SPORTS COMEBACK OF THE YEAR: THE OLYMPIC GAMES
The most important lesson of the Los Angeles Games is that even though the Olympics today are beset by a host of doubts and difficulties, they can still succeed. Even as commercialism permeates the Games and nations use them for political purposes, the individual athlete can still strive for excellence, and the spectator can still be stirred to the depth of his soul.
Of the Los Angeles Games, London's Daily Mail said, "They did it their way, which may not be our way, but within those terms of reference they did it stunningly." The Italian newspaper La Stampa was even more upbeat, quoting a European observer as saying, "These have been labeled the Olympics of patriotism, of provincialism, of chauvinism, of stinginess, of capitalism, of exploitation, of U.S. isolation, of victory of professionals over amateurs, but if I were to pass judgment on Los Angeles, I would give it top marks as the best in history."
Yet only three months ago, after the Soviet Union had announced it wouldn't compete in Los Angeles, the Olympic movement appeared to be on its last legs. The Soviet-led boycott, following hard upon the American-led boycott of the 1980 Games, seemed the last straw, the final blow after so many earlier ones—the financial debacle and African boycott at Montreal in 1976, the massacre of the Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972, the black-power gestures and ruthless suppression of political protesters at Mexico City in 1968. "It isn't the Olympics anymore," mourned Al Oerter, America's four-time discus gold medalist, and thousands echoed his lament. Could the Olympics even last until the Summer Games scheduled for Seoul in 1988? The entire Olympic concept seemed outmoded. Things looked very bleak indeed.
But in Los Angeles it became evident that the Games have a remarkable resilience. The once bitter battle over professionalism (remember Avery Brundage, the longtime president of the IOC, threatening in 1972 to close down the Winter Olympics because of the infiltration of professionalism?) now seems as archaic and irrelevant as the Christian church's once virulent debate over the Arian Heresy. As Frank Deford wrote in these pages last week, "Professionalism has just sort of oozed into acceptance, and amateurism has ended with a whimper, not a bang." Not that there aren't true amateurs in the Olympics still. There are, and the Games can accommodate them, as they now increasingly accommodate athletes who once would have been considered professionals.
The tremendous cost of staging an Olympics (Montreal is still saddled with $559.6 million of the $1 billion debt from 1976), which frightened away some potential bidders for future Games—Los Angeles won the 1984 Summer Games almost by default, and Seoul had only one rival for 1988—no longer seems so forbidding. The Los Angeles Olympics' skillful business managers, shrugging off criticism of their commercialization of the Olympic ideal, staged a spectacular, extravagant, gratifying show and ended up with a reported $15 million surplus. Doomsayers also forgot that last winter in Sarajevo, socialist Yugoslavia put on a remarkably successful Winter Games and came in $30 million under budget.
Though television has become increasingly pervasive and has given the Games a show-biz quality that some find repellent, it has become the solid financial base on which the Olympics must stand. Calgary, the Canadian city that will host the 1988 Winter Games, already has a $309 million deal—an astonishing $217.5 million more than the '84 Winter Olympics went for—with ABC (the Calgarians swung this in part by stretching the schedule to give television three weekends instead of two). The sheer financial worth of today's Games indicates that they will endure.
Of course, not everything is sunny with the Olympics as they head toward 1988 and Seoul. If the current IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, can't work out an agreement with the Soviets, who don't recognize South Korea, there could be another devalued Olympics. Even so, Seoul won't be the last stop. The Games will go on. If Seoul can't cut it, well, the eye-opening triumph of Los Angeles has revived widespread interest in hosting the Games. Barcelona, Paris, Brisbane and Amsterdam are among those vying for the 1992 Summer Olympics (and Falun, Sweden wants the Winter Games that year). Those who miss in 1992 will be eyeing 1996, although Athens seems to be the front-runner for that Olympic centennial year. And the People's Republic of China reportedly wants the Games in the year 2000. The Olympics have become a very hot item.
Brundage may be spinning in his grave, but the Games have grown beyond Avery, beyond the Baron de Coubertin, beyond ancient Greece, beyond even Soviet and U.S. boycotts. At the moment, they're alive and kicking, and the future is unlimited.
On a steaming Saturday early this month in Newport, a 12-meter yacht was launched in the usual fashion. Champagne bubbled, speakers babbled, bunting billowed and firecrackers baboomed in the midday sun. A pretty lady in a garden-party hat cracked a bottle over the bow, and the red-white-and-blue covering that had hidden the yacht's hull fell away to reveal—Courageous.
Our old friend from four America's Cup campaigns, henceforth to be known as Courageous II, was back to try again, this time with wings on her keel. "Vortex Wings," says Leonard M. Greene, her current owner, an aeronautical engineer who holds a fortune in aviation-related patents, "with the emphasis on wings."
