LONDON — I love the Olympics. Always have. Mostly because it was a big part of my dad's master plan. Immigrate to America where we'd have access to proper training, nutrition and, most of all, competition. Train me to fight.
Represent the U.S. in the Olympics. Turn pro. Become the heavyweight champion of the world. Live happily ever after.
Dad's plan was that simple. He's neither a complicated nor an educated man.
But he was laser-focused on achieving it. We got as far as fighting in a pre-qualifying Olympic tournament that featured all five of the gold medalists in the '76 Montreal Games — bantamweight Leo Randolph from Washington state; welterweight Sugar Ray Leonard from Maryland; super middleweight Howard Davis from California; and two brothers from east St. Louis, Mo., who were Marines — Michael and Leon Spinks, the light and heavyweight champions.
I was only 14 and was eliminated early; Sugar Ray, four years my senior and only 18, won my division. Dad was disappointed but not discouraged; he pinned his hopes on Moscow 1980, accurately predicting Sugar Ray would turn pro after the Montreal Olympics and I'd have four years of national and international experience to dominate the welterweight or middleweight division.
By then I was running five miles every morning before school and sparring five nights a week under the tutelage of an old African-American trainer named Gene Lewis in a municipal gym under Rendezvous Park, the Oakland A's spring training home. Football sidetracked us when I started high school, but the seven years of boxing in musty gyms across the Southwest prepared me in a unique way for American football. I was never scared. Never intimidated. Never felt overmatched, even when I was. I was always supremely confident. Because of boxing.
The 1972 Munich Games were the first Olympics I ever watched and the first after we arrived in America. Without training film, Dad insisted we watched every evening hoping we'd see boxing. The best fighter of the tournament was the Cuban heavyweight, Teofilo Stephenson, who looked eerily like a bigger and stronger Muhammad Ali. Stephenson dominated the U.S. heavyweight, Duane Bobick. Dad would point out strengths and weaknesses of each fighter, as we watched. Had Tonga had television, my father would've been their boxing analyst and would've been a good one. Dad's favorite fighter in the '72 Games wasn't Stephenson, whom he regarded as stiff and slow, but simply overpowered and overwhelmed opponents because of he was 6-foot-7. He loved welterweight Ray Seales from Tacoma, Wash., because he was technically sound.
I remember odd things about the '72 Games, like Russian weightlifter Vasily Alekseyev, who supposedly ate a 10-pound bag of potatoes and two dozen eggs every morning for breakfast and would be a staple for years on the iconic opening shots of ABC's Wide World of Sports. Also, the 100-meter champion wasn't an African-American, who typically dominated the sprints, but Russian sprinter Valery Borzov, who beat American Robert Taylor. Borzov also took gold in the 200 meters, beating American Larry Black. Of course in '72, no one was testing for performance-enhancing drugs and it's well-known now that the Eastern Bloc countries were already using PEDs.
The darling of '72 was yet another Russian, gymnast Olga Korbut, who was cute with her pigtails and gapped tooth.
The '72 Games also gave us Mark Spitz and the controversial call that cost the U.S. basketball team the gold and gifting it to the Russians. Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doug Collins was a guard on that team and told me this week that the team refused to accept the silver and to this day the medals are locked in a Swiss bank vault.
But Munich was dominated by the story of the Israeli athletes killed by terrorists in the most tragic event of the Modern Games. Once the Israelis were taken hostage, the Games were suspended but we still tuned in every night to watch Jim McKay in his yellow jacket with the ABC crest on the breast pocket updating us on the situation. It was simply riveting television.
Our next-door neighbors, Jerry and Valoy Chapman, came over each night to watch McKay's live reports on our little 13-inch black-and-white TV. The Munich massacre for my generation was what Kennedy's assassination was to a previous generation. You remembered where you were and whom you were with when you saw the pictures of the terrorist with the ski mask patrolling the Israeli athletes' balcony and later the shootout and helicopter crash that killed them.
True, the Olympics have been politicized, terrorized and monetized and will continue to be so. But at its core, it's about world peace, harmony and unity. Anciently, warring nations held a truce for the Olympics.
London is my seventh Olympics. It's never gotten old. People are patriotic and nationalistic yet it offends no one, in fact, it's encouraged and fans cheer not only for their own, but for others.2 comments on this story
Who could forget British 400-meter sprinter Derek Redmond pulling his hamstring in '92 and his father, Jim, running onto the track pushing away Barcelona security to assist his son finish well after the race had ended.
Or Kerri Strug nailing her dismount on a bum ankle with the gold medal hanging in the balance.
Powerful and tender as those moments were, what can't be forgotten is the real life and death heroism and courage displayed by Moshe Weinberg, the Israeli wrestling coach in Munich, who was killed while fighting off the terrorists at the door, with a bullet in his cheek, allowing one of his wrestlers, Gad Tsobari, to escape.
That's why I love the Olympics.