"Let's create a little excellence"
Unless perhaps, against your will, you've been locked up in Albania, or, of your own volition, been imprisoned in front of MTV, you are familiar with the one major development in sports this year, the single most important athletic phenomenon of our generation:
Yet it would be terribly provincial to claim that, even with this new state-of-the-art weapon in their arsenal, American fans are any more fervid in their passion for their teams than are the rest of God's ticket-buying flock. No. The only thing that has set Americans apart is that their devotions are invariably more local than national.
December 24, 1984
Indeed, the whole American nation has rarely assembled to cheer for an American team. The last time was four winters ago, in support of a guileless band of youths who would slay the Russian bear upon the bloodied ice. But even that was an anomaly: the U.S. as underdog. Nineteen eighty was precious; 1980 was quaint.
In 1984 Americans once again rallied behind and hollered for an Olympic team, but this time it was different. The cheering was for the whole damn squad, no holds barred. Nineteen eighty-four was the real thing and the right stuff and the hot dog and the bottom line: America bestride the free world—and let the devil take the hindmost. These were America's Olympics, America's show, America's fans, America's winners; and The Wave that rolled out from Los Angeles crested across a land full of pride and joy (and full of itself), and if there was some mean-spirited excess, some boorish jingoism, the President, anyway, was smart enough to understand that above all you should wrap yourself in the Olympic flag. Not, as it turned out, that he needed the Games, but his campaign began at the Olympics. Reagan met with the American Olympians one day in L.A. "You're heroes," he told them, "every one of you living proof of what happens when America sets its sights high and says, 'Let's create a little excellence.' "
It felt good. It resonated. It glowed. It played. Why, every day there were so many new American heroes to toast, so many new gold medalists shining under the conquering Leo moon, that even now it's difficult to sort them out.
Except for two of them, two originals.
Edwin Moses and Mary Lou Retton managed not only to win, but also to win our affection, for excellence was but one of the virtues they embodied and shared with us. Together, they call up a reflection of Colonel Washington A. Roebling, who suffered the bends while directing the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and thereafter had to supervise his life's work from his sickroom. In a letter to his son he wrote, "Nothing is easy, and nothing does itself. Character and action are everything."
But, apart from those two qualities and a shared citizenship, Moses and Retton are flip sides. If ever two athletes could run on a balanced ticket, something for everyone, it would be these two disparate personalities, who are the Sportsman and Sportswoman of 1984.
Start with the obvious, that he's a tall, lean, 29-year-old black man, and she's a short, sturdy white girl, at age 16 still on the lee of womanhood. Moses never concentrated on athletics, never leaped a hurdle, till he was well past the age when Retton had been enthroned as champion of all the world. He's a scholar, she (at least for now) a high school dropout. He was an enigma long ignored; she a sprite instantly adored. He's totally independent as an athlete, self-taught; she's so dependent upon her coach that, at the instant she captured the gold, his apt words were: "We did it." Moses's presence was for a long time so off-putting that he needed an understanding wife to style him for the public; by comparison, Retton's natural elfin exultation would absolutely explode if anyone else touched a spark to it. He's the ultimate specialist, taking one arcane event, the 400-meter hurdles, and refining it, redefining it, crystallizing it, to the point where the race is now one with the man; she's the classic generalist, the only female gymnast to make it to all four event finals, none of which she won. But by then, of course, she'd won her gold medal in the All-Around.
So Moses and Retton have taught us again that, however much great athletes must be blessed with ability, each champion must be fired in his or her own kiln. Certainly, gender has the least to do with it. If you were to look farther out on the sporting landscape, away from Los Angeles, the two other athletes who rose the highest this year were Doug Flutie and Martina Navratilova, and she, the woman, is altogether a spiritual and technological kin of Moses, while Flutie, the man, is like Retton, both of them formed almost entirely out of magic and moment.
Retton, for best example, knew—she knew—that she would win the gold while she was still, inconveniently, in midair. She could visualize that her performance would end perfectly, and it did. Perhaps you forget some of this. It was the evening of Friday, Aug. 3, and Retton had fallen 0.15 points behind Ecaterina Szabo of Romania, which is Nadia Comaneci's country. Retton can remember watching Nadia enchant the world during the '76 Olympics; Mary Lou was eight then. She recalls that she thought how "lucky" Nadia was—not for winning, but for just being there. And now she trailed Nadia's heir by 0.15.
Then, in the penultimate round, Szabo scored 9.90 on the vault, and Retton prepared for her floor exercises. "I had nothing to lose, so I never thought negative," she says. "Besides, I come out better under pressure. So I just said to myself, 'Fight harder, Mary Lou.' And when I did my floor, I knew it was a good floor. I stuck all my passes. Then came the only time I was nervous. Not doing it, but waiting for the floor scores." The floor scores were 10, and Retton was down by only 0.05 going into the last round of the competition.
Szabo had to go first, across the way, on the uneven bars. And what do you think Retton did? She peeked. "I mean, yeah, I had to watch her bars," she says—and she mimics how she did it, out of the corner of her eyes. Sometimes now she'll watch the tape of that evening and "root again for myself." Retton is sitting cross-legged on her hotel bed in her size-1 dress, with her size-3 high heels kicked off. She's like a dish of pudding, especially when she laughs. No one would ever take a bite out of her; you'd take a scoop.
And now, in memory, Retton watches Nadia's heir go on the unevens. "I saw her take a step on her dismount, and I said to myself, 'You have a chance, Mary Lou.' " Szabo got a 9.9. If Retton made a 9.95 on her vault, she would tie for the gold; a perfect 10 and she would become the first American woman ever to win one in gymnastics. And soon she was twisting in midair and knew she was a lock. "I stuck it," she says.
So that was no surprise. The next morning was the surprise. Before the Olympics there were nights Retton would lie in her bed, and she would envision herself doing exactly what she, in fact, did, which is score enough 10s to win. That was what she was up to. Only six weeks before her triumph, she'd flown to Richmond to have arthroscopic surgery on her knee. I All the way in the Learjet, she I thought: "Why me?" At 16, this is the end of the world. But thanks to arthroscopy, as Aug. 3 neared she could lie awake nights and dream again.
Still, even when she was winning, it never occurred to her what was happening beyond the walls of Pauley Pavilion. In fact, ABC was selling America a live pixie named Mary Lou Retton. And Saturday morning, when she chanced to step outside the Olympic Village, all of a sudden, just like that, Los Angeles descended on her. "I mean, there were mobs of people," she says. "And the people knew me! They said things like, 'Mary Lou, you've been in our home. You've been in our living room. We feel like we know you, Mary Lou!'
"I still think it's kind of neat, too. I mean, I'd understand people recognizing me if I had purple hair or something, but I'm just a normal teenager. I'm still just Mary Lou."
Of course, she's also Mary Lou incorporated now. On Jan. 1, 1983 she gave up family and home in West Virginia to go off to Houston to train with a new coach, Bela Karolyi—Nadia's old coach, who had defected in 1981—and now she has to give up a lot of training to make hay while the sun shines. Retton's first three signings were with McDonald's, Vidal Sassoon and Wheaties, a commercial trinity of epic eclecticism. Why, she would be the first celebrity of her sex on the front of the Breakfast of Champions! (Egad, they'll want the vice-presidency next.)
Retton is red-white-and-blue, make no mistake about it. Her holiday calendar started with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade down Broadway and includes the Bob Hope Christmas special, a benefit at the Kennedy Center in Our Nation's Capital and a cover appearance on Seventeen magazine to coincide with her own 17th birthday on Jan. 24.
During the Macy's parade, there were several other Olympians on the McDonald's float with her, but the Thanksgiving crowds cheered only for her: Mary Lou! Mary Lou! It moves quickly when you are 16 and champion of the world. There are spunky 8-year-olds out there who want to be lucky, too.
