Moments of Melbourne, Part 9 - Saturday, December 1st, 1956

Whenever Hungarian athletes competed at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, it was a highly emotional affair. The bloody ending to the revolution in their home country, caused by the invasion of Soviet tanks, earned them sympathy around the world and also in Down Under. For the Hungarian athletes in Australia, the main topic (besides competition) was the question whether to go home after the end of the Games or to emigrate to the west.

One of the most famous athletes who would finally go home again, was legendary Laszlo Papp. He made history on December 1st by becoming the first boxer to win gold at three consecutive Olympics (picture: Sportschau).

Many Hungarian team mates gathered around the ring when Papp took on American future world champion Jose Torres for his light middleweight gold medal bout - and the 30 year old veteran did not disappoint them. Although Torres gave him a hard time (picture:ORF), Papp kept his unbeaten record thanks to a split 2-1 decision by the judges. Papp had dominated this weight class four years ealier in Helsinki - after he had become middleweight champion at the first post-war Games in 1948 at London

Boxing had not been on Papp's mind all his life. As a little boy, he tried many different sports. When he took up boxing, some experts thought his hands were too small and fragile. With superb technique and strategy, Papp proved all skeptics wrong, winning not only three Olympic gold medals, but also two European championships.

The re-established communist regime of Janos Kadar rewarded Papp's return to Budapest with the allowance to become a professional. "I fight for money, but I am not greedy. How many steaks can one man eat?", he remarked ironically In 27 professional bouts, Papp - who lived in Vienna and got an Austrian boxing license - remained unbeaten and became European middleweight champion. But when he had a chance to box for the world championship in the Unted States, promotors did not want a "communist champion". The government's allowance was subsequently withdrawn.

Papp retired and became a renowned coach of many young Hungarian boxing hopfuls. He died in 2003. Some of the team mates who watched his final amateur bout in Melbourne on December 1st, 1956, Laszlo Papp has never met again (picture: Boxrec).

News of the day: Bantam weight boxer Wolfgang Behrendt from Berlin wins the first ever Olympic title for the German Democratic Republic (as a member of the unified German team) +++ Further Boxing gold medals go to the USSR (three), the USA and Great Britain (two each) and Romania +++ In freestyle wrestling, Turkey and Iran both grab two golds +++ On the last day of athletics, France's Alain Mimoun wins the marathon, defeating his life-long nemesis Emil Zatopek (Czechoslovakia/sixth place) +++ The USA wins both men's relays, Australia the women's sprint relay +++ Ireland's Ron Delaney surprisingly prevails in the men's 1500 meters, while Mildred McDaniel (USA) wins the women's high jump +++ Led by future NBA star Bill Russel, the US team grabs another basketball crown +++ In shooting, Wassili Borissov (USSR) wins the free rifle competition and Italy's Galliano Rossini the litter pigeons +++ Swimmer Bill Yorzik (USA) becomes the 200 meters butterfly champion, while Australia's Dawn Fraser is fastest in the women's 100 meters freestyle +++ Bob Clotworthy wins another springboard diving gold for the USA +++ In canoeing's 1000 meters finals, the gold medals are won by Romania (two), Sweden and Germany, Russia's Jelisaveta Dementijeva wins the women's 500 meters K1.

Notice: On December 2nd, 1956, no competitions were held due to Sunday sports restrictions. Our next post comes to you on December 3rd.


Moments of Melbourne, Part 8 - Friday, November 30th, 1956

A Harvard analyst named Gert Fredriksson the second most dominant Olympian of all time, second only to American jumper Ray C. Ewry, but still ahead of Carl Lewis and Michael Phelps. The Swedish flatwater canoe racer won six of eight Olympic finals in his long career and added one silver and one bronze medal each. From 1948 to 1960, Fedriksson (picture: Sportschau) became a legend on the water. When he won the K1 10,000 meters on Lake Wendouree on November 30th, 1956, it happened nine days after his 37th birthday.

Had it not been for Fredriksson's endurance and discipline, maybe World War II would have prevented him from winning any Olympic gold, like it did to his famous compatriot, runner Gunder Haegg. The fire fighter from Nykoeping had started canoeing in 1937 and was at world class level in the 1940s, losing only one race between 1943 and 1948. When the 1948 London Olympics came around, he was already 29 years old. His triumph in the K1 10,000 meters race on the River Thames came at a margin of 30.5 seconds - the largest ever in an Olympic final.

