Friday, August 1, 2008

Let the Games Begin

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for the Summer Olympics to get underway next Friday. Of course, I may have more invested in them than the average fan. I’ve written two books on the Olympic Games (Swifter, Higher, Stronger, about the Summer Games, and Freeze Frame, about the Winter Games), and most of my books focus on sports. But it’s not just the athletic competitions that fascinate me. It’s also the personal stories of the athletes, the stories that exemplify the interaction of sports and society and the impact of the Olympics beyond scores and finishing times.

One such story that already has surfaced involves Dana Hussein Abdul-Razzaq, an Iraqi sprinter who seemed to lose her opportunity to race when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) suspended Iraq’s National Olympic Committee due to interference by the Iraqi government. A Shiite athlete with a Sunni coach, Hussein is a symbol of unity in a divided land. As the only woman on the Iraqi team, she is also an example of the triumph of drive and dedication over a society’s oppressive rules and unsettled political climate. Fortunately, negotiations last Tuesday between Iraq and the IOC cleared the way for Hussein and one teammate to compete in Beijing. The truce came too late for five other Iraqi athletes in sports whose registration deadlines already had passed.

You can bet I’ll be watching the women’s sprints to see how Hussein does. I’ll also be watching swimmer Michael Phelps, who most certainly will break the record for the highest cumulative total of gold medals won at the Summer Games, which is nine. He already has six from 2004. Phelps also has a shot at beating Mark Spitz’s record for the most gold medals at a single Games, which is seven. His teammate, Dara Torres, has a golden opportunity to make a splash by winning a gold medal at the ripe old age of 41. She wouldn’t be the oldest female gold medalist—that was 53-year-old Sybil “Queenie” Newall of Great Britain, who took the gold in archery in 1908. But Torres already has nine Olympic medals (four gold, one silver, and four bronze). Adding anything to that total would be icing on the cake for her and an inspiration to all of us over-40 (and over-50) gym rats.

Each of these athletes would be a terrific subject for a kids' biography that explores the factors which drove them to excel. A different kind of book could be written about one of my favorite Olympians, the perennial silver medalist Shirley Babashoff. A swimmer at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, Babashoff netted a total of two gold medals and six silvers. In 1976 alone, she came in second four times to East German women. To Babashoff, the extraordinary improvement in the Germans’ times, added to their surprisingly masculine appearance, suggested that they were enhancing their performances with steroids. And she said so to anyone who would listen. Her complaints earned Babashoff a nickname—“Surly Shirley”—and no end of criticism in the press. Years later, when the Berlin Wall fell and the records of East Germany’s widespread doping became public, Babashoff was vindicated. But the IOC never stripped the East Germans of their medals and Babashoff never received upgrades in the races she should have won. Her story would be a great jumping-off point for a book on doping in sports.

I'm looking forward to seeing what other interesting developments will materialize in Beijing this month.


kgb said...

I too am looking forward to the Olympic games. I will be glued to the TV watching obscure sports and cheering for athletes I've never heard of. On a smaller level we are holding an Olympic program at our library which will allow children to come together & play games such as: bean bag shot put, "pool noodle" javelin and the Egg-a-thon-relay. We will be featuring your book Sue.

Sue Macy said...

Your Olympics sound like fun. And thanks for using my book. FYI, in 2004 I did a short article for PARADE Magazine called "Make the Olympics a Family Affair." It contains ideas to help parents use the Games to teach their kids lessons in geography, math, and character education. It's still relevant, except for the references to Athens. You can find it here: