John Feinstein, a Post contributor, has covered six Olympics and is most recently the author of “The Legends Club: Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry.”
The argument can be made that there has never been a day in U.S. sports history more electric than Feb. 22, 1980. That was the afternoon when the U.S. Olympic hockey team stunned the mighty and seemingly unbeatable Soviet Union, 4-3, in the Olympic Games in Lake Placid, N.Y.
The United States went on to win the gold medal two days later and, even though the arena in Lake Placid seated about 5,000 people, there are millions who claim they were there the night the Americans shocked the world.
While the hockey team’s “miracle on ice,” as it is called whenever the greatest upsets in sports history are discussed, was perhaps the most magical Olympic moment in our lifetime, there have been countless others, before and since.
Jesse Owens defying Adolf Hitler by winning four track gold medals in Berlin in 1936 comes to mind, as does the U.S. eight-oared rowing team from that same year, the subject of Daniel James Brown’s remarkable book “The Boys in the Boat.” There have been far too many extraordinary performances to mention them all but, in recent years, U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps (18 gold medals, 22 medals in all); speed-skater Eric Heiden (whose five gold medals were overshadowed in 1980 by the U.S. hockey team); track star Usain Bolt; and gymnasts Mary Lou Retton, Kerri Strug and Dominique Dawes certainly made their mark.
For me, the late Jeff Blatnick, a Greco-Roman wrestler who survived Hodgkin’s lymphoma to win a gold medal in Los Angeles in 1984, was as memorable as any athlete I’ve ever met or written about.
These and many other athletes have saved the Games time and again from the ugly politics that have always been a part of them, including then-U.S. Olympic Committee Chairman Avery Brundage’s removal of two Jewish athletes from a track relay at those Berlin Olympics so as not to “insult” Hitler.
In the not-so-recent past, the Games were sullied by years of so-called amateur athletes receiving under-the-table payments or, in the old Soviet Eastern Bloc, being given fake jobs while they were full-time professional athletes. There have also been years of payoffs to International Olympic Committee officials, and scores of medals have been stripped because of positive drug tests. Those were the ones who got caught.
And this was all before the Rio Games came along with their overwhelming political problems, health issues that will not go away and the very real security concerns that everyone who is in Brazil right now is justifiably worried about.
That’s not to say these Games won’t have memorable moments — remember, the athletes save the Games. Phelps, who will carry the American flag in Friday’s Opening Ceremonies, will be the first American man to swim in five Olympics and will undoubtedly add to his remarkable medal haul. Katie Ledecky, a 19-year-old from Bethesda, will be the latest swimming sensation, is likely to win at least three gold medals and may very well break the world record in all three events. The only reason it won’t be four is that the Olympics remain sexist enough that women are not allowed to swim the 1,500-meter freestyle.
Bolt will attempt to win two gold medals in track for a third straight Olympics. There will be others: There’s always a Jeff Blatnick no one has heard of going into the Olympics who becomes a hero coming out of the Olympics.
But the Olympics have jumped the shark. They are too big, too corrupt and far too expensive. Countries that agree to host the Games go into massive debt to build facilities and infrastructure. Many of these facilities, built to satisfy the IOC’s need to feed its collective ego with sparkling new buildings, will become white elephants the instant the torch is extinguished on Aug. 21.
If you want to identify the moment when the Olympics lost much of their luster, go back to 1992, when the United States sent the “Dream Team” to Barcelona to win back the basketball gold medal. For years, college players were good enough to win gold for the Americans: Their only loss was in Munich in 1972, when, fair to say, the officials cheated them out of the gold medal in the final seconds. The U.S. players refused to accept their silver medals because what had happened at the end of that game was so blatantly wrong.
But in 1988, the United States lost fair and square to the Soviet Union in the semifinals in Seoul. FIBA — the International Basketball Federation — had wanted NBA players in the Olympics for years. The NBA saw the Olympics as an opportunity to market the league and the sport globally.
Voila! The Dream Team was created. Which led to the sight of Michael Jordan literally wrapping himself in an American flag during the medal ceremony. Why? Because the basketball team’s official sponsor was Reebok, and Jordan’s Nike sponsors were horrified at the thought of him being seen in public wearing a Reebok logo.
If the Lake Placid hockey team defines what the Olympics once were, then the Dream Team and Jordan’s hidden Reebok logo define what the Olympics have become.
The Olympics aren’t really about fairy tales anymore. They are about corporate money grabs, deal-making officials and agents, and marketing campaigns for rich athletes who see the Olympics as a way to get richer.