Fredriksson contined to dominate this way at Helsinki in 1952, Melbourne, and Rome in 1960. In Down Under, his preparation had been hampered by injuries, but he still won both the 10,000 and the 1000 meters. In the former event, he outraced Hungary's Ferenc Hatlaczki by almost ten seconds. His opponent was 15 years younger than Fredriksson.

The super athlete collected honours as well as medals. In 1956, he became one of only 15 athletes to be awarded the Mohammed Taher Trophy by the International Olympic Comittee. In 1949, he had already cashed in the "Svenska Dagbladet gold medal". Fredriksson died in the summer of 2006 after a long battle with cancer in his hometown of Nykoeping, which had honoured him with a statue during his lifetime (picture: 4-bp-blogspot).

News of the day: The other 10,000 meters finals in canoeing are won by the USSR, Hungary, and Romania +++ In track and field, Betty Cuthbert from Australia wins her second gold in the 200 meters, while Soviet shot putter Tamara Tyshkevitsh also earns highest honours +++ Milton Campbell (USA) becomes "king of athletes" by winning the decathlon +++ Pentti Linnosvuo from Finland wins the first shooting gold of Melbourne with the free pistol +++ In fencing, the individual epee contest is won by Italy's Carlo Pavesi +++ Swimming kicks off with two medal decisions: Australian John Henricks wins the men's 100 meters freestyle, Germany's Ursula Happe the women's 200 meters breaststroke.


Moments of Melbourne, Part 7 - Thursday, November 29th, 1956

It took Christopher Brasher 8 minutes and 41.2 seconds to finish first in the Olympic 3000 meters steeplechase finals. But to get to the top of the podium, he had to endure more than three hours of waiting. The dramatic race on the afternoon of November 29th, 1956, at Melbourne Cricket Ground was surrounded by controversy and had long repercussions.

On the first view, everything seemed crystal clear: Brasher, not a steeplechase specialist, had edged out Hungary's European champion and world record holder Sandor Rozsnoyi on the home stretch to capture a surprising gold. But suddenly Brasher was disqualified, allegedly for having interferred with Norway's bronze medal winner Ernst Larsen at the beginning of the final lap. But when Larsen declared, in a great showing of sportsmanship, that Brasher had touched him, but without hindering his running, Brasher was reinstated. He celebrated this with a “liquid lunch“ with some journalists and stood on top of the podium, as he confessed later, “blind drunk, totally blotto”.

The film of the scene (courtesy of onlinefootage.tv) cannot clarify what happened without a doubt, but after long discussions, the result stood (picture: Getty).

For Brasher, the gold medal was the climax of a colourful life and athletics career. Born in British Guyana in 1928, he had lived in Jerusalem for some time, before returning to merry old England and attending the famous Rugby and St. John's College in Cambridge. He picked up track and field in 1950. Until the Melbourne Games, his most notorious achievement had been his support as a pacemaker for Roger Bannister when he broke the four-minute barrier in the mile race in 1954.

After Melbourne, Brasher immediately retired, but was still an omnipresent figure in the athletics scene until his death in 2003. "Bloody" Brasher worked as a journalist for The Observer and the BBC. In the 1980s, he became one of the founding fathers of the London marathon (picture: IAAF).

News of the day: Charles Jenkins (USA) wins the 400 meters ahead of Germany's Karl-Friedrich Haas. +++ Another surprising gold medal for Great Britain is fencer Gillian Sheen's triumph in the women's foil event.


Moments of Melbourne, Part 6 - Wednesday, November 28th, 1956

Almost nobody noticed, but Olympic history was made on this cloudy Wednesday, November 28th, 1956, at Oaklands Hunt Club in the north of Melbourne. When Lars Hall crossed the finish line of the cross-country run, the last part of the modern pentathlon, the carpenter from Karlskrona had achieved something nobody had done before him. He had defended the Olympic crown in the most versatile sport imaginable (picture: Getty).

Hall had taken up the complicated modern pentathlon in 1947 while he was at service in the Swedish navy. He was a good rider, swimmer, and an excellent fencer, but ironically had his problems at shooting. In 1950 and 1951, Hall became world champion and was one of the favourites for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. In Finland, he won the gold mainly because he was the best in equestrian and swimming. As he had left the navy before, he was the first pentathlete to win the title without being an officer or in the military at all.

Four years later on the outskirts of Melbourne, many things had changed. First and foremost, in 1954 a new points system had been established, which replaced the old formula where the rankings of each event were added up. What had not changed, was Halls supremacy. The title holder, now 29 years old, started of with a fine fourth place in riding, had his usual problems with the pistol, shooting only 181 out of 200 points possible, but followed suit with a personal best in swimming. After a hell of a cross-country run, Hall had collected 4883 points, edging out the Finns Olavi Mannonen and Vaino Korhonen for his second gold (picture: China Daily).

