BACK IN THE FALL OF 1980 U.S. fans and athletes were still reeling from having been boycotted out of the Olympics. That got me to thinking about how mere happenstance had played a big part in creating the biggest Olympic heroes to that point: did an Olympic year(s) come along at the right point in someone’s career?
Suppose Baron de Coubertin had gotten his Olympics off the ground a year earlier?
Next year we’re back on track to create a whole new set of Olympic winners, many of them undoubtedly to become legends. But as this non-season drags on, one has to wonder how much a simple 1-year time shift will affect history. How many of this year’s surefire faves for gold will find that ’21 is a year too late? Or how many of ’21 breakthroughs simply wouldn’t have been ready this year?
It was thinking along those lines that caused me to pen these words for my column of October ’80:
❮❮Suppose Baron de Coubertin had gotten his Olympics off the ground a year earlier? What if the Games had begun in 1895, instead of 1896, thereby moving up the date of subsequent Olympics by a year?
We’d likely have some different Olympic heroes to worship. The point I’m trying to make is that there is usually a certain amount of good fortune implicit in any victory, but even more so in winning the Olympics, which only happen every 4 years. Some fine careers have come and gone in inter-Olympic years.
Let’s take a look at some of the ramifications of having started with an 1895-based Games:
Bob Mathias is still a high school junior in ’47 and hasn’t even considered trying the decathlon. He turns to the event in ’48 and goes on to win in ’51, but he’s no boy-wonder. No movie biography, no career in politics.
Al Oerter is the finest of collegiate frosh in ’55, but that’s not good enough to make the Olympic team. He wins in ’59 and ’63, but is the desire there for a third in ’67 or fourth in ’71? That early start was important.
Peter Snell isn’t even considered for the New Zealand team in ’59 but retains most of his glory by winning the 800/1500 double in ’63.
Jesse Owens would be a legend without his Olympic triumphs, scoring his 6 World Records in an hour in our now-Olympic year of ’35. Would he have won 3 individual events in Berlin? At that year’s AAU he lost the 100 and LJ to Eulace Peacock and the 200 to Ralph Metcalfe, although his boosters insist he was letting down after a tough collegiate season. Peacock also beat him in the 100 in 2 subsequent races.
Rafer Johnson, who had some injury problems, may have traded gold medals. Instead of winning ’59 (i.e., ’60) he’d win ’55 (‘56).
Jim Ryun is a classic example of an athlete who would benefit from this time warp. He doesn’t make the ’63 team, but in ’67 he’s at the peak of his form and follows Snell as an 800/1500 doubler.
Marty Liquori is at the top of his game in ’71 and follows Ryun as 1500 champ (or, Ryun is in such good mental shape after his ’67 double that he comes back for another).
Rudolf Harbig is a terror in ’39, setting WRs in the 400 and 800. He beats Alberto Juantorena to that Olympic double by 36 years. (Actually, Juantorena is hurt in ’75 and never wins a gold medal in any event.)
Dutch Warmerdam is another star of the ’39 Games, winning one of the medals which WWII will actually steal from him.
Paavo Nurmi, probably the greatest of all Olympic heroes, would actually have his star enhanced by a shift. He does just as well in the ’19 Games as he really did in ’20, and approaches ’31 ready to add to his 9 golds and 3 silvers. Pointing to the marathon, he wins his first medal there (a gold of course) and picks up minor medals in the 5000 and 10,000. The next year he is banned for professionalism.
Emil Zátopek follows the Nurmi pattern. He retains his gold and silver from ’47 and has his big triple-gold performance in ’51. Kuts and the Hungarians have diminished his track fortunes by ’55, but with his hernia not due until ’56, he beats Bikila to the punch as the first 2-time marathon winner, having set a WR for 25,000m that year.
Lasse Viren may suffer worst of all. A Finn wins the 5/10 double in ’71, but it’s Juha Väätäinen, not Viren, who isn’t world-class yet. Four years later, the Africans aren’t yet upset about the New Zealand rugby team and they come to Montréal (which Stadium isn’t finished in any fantasy).
Miruts Yifter, who made it to the right gate in the ’71 version of the 5000 and got a silver there to go with his 10,000 bronze, takes the double, with Viren twice 2nd. Overall, Viren’s just another runner, never doing anything in a non-Olympic year.
All of which brings us to Moscow ’79. A pre-Afghanistan Moscow, which changes the results of every men’s event beyond recognition.
You’ll notice I haven’t covered any women here. Not because of any intent to slight, rather because I was unable to find any striking examples of altered history. With far fewer events, and fewer Games in which to compete, there aren’t as many stars to consider. And nowadays, the domineering Soviets and East Germans seem to be able to peak whenever it’s necessary…
This whole diatribe is intended to illustrate our need for a World Championships in the sport. Not a single track meet every 4 years, but an annual sorting-out of who’s best. Give the greats their due when it’s due. On to 1983!❯❯
So if in ’83 we had been embarking on an Olympic year, not the first World Championships, what major deviations from history would we have seen?
First, having won Olympic gold in ’79, Renaldo Nehemiah wouldn’t have turned to pro football and would instead be standing on the top step for the second time, rather than never having made it to a Games.
Two of the hugest women’s stars of Helsinki—Mary Decker and Jarmila Kratochvílová—instead of picking up double WC golds would see those transformed to Olympic wins.
It’s at this point that Professor Peabody and his WABAC Machine start finding less to hypothesize about. With the coming of the World Championships and the attendant professionalization of the sport, careers got longer. Athletes hung around longer getting more chances for the highest accolades. But there are more examples:
Mike Powell has no shortage of fame, having taken down Bob Beamon’s record and beating Carl Lewis in the process at the ’91 WC. But he has “only” a pair of Olympic silvers. Imagine what his reputation would be of it had been the ’91 Olympics where he had set his WR. Powell-esque, anyone?
Gwen Torrence was No. 1 in the world in both the 100 and 200 in ’94 & ’95, but there was no double-gold for her in ’96, just a solitary bronze.
And if the ’95 Torrence wins the Olympic 200, there goes the golden double by Marie-Josée Pérec.
And let’s look at the Women’s AOYs of ’95 (Sonia O’Sullivan) and ’96 (Svetlana Masterkova). Shift by a year and the Irishwoman gets the Oly acclaim and the Russian doesn’t.
Triple jump WR holder Jonathan Edwards burnishes his legend: he’d keep his ’00 gold in a ’99 Games, but in ’95 he’d pick up the one he missed in ’96.
And lastly, what about Usain Bolt? His first Olympic medals came in ’08, but the ’07 AOY, Tyson Gay, earned that title by scoring treble-gold in the 100, 200 & (no honest, really!) 4×1. So the American joins the pantheon of Olympic greats and the Jamaican legend’s medal/record total still remains so high it doesn’t matter.
What does matter is that we all make the most of these trying times. Hopefully bits of fantasy like this bring some joy to a track fan’s day. Stay safe! ◻︎