s always mystified me how anyone could enjoy the rewards of a competition when he knew he didn’t deserve them; how a Congressperson could wear the laurels of an election in a gerrymandered district; how a sportsman armed with a high-powered rifle could spend hours in a blind waiting for a black bear to come to a pile of garbage spilled on the ground, then shoot it and display its skin as a trophy.

The desire for full disclosure compels me to admit that I did cheat once for advantage. I was new in a very small town, and sitting in the luncheonette having coffee with the boys. Someone passed around a small grip tester: You squeezed it to get a reading. Most guys were getting about 70 or so. As they handed it me, a noisy car went by, and when everybody looked away, I squeezed it with both hands, and casually passed it on, reading 130. Saved me a lot of time getting accepted.

Photo by Willem lange