For his achievement, Hall was awarded the "Svenska Dagbladet gold medal" for 1956, together with cross-country skier Sixten Jernberg - a kind of Sportsman of the Year award and an honour normally reserved for Sweden's winter sports heroes. Hall died in 1991 in Taeby (picture: Collnect).

News of the day: In athletics, Vladimir Kuts of the USSR wins his second gold in the 5000 meters. His countryman Leonid Spirine is the fastest race walker in the 20 km event. +++ American Lee Calhoun prevails in the 110 meters hurdles, while his US teammate Parry O'Brien defends his title in the shot put. +++ Also an encore after gold in Helsinki in 1952: Australia's Shirley Strickland de la Hunty grabs the 80 meters hurdles gold. +++ Best female javelin thrower is Inese Jaunzeme from the USSR. +++ Italy's fencers win the men's epee team competition.


Moments of Melbourne, Part 5 - Tuesday, November 27th, 1956

Long before Pertti Karppinen and Mahe Drysdale, there was another dominator of the single sculls rowing scene. He came from Moscow and started his unprecedented career on November 27th, 1956, on the picturesque Lake Wendouree in Ballarat, 100 kilometers to the west of Melbourne. On this day, Vyacheslav Ivanov (picture: Wikipedia) won the first of his three consecutive Olympic gold medals.

In the summer before the Games, at the age of merely 18 years, Ivanov had one the Soviet trials and edged 1952 Olympic champion Yuri Tjukalov for the berth at the Olympic regatta. As Karppinen in the 1970s and 1980s, Ivanovs best weapon was his devastating finishing sprint.

So the final in Melbourne developed in the same way as many Ivanov races later: He trailed by the 1500 meters mark as dead last of the four finalusts, but then he catched one after the other: first Poland's Teodor Kocerka, then Grace Kelly's brother and American Olympic rowing legend John B. Kelly jr, whose father had won the event in 1920. And finally Australian Stuart Mackenzie, who went on to win the Diamond Sculls at Henley six times (picture: 3ba). With only 100 meters to go, Mackenzie suddenly stopped in the wrong assumption the race was over - and Ivanov powered by him.

Ivanov made this tactics his trademark strategy, and it paid off two more times, in the Olympic finals at the 1960 Rome and the 1964 Tokyo games. At both occasions, East German Achim Hill fell victim to Ivanov's sprint - like West Germany's Peter-Michael Kolbe later fell to Karppinen twice, in 1976 and 1984.

Ivanov, who later worked as a navy officer, was so overcome with joy and excitement, that he threw his freshly gained medal into the air and it flipped into Lake Wendouree. The IOC gave him a replacement.

The three time Olympic single sculls champion was a sports multi-talent: Ivanov also excelled in nordic skiing, wrestling, boxing, football, and volleyball. He was a heavy smoker his whole life and had a simple explanation for it: His grandfather had done so and died at age 106. Ivanov is now 78 years old, so he has still a long way to go in this race.

News of the day: The USA dominate the rest of the rowing finals, winning three gold medals, including the coxed eight. The USSR, Canada, and Italy win the other races. +++ In track and field, Bobby Morrow (USA) earns his second gold in the 200 meters. +++ While Brazil's Adhemar da Silva defends his triple jump title, Al Oerter from the USA starts his incredible Olympic career with the first of his four consecutive wins in the discus throw. +++ Poland's Elizabete Krzesinka wins the women's long jump.


Moments of Melbourne, Part 4 - Monday, November 26th, 1956

Blonde hair, a wild stride with highly lifted knees, and - most of all - a wide open mouth. These were the trademarks of the biggest female star of the Melbourne Olympics. On Monday, November 26th, Betty Curhbert took home the first of her three gold medals in the sprint - at the age of just 18 (pictures: The Australian, The Famous People).

The Australian fans had had high expectations for the women's track events, but they did not really have the "Golden  Girl" from Sydney on their minds. Shirley de la Hunty was expected to be the star of the Games. She indeed defended her title in the 80 meters hurdles, but before that, she had bowed out in the heats of the 100 meters dash. It was a shocking moment for hometown fans, all the more as Cuthbert was considered to be a 200 meters specialist. In this event, she had set a new world record at 23.2 seconds two months before the Games.