Unlike Retton, who worked a lifetime to become a darling overnight, Moses is an accidental athlete who had to convince a fickle public that he deserved to be a champion after he already was one. In 1976, he was an honor student at Morehouse College in Atlanta when he sort of drifted into the 400 hurdles and thought maybe he might have a chance at qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Trials. By July, he was the only American capable of winning an individual track and field gold medal at Montreal. On Aug. 26, 1977 he lost for the last time. His winning streak in heats and finals has now reached 109. He has, as far as we know, won the most races that any human being has ever won in a row.
Once, along the way, he tried taking a regular job, as an aerospace engineer, but soon enough he was back at the hurdles. We have a tendency to assume that our most intelligent athletes will depart the arena first for more approved adult endeavors, but, in fact, the smart ones often divine more in their sport and, like Moses, become more dedicated to it and stay the longest at the party.
"My whole life is totally different from what I thought it would be," he says. "Of course, I think it's been more valuable to me the way—the order—in which things have happened. Whenever I speak at school assemblies, I stress the balance between academics and athletics, and how the one helps the other. But then, sometimes I'd feel badly for myself when I saw all my friends going off to start medical school, while here I was with only a B.S. in physics, still just running track." But one day some track nut told Moses he had this streak going.
And so he kept running, although the public perception lingered that he was either a mystery or a menace. Was this black guy a militant? He wore shades and a beard and a necklace, didn't he? In fact, Moses is merely a private man, and only with time did people discover that there was more dignity than distance to him.
Myrella, whom he married in 1982, began the process of translating his temperament for an impatient world. In contrast to his meditative oblong countenance and the resonant voice that goes with it, Myrella's face is open, her manner airy, with a garrulous vivacity that makes her something of a European Mary Lou Retton. And soon, with the streak growing, Moses's image and stature both changed, and by the time the L.A. Olympics approached, he was not only a hero to the world, but also, within his own subculture, an adviser, a spokesman, a counselor, a mediator, a diplomat and even, as Myrella says, "a grandfather." No athlete in any sport is so respected by his peers as Moses is in track and field. "An athlete has a heavy responsibility placed on him," he says. "Whether or not he wants it."
So it was that while the Olympics made Retton, they only certified Moses. He had so many commitments and endorsements going into last year that "it was all so stressful that I was right up to the red line, where you've got the RPMs so high that you almost damage the machine." Indeed, he believes he will be more capable of breaking his world record of 47.02 in the "off' year of '85, and that certainly isn't a surprising claim inasmuch as he always works and trains alone near his Laguna Hills, Calif. home, and obtains challenge from within.
Ironically, his victory in Los Angeles was so predictable that the Olympic performance he will be more remembered for came at the Opening Ceremonies. He was chosen to recite the competitors' oath, and he stood up and...forgot the words. No one had told him that the oath would be shown on the scoreboard, and he was too proud to bring along a crib sheet. "It's only 43 words," he grumps now, still unwilling to accept—even as Myrella assures him—that there was something endearing about the intellectual, all-conquering Moses making such a foolish error. In a way, his painful exposure before all the world was the last stripping away of the mask.
Grudgingly, Moses listened to this fond appraisal of his human vulnerability. He was back home in Dayton, Ohio, where he had grown up living on the edge of a park, the son of educators. His father, Irving Sr., died a year ago, and so now he was back visiting Gladys, his mother, being honored by his hometown and attending the groundbreaking for what would become Edwin C. Moses Boulevard. Fairmont, the West Virginia town where Retton was raised, is about 200 miles due east; Dayton and Fairmont rest between the 39th and 40th parallels, the one in rich farmland, the other in the bituminous fields, so that they are rather like the two champions they've produced: so close and yet so far.
There is, though, a consonance between Moses and Retton and with the nation that they represented at the Olympic Games. He's a child of Africa, she of Europe (Rotunda was the apt, pre-Anglicized Italian family name); both grew up in the heartland and now work in the Sun Belt; the two of them have been further nurtured by our newest immigrants—her coach, his wife. The American saga is renewed, the American wave rolls.