The Soviet Union's version of the mid-summer phenomenon is known as Spartakiade. The Japanese call theirs Kokutai. In South Korea, which has held one every year since 1920, more than 20,000 people joyfully take part. Now, at last, the U.S. has joined the fun. The National Sports Festival, a Spartakiade of our very own, was born last week in the mountains and valleys of Colorado.
The four-day festival was sponsored by the U.S. Olympic Committee, which plans to stage it annually except during Olympic years. The USOC's thinking is that a "national Olympics" will stimulate the development of young talent, provide a measuring stick for top performers and focus public attention on the country's oft-neglected Olympic sports effort. And to judge by the lavish exercise in pomp and perspiration that took place in the Rockies, the festival could well become a fixture.
By staging it in Colorado, whose electorate paradoxically spurned the 1976 Winter Olympics, the USOC was further solidifying that state's position as the center of this country's Olympic activity. The USOC moved its headquarters from Manhattan to Colorado Springs in June and it has located one of its two new Olympic Training Centers in the same city. The festival is the latest example of a new can-do spirit on the part of the Olympic brass. Skeptics expected it to be chaotic, and with 2,165 athletes competing in 26 sports in venues up to 40 miles apart, it might easily have been. But the $1.4-million undertaking impressively survived the D-day logistics as well as a severe hailstorm on Saturday that played havoc with track, archery and field hockey events.
The sometimes hectic program included action in baseball, softball and synchronized swimming, all of which are non-Olympic sports. But the festival had an overwhelmingly Olympic flavor. Instead of Bulgaria battling with Chad, and Singapore meeting Brazil, the competition brought together teams representing four regions of the U.S.: South (wearing green uniforms), West (red), East (blue) and Midwest (orange). Granted, two Hawaiians, a Californian and an Arizonan played for "the South" in men's volleyball, which probably made it just as well that no band struck up Dixie or the like during the festival's awards ceremonies. But international rules were followed, medals awarded and the athletes actually seemed to care who won. Athletes usually do.
August 6, 1978
For Wednesday night's opening ceremonies, a torch was lit atop Pikes Peak and carried 33 miles to Memorial Park in Colorado Springs. Sprinter Harvey Glance, one of a gratifying number of Olympians to participate in the festival, recited the athlete's oath. Giving the occasion even more of an Olympic ring, there was the inevitable political demonstration; it was staged by a group of Jews protesting the fact that Moscow is hosting the 1980 Games. The high point of the opening ceremonies came when Robert Kane, the pink-faced, pink-neck-tied president of the USOC, was introduced. Instead of the razzing Olympic officials are accustomed to receiving from athletes, Kane got a standing ovation from festival participants, who were pleased with the USOC's new vigor. Obviously moved, Kane jettisoned his prepared speech. "Anything I would have said would have seemed too stilted," he told the audience. "I just hope all you athletes will someday look to this inaugural festival and think that only the Olympic Games preceded it in enormity and prestige."
Kane, a sprinter at Cornell in the '30s and the longtime athletic director at that school, first proposed a "United States Sports Festival" 15 years ago. The idea went nowhere at the time, but after he became USOC president last year, he decided that the organization should make better use of "our best months of competition—the summer months."
Part of the charm of the festival was the cross-pollination it produced. Modern Pentathlete Dana Williams, 22, saw the first ice hockey game of his life, thanks to the inclusion of a couple of winter sports in the program. Similarly, the women basketball players showed up to watch the figure skating. Former heavyweight champ Jimmy Ellis, on hand as one of the boxing coaches, rose from his table in a Colorado Springs nightspot and boogied to the applause of a group of women softball players.
Admission was free at some events and no more than $3 at any of them. The festival was, as it was meant to be, a smorgasbord: a bite of soccer here, a nibble of cycling there and, hey, don't linger too long over the field hockey or you'll miss the start of judo. On display were unheralded youngsters on their way up, stars trying to stay on top and hundreds of other American athletes somewhere in between.
Boxing was held in a dingy, Quonset gymnasium at Fort Carson, on the outskirts of Colorado Springs. There were Boy Scouts selling warm soft drinks and a window fan at one official's ringside table but these gave little relief from the stifling heat. Fortunately, rain cooled things off a bit before the banks of TV lights were turned on, or the fighters would have been able to fry eggs on the canvas.