But with Strickland sidelined, Cuthbert rose to the occasion, holding off East Germany's Christa Stubnick and teammate Marlene Matthews to capture the gold. Three days later in the 200, the outcome was the same. When Cuthbert anchored her team's relay team to the gold, her status as a natonal heroine was secured. All of her running with that typically wide opened mouth, about which Cuthbert used to say: "Everything I did that required effort, I opened my mouth. Even to catch a ball, I opened my mouth."

The hype that followed was a little to much for a shy and slightly build 18 year old. Cuthbert indeed had no easy time in the years to follow. Hampered by a hamstring injury, she was eliminated in the heas at the 1960 Rome Olympics and retired. Two years later, Cuthbert had a terific comeback, winning the Commonwealth title in the 400 meters. At the same distance, she crowned her career with a fourth Olympic gold in 1964 at the Tokyo Games (picture: ABC).

A fighter that she had been on the track, Cuthbert also was in her later life. In 1974, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis that forced her into a wheelchair. But that did not prevent her from carrying the Olympic torch into Stadium Australia at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Games, showing off her trademark optimism and perseverance. It was one of many memorable moments of the Millennium Olympics (picture: The Australian).

News of the day: Bob Richards (USA) defends his pole vault title, Tom Courteney (USA) gets the 800 meters gold. +++ Norway's Eigil Daniels wins the javelin throw with a new world record of 85.71 meters. +++ The USA and the USSR continue there weightlifting domination: Tommy Kono (USA/Light heavyweight), Arkadi Vorobiov (USSR/Middle heavyweight), and the "Tennessee Titan" Paul Anderson (USA/Heavyweight) win the last three golds. +++ Fencer Christian d'Oriola of France repeats his win in the individual foil competition.


Moments of Melbourne, Part 3 - Saturday, November 24th, 1956

The story of a hammer thrower winning Olympic gold with a crippled arm would have been enough to make tabloid headlines. But there was even more to the triumph of Harold Connolly at Melbourne. Love was in the air - a love that was stronger than Cold War borders.

When Harold Connolly won the gold on the afternoon of Saturday, November 24th, 1956, he did so against all odds. Following several childhood injuries, his right arm was nine centimeters shorter than his left, preventing Connolly from becoming a professional boxer as he had hoped for. But the handicap raised his fighting spirit: "I was a handicapped person who knows the agony of all-out trying and not accomplishing. They didn’t treat the disabled with dignity then. I couldn’t stand to be treated differently."

Instead, the man from Massachussets turned to hammer throwing. In his career, he broke the world record six times and in 1960 became the first man to throw the hammer over the 70 meters line. In Melbourne, he defeated the Soviet favourites Mikhail Krivonossov and Anatoli Samozvetov with a throw of 63.19 meters (picture: hmmrmedia).

But Connolly had more than gold on his mind.

In the week before the Games, he had met Czech discus thrower Olga Fikotová in the Olympic village. Fikotová won the gold 24 hours before Connolly's triumph. They fell in love immediately, accompanied by a lot of fanfare in the western media. The fact that the couple-to-be lived on different sides of the Iron Curtain added to the drama. Three months after the Olympics, Connolly proposed to Fikotová in Prague. After the Czech president had given his permission, they married in October 1957 with 30,000 well-whishers looking on (pictures: UCI/Getty).

"The H-bomb overhangs us like a cloud of doom. The subway during rush hours is almost impossible to endure," The New York Times wrote on the day after their marriage. "But Olga and Harold are in love, and the world does not say no to them." From then on, the Connollys were regular guests in American TV and papers and had a son. But the honeymoon did not last forever. The marriage was divorced in 1974. What remained were two Olympic gold medals and the feel-good story of Melbourne. Connolly, who in 1983 had admitted the use of anabolic steroid during his athletic career, died in August 2010, aged 79.

News of the day: Bobby Morrow (USA) becomes the fastest man on earth, winning the 100 meters dash ahead of fellow American Thane Baker and Australia's Hector Hogan +++ Further athletics gold go to Glenn Davis (USA) in the 400 meters hurdles, Norman Read (New Zealand) in the 50 km race walk, and Greg Bell (USA) in the long jump. +++ The first two golds for the USSR are won by weightlifters Igor Rybak (Light weight) and Fiodor Bogdanovski (Middle weight).

Notice: On November 25th, 1956, no competitions were held due to Sunday sports restrictions. Our next post comes to you on November 26th.


