Published on August 3, 2021

The View from my Seat

Iconic moments in Summer Olympics history

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

The chemistry teacher in my high school in 1965 had an ambition. He wanted to win an Olympic gold medal in the decathlon.

I would watch him train before and after school on our school track, a solitary figure practicing running, jumping and throwing.

Three years later that teacher - Bill Toomey - earned that gold medal.

I think of Toomey when the Summer Olympics roll around.

Because I had seen how hard an athlete must train to earn a moment of glory, I am a fervent fan of the Olympics. I stay glued to the television, often watching sports I don’t even understand.

I am inspired by the winners and a sucker for the human-interest stories and the high-minded ideals the Games represent … even when I know deep down they aren’t always achieved.

For sure, these Tokyo Olympics are full of challenges. As of this writing, the Games are progressing, but COVID threatens to defeat them.

Still, despite COVID and a history of protests, boycotts and terrorism, it seems a good time to look back at some of the emotional moments in Summer Olympics history.

Here are some of the moments I have watched on television. I am sure many of you have similar memories.

ROME 1960: By winning three gold medals in the first televised Olympics, sprinter Wilma Rudolph made people forget she had been stricken with polio as a child and was disabled for much of her early life.

TOKYO 1964: Billy Mills was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for the Oglala Lakota people. He was a virtual unknown in the 10,000-meter run, and his time in the heats was a minute slower than that of the favorite.

Mills, however, came out of nowhere to win in a time 50 seconds faster than he had ever run.
American television viewers were able to hear the surprise as NBC expert analyst Dick Bank screamed “Look at Mills! Look at Mills!” Bank was fired for his journalistic exuberance.

MUNICH 1972: While covering the Munich massacre, ABC’s Jim McKay took on the job of reporting the events live on his only scheduled day off during the Games. He was on the air for 14 hours without a break.

After an unsuccessful rescue attempt of the Israeli athletes held hostage by Palestinian terrorists, McKay went on the air with this statement:

“When I was a kid, my father used to say ‘Our greatest hopes and worst fears are seldom realized.’ Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They have now said there were 11 hostages; two were killed in their rooms this morn - yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.”

SEOUL 1988: In preliminary competition, U.S. diver Greg Louganis smacked his head on the diving board, suffering a concussion. A day later, he returned to the competition - stitches and all - to grab gold.

SEOUL 1988: Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux was racing for gold when he noticed dangerous winds had capsized a competitor’s boat. He disqualified himself and abandoned the race to rescue two injured sailors. He was awarded an honorary medal.

BARCELONA 1992: Derek Redmond, a British 400-meter specialist, tore a hamstring halfway through the semifinal race. A favorite to win a medal, Redmond refused to give up and rose to finish the race despite great pain.

The most memorable moment came next when Redmond’s father rushed from the stands and helped him. With the crowd cheering them on, the father let go at the finish line so his son could finish alone.

ATLANTA 1996: Gymnast Kerri Strug had to nail her vault for the American women to win the team competition. But she tore ankle ligaments on her first attempt. Despite pain, Strug took her second attempt and nailed it, winning gold for the U.S. team.

ATLANTA 1996: Forty years after winning the gold in boxing, Muhammad Ali, his hands shaking from Parkinson’s Disease, lit the Olympic Flame as the world held its breath.

SYDNEY 2000: Rulon Gardner hailed from a small Wyoming town and wasn’t expected to do much on the wrestling mat. He won several matches, but when he stepped on the mat against the mighty Russian Aleksandr Karelin - who had not lost a competition in 15 years and had won three straight gold medals - most observers gave Gardner no chance.

Gardner, however, pulled off one of the great upsets in Olympic history and cartwheeled his way into America’s heart.

RIO de JANEIRO 2016: Swimmer Michael Phelps ended his Olympic career with 28 medals, 23 of which were gold.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)