The seedy atmosphere was offset somewhat, however, by the patriotic red, white and blue ropes, the surgical-white uniforms of the referees and Chris Schenkel's bright-yellow ABC jacket—until the heat forced him to doff it. And a touch of class was injected by the presence of Sugar Ray Leonard, the 1976 Olympic light welterweight champion. Now a promising pro, he was on hand to cheer his older brother Roger, 24, a welterweight and an Air Force man stationed in San Antonio.
"I have all the pressure on me because all the fighters want to say, 'I beat Sugar Ray's big brother,' " complained big brother. "People expect more out of me because I'm Ray's brother. I put out 100% in every fight, but you can't always fight every guy the same way."
And if Ray is Sugar, what is Roger?
"Just Roger, please. I don't need any more pressure."
In the seventh three-round bout of the night, Just Roger went in against Clinton Jackson, 24, a deputy sheriff in Davidson County, Tenn. and a teammate of Sugar Ray's on the '76 Olympic team. Sugar Ray knelt near ringside the first two rounds, shouting advice and encouragement to Roger. But as a heavily tattooed man in the second row sourly remarked, "Just because one brother can fight don't mean the other one can."
Jackson, a quarterfinalist at Montreal, tagged Leonard early and the referee made him take a standing eight count. Then Jackson knocked him down. Leonard fared a little better in the second round and even managed a crowd-pleasing Ali shuffle in the third. Then the left-handed Jackson floored him a second time. By this time, Sugar Ray had moved to the reserved-section bleachers. At the bell, both fighters raised their hands, but the winner was clearly Jackson.
"I've won six of the seven times I fought him," said Jackson. "He won the last time, but it was just a week after I'd had an operation on my chest. I got married in Knoxville on July 14. My wife's name is Cynthia. I didn't take my honeymoon because I wanted to stay home and train and then come and beat this guy."
Two nights later Jackson TKOed the Army's Ed Green to win the division. That done, he prepared to take his delayed honeymoon to Nassau.
The festival's archery range was a fine expanse of healthy grass near the U.S. Air Force Academy gymnasium, north of Colorado Springs. Arrows surely flew there long before the cadets—or even the white man—arrived. Although there was no admission charge, only a dozen spectators were on hand to watch the 24 men and 24 women who were competing. The archers included 13-year-old Becky Liggett, an eighth-grader from Muncie, Ind. with dark brown hair and a serious expression. The 5'1" Becky, one of the youngest competitors in the festival, stands just a little higher than her quiver, but she holds a number of junior records.
O.K. Smathers, 64, was the festival's oldest competitor. A world champion in 1957, he wore a pleased expression and a white hat with target circles painted on it. He was not nearly as awestruck as Becky, perhaps because he has been an archer for half a century. A grandfather who is an electrician back home in Brevard, N.C., he intends to try out for the U.S. Olympic team in 1980. In Colorado, however, Becky and O.K. both finished far behind the winners, '76 Olympic gold medalists Luann Ryon and Darrell Pace.
"This year the boys and girls didn't know what to expect here," O.K. said. "They'll go back and say what a wonderful situation it is. Next year there will probably be a lot more people trying out for it. The scores will be a lot higher and an old man like me may not be able to make it. But I'll keep trying as long as I'm able to shoot."
The festival's established performers included figure skater Linda Fratianne, the 1977 world champion, who won the women's singles at Colorado Springs' Broadmoor Hotel and also showed off her pert nose, recently altered surgically to improve her breathing and appearance. Another big name was gymnast Kurt Thomas, who did not compete but gave an exhibition during the festival. And then there was 1976 Olympic long-jump champion Arnie Robinson. The cream of America's track and field talent was in Europe, but Robinson hoped to get off his first 28-foot jump in the favorable 7,280-foot altitude of the Air Force Academy. He did not have to be reminded that Mexico City's altitude helped Bob Beamon attain his world-record 29'2½" shocker in 1968.
Robinson paid his own way from Europe to New York City and the USOC picked up the rest of the tab. On a cloudy, windy afternoon at the Academy, he won with a jump of 26'7¾". It didn't make him happy. In fact, he was so disgusted he skipped his last try. "I came here to jump 28 feet," he said. "I didn't come to win. If it's impossible for me to jump 28 feet, I'm wasting my time. But with that wind, nobody could have jumped even 27 feet.
"For the first jump the wind was with us and I had to chop my stride. Then the wind turned and I had it in my face. Jumping 28 feet is just a matter of getting the right conditions. In my last three meets I jumped against the wind. I came over here, paying my way from Europe and back to Europe, spending $800 of my own money, and what happens? I'm jumping against a head wind."
Surprisingly large crowds showed up at a court tucked away in one corner of the vast Air Force Academy gym to watch team handball, an Olympic sport that has been popular in Europe for almost a century but is no better known in the U.S. than the Eskimo game of nugluktaktok. Team handball is played with a white ball slightly smaller than a volleyball and combines elements of basketball, lacrosse and probably a dozen other sports that have goals at either end of a playing area. One reason for its popularity at the festival was that the star for the Midwest—and the team's coach—was 6'6" Tom Schneeberger, who started playing on the club level as an Air Force Academy cadet. He is also the Academy's third all-time leading scorer in basketball and won an NCAA postgraduate scholarship in aeronautical design. Schneeberger was drafted by the Denver Nuggets, but he has a five-year military commitment, so for now he is a team handball player. His prowess in the sport has earned him a trip to Iceland. He hopes it will take him to Moscow, too.
For the women playing basketball day after day in Colorado College's gymnasium in downtown Colorado Springs, the competition took on special importance. At the end of the festival, the dozen best players were to be picked for a tour of Ecuador and Peru. But 17-year-old June Olkowski from Philadelphia, a star for the East, also got caught up in the team competition. "I want to win this festival," she said. "The East team is great. And then I'll think about Peru."
Another East player was Mary Ostrowski, 16, out of Parkersburg, W. Va. As if Ostrowski and Olkowski were not enough, the East also had the Donovan girls, 19-year-old Mary, who stands 6'3", and her 16-year-old sister Anne, at 6'8" one of the country's tallest women basketball players. With this kind of firepower, the East beat the South 72-58 in the finals. And both Olkowski and Ostrowski were selected for the tour.
To nobody's surprise, men's volleyball was dominated by the West, an all-California bunch hailing from places like Malibu, Pacific Palisades and Santa Barbara, where kids learn the game on the beaches. The West won all four of its matches—without losing a game—at the modern Coronado High School gym.
The West's star was UCLA's Steve Salmons, the 6'4" son of a onetime University of Missouri football lineman and shotputter. He smothered the best hits of opposing players and, equally important, managed to calm down his sometimes excitable West teammate, USC's Tim Hovland. Salmons and Hovland had been invited to join America's national team, which is training year-round in Dayton, but both elected to stay in school. They hope to make the Olympic volleyball team anyway, assuming that the U.S. qualifies one for the '80 Games.
"Salmons is an exceptionally nice kid, a leader," said an opposing coach. "Some kids can't even organize their rooms, so it's nice to see a guy like him in the sport."
The entire nine-member West team plus three others were picked for a junior national team that will play in an international tournament in Hawaii next week. Then everybody went off to a party with the women volleyball players.
The first annual National Sports Festival ended Sunday night with a great show of fireworks atop Pikes Peak and a lot of confident talk about how much better next year's event will surely be. Kane said the USOC already had applications (that somehow sounded less formidable than "bids") from New York City and Rochester, N.Y., plus indications that Colorado Springs wanted it back. And Kane said, "This will help the smaller sports. It can be one of the most productive things the U.S. Olympic Committee has ever done." Kane's enthusiasm was shared by people like Mick Haley, coach of the Midwest volleyball team. "I've got to feel that in five years this will be the greatest sporting event in the United States," he rhapsodized.
It was a brand-new malady called "festival fever" and it seemed to be contagious. Also afflicted was 19-year-old Frank Sanborn of Newport Beach, Calif., who was on the winning four-man kayak team and placed second in the doubles. "I hope the festival continues," he said. "It gave us some national coverage for our sport. This will get more people interested. Besides, in the barracks at the Academy, people stayed out late and partied. I guess that it's just like at the Olympic Games." Move over, Spartakiade and Kokutai.