Moments of Melbourne, Part 2 - Friday, Novermber 23rd, 1956

It had been labelled as one of the great duels of the Games and so it was. On the early evening of Friday, November 23rd, Soviet runner Vladimir Kuts and Great Britain's Gordon Pirie squared off in the 10,000 meters final and delivered a race for the ages. In the end, Kuts took home the gold with Pirie finishing merely eighth - but the duel had been much closer as the result seemed to indicate (picture: racingpast.ca).

Kuts had won the 5000 meters at the 1954 European Championships in Berne, Switzerland, spoiling the anticipated showdown between Emil Zatopek bad Christopher Chataway. Pirie had clocked a new 10,000 meters world record in Bergen, Norway in the summer before the Melbourne Games. With Hungary's Sandor Iharos out after the revolution back home, the stage was set for Kuts versus Pirie.

As expected, the race - starting at 6:00 PM on the sandy track at Melbourne Cricket Ground - became the classical encounter between a frontrunner and a finisher. Kuts led from the beginning, trying to destroy his opponents with continuing intervals of acceleration and slowing down, while Pirie followed in his footsteps. This continued for 21 of the 25 laps, until both runners had virtually run out of gas, which even Kuts admitted later. But the 29 year old navy officer from the Ukraine had one last sprint left in his tank. While Kuts raced to gold seven seconds ahead of Hungary's Jozsef Kovacs and Allan Lawrence of Australia, Pirie dropped back to a disappointing eighth place.

"He murdered me - that's all there was to it", Pirie later told the home press, who put him under crossfire. Meanwhile, Kuts sent his coach Grigorij Nikiforov to talk the media, while giving an exclusive interview to his wife Raissa, who worked as a journalist. The man who was often criticized as a "race robot" and was later even connected to doping allegations by the flamboyant Pirie, was in fact no one-dimensional race horse, but a great tactician with unprecedented stamina. Kuts proved all his critics wrong five days later when he also won the 5000 meters. In this race, Pirie finished second.

News of the day: Charles Dumas (USA) grabs the gold in the men's high jump, while Czech Olga Fikotová wins the women's discus throw +++ Americans Charles Vinci (bantam weight) and Isaac Berger (feather weight) earn the first two golds in weightlifting +++ The fencing team from Italy becomes Olympic champion with the men's foil.


Moments of Melbourne, Part 1 - Thursday, November 22nd, 1956

With cannon fire and a rather slow version of Australia's most popular song, "Waltzing Matilda", Melbourne opened the 1956 Summer Olympics on a cloudy and cool Thursday afternoon. The ceremony, that started at 3:00 PM local time, had nothing of the modern day pomp and pageantry. The somber mood was apt to the politically turbulent times. Considering the backdrop of the crises in Hungary and in the Suez, many people around the globe considered it to be a success that the Games were held at all. German commentator Dr. Paul Laven wrote: "The Olympic flames saves peace on earth!" (picture: Getty)

A spirit of newness and the unusual sorrounded this opening day. Never before had the Games been staged in the southern hemisphere. Never before had an opening ceremony been held so late in the year, with most of the season virtually over for the top-tier athletes from Europe and America and Melbourne's shop windows already featuring Christmas decoration. Nevertheless, it was the Australian audience and their genuine love for sports that saved the opening day and the fortnight to come.

Queen Elizabeth had send her husband Prince Philipp, the Duke of Edinburgh, Down Under to officially declare open the Games. Before that, the parade of nations had seen the first Summer Olympics appearance of a unified team from East and West Germany. Roaring applause welcomed the team from civil war torn Hungary that had left Budapest at the height of the revolution. Many athletes were unsure about the fate of their loved ones back home when arriving at Melbourne, many were never going to go home again (picture: Getty).

Despite of the boycott by the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, Egypt, Iran, and the Lebanon, 69 nations entered, equalling the record set four years earlier at Helsinki. While young Australian running hopeful Ron Clarke was almost burnt when he lit the Olympic cauldron, his mentor and hero John Landy spoke the oath for all the athletes (picture: olympics.com.au).

While a lot of things were new on this day, there was also one historic last: This opening ceremony was the last in history not to be followed live by a global TV audience. Australian TV ABC had started broadcasting just two weeks before. At the time of the opening ceremony, only 5000 television sets had been sold in the whole country. Tapes from the opening ceremony and the following competitions were carried to Sydney by car, where the footage was refurbished into daily reports. Outside of Australia, only few moving pictures could be seen - and that only three to five days later (picture: abctvgorehill.com.au).


Moments of Melbourne, Prologue - Wednesday, November 21st, 1956

Starting tomorrow, I will look back on the Melbourne 1956 Summer Olympics with daily highlights and news from 60 years ago. Today, I will begin with a prelude about the preparations.

