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Bill Fitzgerald

You never forget your first Olympics

Fourth-Place Medal

I know I remember mine. It was 1972. As a Chinese gymnast prepared to begin his rings routine, the announcer informed us that he had broken his leg in his previous event. In an almost inhuman display of strength and concentration, the gymnast performed what looked to me like a perfect exercise, even landing a perfect dismount. The image is burned into my brain. I was only five and this is one of my earliest memories.

Except that it actually happened in 1976 and the gymnast was a Japanese man named Shun Fujimoto. He did have a broken leg and his 9.7 score helped give Japan the team gold medal. China, in fact, did not participate in the Olympic Games at all from 1952 to 1980 for political reasons. As any criminal attorney will tell you, memory and eyewitness accounts are about as reliable as uncensored Internet access in Beijing. But ain't the Internets amazin'? You get to verify, clarify, and enhancify your own memory.

So, please join me in this World Wide Web-aided trip down memory lane to the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. First and foremost, consider the political atmosphere. It was the American Bicentennial (still have a few of those quarters), and the Cold War was in deep freeze. The nuns at school told us that the godless Communists could take over the world without firing a shot, so the Olympic medal counts meant more than just a burst of national pride. The United States was four years removed from having the basketball gold medal stolen by the Soviets and still four years away from the Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid. We were not the world's lone superpower and, even at nine years old, I knew it was a big deal to beat the USSR (but, of course, I was still confused by the jerseys that said CCCP).

The Commies were scary, with dominant athletes in sports that emphasized power, speed and aggression. They had the strongest man in the world, Soviet heavyweight powerlifter Vasily Alexeyev (now there's a man who knew how to wear a singlet). Heavyweight boxer Teofilo Stevenson of Cuba would win his second of three Olympic gold medals in Montreal. Stevenson's countryman, sprinter Alberto Juantorena, achieved an historic double, winning the 400 and 800 meters (note the complete absence of irony in that clip as the announcer refers to him as White Lightning). And if you weren't intimidated by those guys, nearly every East German woman looked and sounded like Arnold Schwarzenegger's older, stronger sister. Under a well-deserved cloud of suspicion, East Germany won gold in 11 of 13 women's swimming events.

For the U.S., Sugar Ray Leonard and Leon and Michael Spinks led a Dream Team of American boxers that took gold in five of the 11 weight classes. American male swimmers were every bit as dominant as their female(?) East German counterparts. In the decathlon, Bruce Jenner set a world record and initiated the now-trite ritual of the victory lap with the American flag. Edwin Moses, with his long, metronomic strides, set a world record in the 400 meter hurdles; the next year he would begin an astonishing streak of 122 straight wins.

In the final gold medal count, the U.S. finished third behind the Soviet Union and East Germany, but tiny Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci shoved the superpowers to the side stage and became the story of the games. As commentators struggled to pronounce her name correctly, the 14-year old sprite rendered the gymnastics scoreboards obsolete with her perfect 10.0 routines. Yes, Romania was part of the Soviet bloc, but how could you be scared of such a sweet little girl? Instead, her quiet charisma and graceful greatness charmed audiences around the world.

Yep, that's exactly the way I remember it.

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