"When we lost the Cup," Greene told a crowd of 1,000 sweating well-wishers, "we lost it to a boat that measured 12 meters but had 12½-meter performance. The way to get the Cup back is with a boat that measures 12 meters and has 13-meter performance. Courageous II accomplishes this with its innovative Vortex Wings."
Or hopes to. The Vortex Wings design is a sophisticated variation on the Aussie winged-keel concept, extending farther along the long axis of the keel than the Down Under version. It's also "the first design to be developed using flow-theory formulas and computer-aided design prior to lofting the keel," according to Greene, whose prose has a pretty good flow and loft of its own. In charge of translating Courageous II's potential on Greene's computers into performance on Australia's waters in 1987 is Leatham (Tim) Stearn, a 36-year-old ocean racer-engineer-sailmaker and 1972 Star Class Olympian from Sturgeon Bay, Wis. When a reporter asked Stearn how he, an "unknown," dared to take on John Kolius and Dennis Conner, heroes of the losing struggle in 1983 and helmsmen-designate for the 1987 challenges of the New York (Kolius) and San Diego (Conner) yacht clubs, Stearn replied, "Until two years ago, unless you followed sailing very closely, you never heard of John Kolius. The same could be said of Dennis Conner six years ago." An America's Cup skipper spends a good deal of time answering questions from reporters. Stearn, it seems, has passed the novice stage.
The only real novice in the Courageous II challenge is its sponsor, the Yale Corinthian Yacht Club of New Haven, Conn., an undergraduate organization of waterborne Yalies. At Newport, the Boston Brass Ensemble played Down the Field, the Old Blues in the audience cheered and, as it always does on such occasions, optimism won the day. The club's commodore, Tim Misner, a 21-year-old senior who looks 13, interrupted a summer of boardsailing just long enough to don his commodore's blazer and address the question of how he, "just a math major," became an official challenger for the world's most famous trophy. "It was a match made in New Haven," he said.
ONE WAY TO WIN AN ELECTION
A year ago the Winnipeg Sun printed ballots and asked its readers to vote on whether or not the city should build a new arena downtown to house the NHL Jets. A proposal to include such an arena in a new redevelopment plan had been made. Some influential citizens were strongly for the idea, others were just as strongly opposed. The antis argued that it was a wasteful proposal, pointing out that the arena in which the Jets play had been renovated only four years earlier.
The results of the poll were 280 to 150 in favor, and despite the rather modest number of voters, the Sun ran a headline proclaiming: WINNIPEG WANTS A DOWNTOWN ARENA. The authorities, however, choosing to ignore the poll, rejected the proposal.
Now comes a rival newspaper, the Winnipeg Free Press, to disclose that the vote was rigged. When the ballots appeared in the Sun, employees of the Jets were sent out to buy 200 copies of the paper (five here, five there, spreading the purchases around to avoid attracting attention). Others went to a nearby mall and bought envelopes in various shapes and sizes, postage stamps of different designs and denominations and a variety of colored marking pens. Staff members then filled in the ballots (voting a straight party ticket, of course), addressed and stamped the envelopes and took them home to neighborhood boxes to mail so that the ballots would appear to be coming from various parts of the city. "We had a little production line," admitted one employee.
Barry Shenkarow, the president of the Jets, who was in favor of a new arena, has denied knowing anything about the ballot-box stuffing, but Jackie Mihalyk, a former employee who was the Jets' sales director at the time, said bluntly, "Yes, it happened." Don Ramsay, a former Jet publicity man, was somewhat more circumspect. "I have no interest in the inner workings of the Winnipeg Jets," he said stiffly, "but if you're asking me point-blank, I can't deny it happened."
WAKE UP THE ECHOES
Now even the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame are going commercial, or at least one of them is. Sleepy Jim Crowley, 81, the last survivor of the famous 1924 backfield, has joined a Scranton, Pa. friend named Thomas Bell to market "Jim Crowley's Four Horsemen" sportswear. The sportswear carries a little emblem, naturally, and it is—you'd never guess—four running horses.
THEY SAID IT
•Tony LaRussa, youthful White Sox manager, on baseball wisdom imparted to him by veteran major league pilot Chuck Tanner: "When I first became a manager, I asked Chuck for advice. He told me, 'Always rent.' "
•Benny Ayala, Baltimore Orioles utility player, after coming to bat only four times in June: "I'm an eclipse player. You don't see me very often."
•Ron Luciano, umpire-turned-broadcaster, on his failure as an NBC-TV baseball colorman: "I've got a face made for radio."