"The friendly Games", as they were dubbed later, had a troubled preseason. Skepticism, financial bickering and political unrest marred the run up to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. At the eve before the opening ceremony, some clouds had disappeared, but some were still hovering over the first Games in the southern hemisphere.

Melbourne had been planning her bid for the Games since 1946. In July 1949, the IOC session in Rome awarded the Olympics to the Australian metropolis with the slightest possible margin. In the fourth round of the ballot, Melbourne edged out Buenos Aires by one single vote.

What followed was - nothing. The Australians wasted almost four years of preparation time with internal feuding over money. The main point of controversy was the site of the main stadium and who should pay for it. At first, organizers planned to revamp and enlarge Melbourne Showground or Carlton Cricket Ground. But as the government of the State of Victoria declined to give money for the project, the support of the federal government and the city of Melbourne was of no use as well. The whole project was cancelled and it was mainly due to the effort of Victoria State governor John Caine that finally, Melbourne Cricket Ground was enlarged up to 120,000 seats to host the main events.

The pictures show the original design for Melbourne's Olympic stadium - and how the scene finally looked on opening day (pictures: austadiums.com/bryanpinkall.blogspot.com).

But with the stadium question answered, other problems emerged. Due to strict Australian equine quarantine laws, the equestrian events ha do to be relocated to Stockholm in 1954. Instead of staging the Games at the end of October, they had to be held in the Australian summer in November and December, raising great doubts and concerns in Europe and America.

When  IOC president Avery Brundage visited Melbourne in April 1955, he lamented about "confusion" and threatened that the Games could easily be taken away from Melbourne, e.g. to a US city or Rome, which was host of the 1960 Games and far ahead of Melbourne with her preparations. The visit had its effect on the Australians. One year later,  most problems had been solved, especially the building of an Olympic village for 6500 persons at the suburb of Heidelberg (picture: abc.net.au).

Still, the troubles for Melbourne - brilliantly portrayed in the Australian TV documentary "Lies, Spies, and Olympics" - were far from over. The crises in Hungary and at the Suez Canal in the autumn of 1956 resulted in the first wave of Olympic boycotts. Finally, Egypt, Iraq, the Lebanon, the People's Republic of China, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland stayed home for different reasons.

The rest of the world came Down Under, but outside of Australia, nobody would be able to see the events. Although domestic TV had its Olympic premiere in 1956, viewers abroad were shut out due to unsolved broadcasting rights issues. The first world wide television Games had to wait for another four years.


Mary Decker-Slaney - The Unfulfilled Dream, Part 4

Some of the greatest athletes of the world have tried in vain to win an Olympic gold medal. We portray them in this series.

Olympic gold has eluded many athletes, but probably none in such a dramatic fashion as Mary Decker-Slaney. Her collision with Zola Budd in the 3000 meters final at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics had the proportion of a Shakespearean tragedy. It was not just bad luck of a stellar athlete. On this Friday afternoon, August 10th, 1984, America's sweetheart, everybody's darling (especially the media's) had fallen from grace (picture: The Guardian).

To understand the whole drama, one has to remember the buildup. As perfectly portrayed in the ESPN documentary "Runner", Mary Decker had risen to stardom in running-mad America for years. She participated in her first marathon at the age of twelve, took the spotlight in the late 1970s and was tabbed by the media to become the world's best and surely most popular female athlete. But bad look became a steady companion for Decker. In later years, many injurys hampered her career. In 1980, she won the 1500 meters at the U. S. Olympic trials, but the boycott prevented her from perhaps picking up the gold in Moscow.

Nevertheless, the rise of Mary Decker-Slaney continued, culminating at the inaugral World Championships in 1983 at Helsinki, where she smashed the Soviet runners and won the gold both in the 1500 and 3000 meters. One year earlier, Sports Illustrated (picture) had put the world record holder on the cover - Decker had become a "hot commodity".

The stage was set for an Olympic triumph in 1984 at Los Angeles, and when the Eastern Bloc countries declared to stay home, there seemed to be just one person who could stop Decker-Slaney: 18 year-old Zola Budd from South Africa, who had gained British citizenship at the eleventh hour to become eligible for L. A.

The much hyped and anticipated duel lasted only a few laps. Then Decker-Slaney hit the heel of barefoot running Budd and stumbled to the ground. While America's TV audience watched in shock and Decker-Slaney sat crying beside the track, the race continued and Romania's Maricica Puica grabbed the gold with a totally unnerved Budd finishing merely seventh (picture: UK Sports Chat).

Decker first blamed Budd for her own failure, the British runner was disqualified, but shortly after reinstated. Anyway, everybody knew that on this day Decker-Slaney's best shot at an Olympic gold had gone for good. She never even came close to another. Four years later in Seoul, Decker-Slaney finished eighth in the 1500 and tenth in the 3000 meters final. At the 1996 Atlanta Games, she did not make it past the 5000 meters heats.

What remains from Decker-Slaney's later life is a positive drug test in 1996 that was followed by a long legal battle and finally a suspension. The confrontation with Budd is history that even the two protagonists have put behind themselves. 32 years after "the fall", Mary Decker-Slaney and Zola Budd-Pieterse met at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum again. They went for a jog - no bad feelings anymore (picture: The Guardian).


Jefferson Perez - The One and Only, Part 4

Some countries have won just one single gold medal in their Olympic history. We portray them in our series "The One and Only". One of them: Ecuador. 

Jefferson Perez is just 1.67 meters tall, but to his countrymen, he is the greatest. On the early morning of Friday, July 26th, 1996, Perez became the first and to date only Olympic champion from Ecuador, winning the 20 kilometers race walk at the Atlanta Summer Games (picture: iaaf.org).

Perez had dominated the race from the beginning, but it came at a high prize. "The shoe on my left foot was split in half and almost without a sole", Perez remembered 20 years later in an interview with Ecuadorian daily El Comercio. One kilometer away from the finish line, Perez finally got away from Russian Ilya Markov and Mexican Bernardo Segura and won the Gold by a margin of nine and 16 seconds.

When Perez entered the stadium, "It was a spiritual moment, I was in deep silence. I am Catholic and at the stadium gate I imagined Christ." At the same time, Ecuador was anything but silent. The whole country erupted with joy over her first ever Olympic Gold.

The career of Jefferson Perez had seen a lot of ups and downs and so it went on after Atlanta. At age 22, he was rather young for a race walker to become an Olympic champion. Perez had learned a lot from the Mexican race walkers and their coaches when he went to the country thanks to a scholarship in 1989. He won his first major international title at the 1995 Pan American Games in Mar del Plata. After this triumph, Perez wanted to build a new house for his mother in his hometown of Cuenca. "All the resources that came in, I gave for the construction. I had no money left to eat, and at the World Athletics Championships in Gothenburg, I was penultimate, because there were no resources left for my preparation."

With the status of a new national hero, Perez was able to vindicate his status as a world class race walker for years to come after 1996. From 2003 to 2007, he won three consecutive World Championships in Paris, Helsinki, and Osaka. He added another Olympic silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Games before retiring. His autobiography, "Nardo y los zapatitos de oro" ("Nardo and the Golden Shoes"), written by journalist Sandra López in 2009, sold over ten thousand copies. Today, Perez spends most of his time raising money for his foundation (picture: alchetron.com).


"Arms And Olympics" - Westbrook Pegler and the 1936 Winter Games

While a new German book sheds new light on the infamous 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen these days, many people don't know today how critical parts of the foreign press reacted to the feast in the snow. Many writers who came to the Bavarian alps in February 1936 regarded the show exactly as what it was: a prelude for the Nazi's propaganda stunt that was to come in the summer in Berlin. One of the harshest critics was Westbrook Pegler (1894 - 1969). His columns "Fair Enough" that were printed among others in The Washington Post were surch hard stuff that German Olympic official Carl Diem called him "one of the most dangerous men in Garmisch". In the end, Pegler did not even get a visa to visit the Summer Games (picture: br.de).

The Post had made its mark before. During the American boycott debate from 1933 to 1935, it had strongly opposed the Olympics in Nazi Germany. And Pegler was far from alone in his criticism, his views on the propaganda spectacle being shared among others by famous Berlin radio correspondent William L. Shirer. The anticipation of politicized and even racist Games led to the fact, as Pegler wrote, that there were more political journalists in Garmisch-Partenkirchen than even the Nazis must have had expected. "Heavy duty thinkers", as Pegler called them in one of his columns. The showings of Adolf Hitler at Garmisch to Pegler resembled that of a "Roman Emperor".

Pegler (picture: oztypewriter.blogspot.com) summed up his impression impression of the militaristic, unsportsmanlike atmosphere at the Games in a column with the headline "Arms And Olympics" that was published in the Post on February 18th: "Soldiers are everywhere in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. All the soldiers wear the Swastika. This gives a strange suggestion of war in the little mountain resort where sportsmen are drawn together in a great demonstration of international friendship. The scene is strongly reminiscent of the zone behind the front when divisions were being rushed to the sector of the next offensive. At home we've never found it necessary to mobilize an army for a sport event."

With these few sentences, Pegler had ripped into pieces the picture of peace and happiness the Nazis had planned to show to the world at the Games. And he went even further: After German officials had publicly protested against his writings and called him a liar, Pegler answered four days later with a column called "A Correction", which was in fact an "apology" even harder to swallow for Hitler's devotees:

"Those weren't troops at all but merely peace-loving German workmen in their native dress, and those weren't army lorries but delivery wagons carrying beer and wieners and kraut. They don't really march at all. They just walk in step in columns of four, because they like to walk that way. And it is an old custom of theirs to form cordons of military appearance along the curbs and just stand there by the hour for pleasure. When thousands of men seem to march but don't in clothing and tin-hats which seem to be military uniforms but aren't and carry harmless utensils which appear to be bayonets any stranger is likely to make the same mistake." (picture: gaponline.de)

This was too much for the Nazis- Pegler - who was observed by the Gestapo during the Winter Games - had to stay home the next summer. From his desk, he continued to write against the Games of 1936 and reiterated his opinion that the Germans were not really clever in their propaganda efforts, that most foreigners understood what was really going on. On July 5th, a few weeks before the Summer Games, he wrote in The Washington Post: "The [the Nazis] spied on their guests and resorted to incredibly stupid attempts to bulldoze or seduce foreign correespondents into Nazi propaganda. They were so dumb, however, that the upshot of it all was that they made chumps of themselves before the civilized races. Nobody was deceived. They are such thick, bungling dopes, those Nazi politicians, that they are always showing themselves up in stratagems which they intended to be subtle. They will do it again this summer."

That no visitor to Germany in 1936 was tricked by the Nazi peace show may have been an exaggeration. But at least, Westbrook Pegler made sure his readers were not.


Franziska van Almsick - The Unfulfilled Dream, Part 3

Some of the greatest athletes of the world have tried in vain to win an Olympic gold medal. We portray them in this series.

The name of her homepage says it all: Franzi - to Germans it's as simple as that. Even at age 38, Franziska van Almsick is called by and famous for her teenage nickname. It has become a household brandmark all over the country, in TV spots and the yellow press. But "Franzi" means business: When she criticizes Germany's swimmers as a TV expert or works as a fundraiser for the national athletes help network Deutsche Sporthilfe, there is nothing sweetheart about the woman, who - as a teenage girl - became the country's first post-unfication sports icon.

Still, one dark spot remains in van Almsick's career: She never won an Olympic gold.

When van Almsick (picture: Augsburger Allgemeine), one last product of the GDR's youth sports development program, burst onto the international swimming scene in 1992, she was just 14 years of age. On the early evening of July 27th, she stood on the starting block for the finals of the 200 meters freestyle at the Barcelona Olympics, having qualified in the fastest time. The German media were already nuts about their new darling from Berlin after she had taken bronze in the 100 meters 24 hours before. There was a real chance that the little girl could take it all.

But it was not to be. Van Almsick swam ahead of the pack for almost 180 meters, but on the home stretch, she zigzagged a little through the pool, perhaps due to a lack of experience. In lane five, American Nicole Haislett sneaked by the German wunderkind and beat van Almsick by one tenth of a second.

Nobody would have expected that this was going to be the closest van Almsick would ever get to an Olympic gold. What followed was a career of high drama with a lot of titles, records and profits from commercials, but no Olympic gold.

After becoming world champion and world record holder at Rome in 1994, van Almsick was again considered a heavy favourite for the 1996 Atlanta Games. But again, she could not stand the pressure in her best event, losing the 200 meters to Costa Rica's Claudia Poll, who was of German descent.

Things got even harder for van Almsick four years later at Sydney. Out of shape and with visible overweight, she had no shot at a medal. A German tabloid called her "Franzi van Speck" and a "pig". She rebounded from the disaster with another world record at the 2002 European Championships in her hometown of Berlin, but finished only fifth in the 200 meters freestyle at the 2004 Athens Games. When she retired afterwards, she had collected ten Olympic medals - four silvers, six bronzes, no gold.

When asked about that missing gold in August 2016, the now mother of two had no regrets: "For my personality, it was very good not to have achieved something in life.  I am happy and thankful for the life I live, I have two healthy kids, a wonderful family, I live humble - and I surely do this because I did not fulfil my biggest dream in life." (picture: dpa)