MY FIRST OLYMPICS
Ajit Chaudhuri – December 2017
It is difficult to describe the summer of 1976 to readers today; I was just short of 13 years of age and at home for holidays from boarding school, it was the middle of the Emergency and the fear that we could be picked up at any time and castrated was palpable, and “Sholay” had just come out and all we wanted to wear were flared pants and denim jackets with stars above the pockets and to mouth dialogues such as ‘Kitney aadmi they’. It was also the summer of the Montreal Olympics!
While I remembered something about the previous Olympics (1972 at Munich) – Mark Spitz’s 7 swimming golds, Olga Korbut at the gymnastics, and the killing of some athletes by terrorists – I was too young to really follow it. This time, there was some buzz because most African countries were boycotting (the New Zealand rugby team had visited South Africa, which was pariah because of apartheid, and the Africans were pressing for New Zealand to be banned) and because we (i.e. India) were the reigning world hockey champions and were expecting to reclaim the gold medal that had been our right from 1936 (we took bronze in Munich). The main rivalry was between the US, the Soviet Union and East Germany, with China not even being a member of the Olympic movement (Taiwan represented all of China).
Normally, following an international sports event in those days meant reading about it in the newspapers two days later except of course cricket for which we got live test match commentary on the radio (and a small transistor that could be smuggled into school was the ultimate gizmo to own). But, this Olympics, Doordarshan was doing a daily 30-minute telecast of the events of the previous day and there was one apartment in our building that had a small black and white TV (another luxury item of that time) and was not averse to hosting a gang of little boys every evening for one month. The capsule began with two advertisements, one for blades (the actor Benjamin Gilani suggesting a particular brand to his fellow model who was having difficulty shaving) and the other having three ladies in short skirts sitting down and letting hankies slide down their legs, with the one whose hanky slid all the way down giving waxing advice to the others that made no sense whatsoever to us. The ads were also the sign for silence and concentration – the events were about to begin.
The schedule of events was like today, with the swimming and gymnastics being the main spectator sports of the beginning weeks before giving way to athletics. The swimming was quite boring, with a group of extremely ugly and obviously doped up women from East Germany claiming most of the golds (their coach, when asked about their ugliness, made the famous statement ‘they are here to swim, not to sing’) and the Americans facing little competition in the men’s events. The gymnastics, on the other hand, was where many of us pre-teen spectators fell in love for the first time. Most of the others went for the more age-appropriate Nadia Comaneci, who recorded the first perfect ten in the history of gymnastics (the electronic scoreboard had space for only one digit before the decimal, leading to some comic scenes) or her teammate Teodora Ungureanu, but the object of my affections was Nellie Kim of the Soviet Union; 19 years old, of Korean and Tartar ethnicity, stunningly beautiful, and two individual golds along with the team gold. The men’s events also had their drama, with the rivalry between Japan and the Soviet Union being settled in favour of Japan because one of their gymnasts, Shun Fujimoto, chose to complete his events, one of which included landing from a height of eight feet, with a broken knee.
The boxing also had us seriously enthralled. The Americans, subsequently labelled the greatest ever Olympic boxing team, had four of its five gold medallists from the games (including Sugar Ray Leonard and the Spinks brothers) going on to become professional world champions. But the guy we loved was a left-handed Cuban called Sixto Soria, a dancer in the ring rather than a slugger who went on to lose the light-heavy final to Leon Spinks (who later defeated Mohamed Ali to become the world heavyweight champion). The other Cuban to catch the eye was the heavyweight champion Teofilo Stevenson, who won three golds in the division in a row (Montreal was his second) and who would have been a big name in boxing had he turned professional – he chose to stay on in his comfort zones of Castro and communism.
The athletics had an interesting Indian element – Sriram Singh led the field for a while in the 800 final before fading out to 7th (what we felt for those few moments when he took the lead from the subsequent winner, Alberto Juantorena, is difficult to describe) – Juantorena broke the world record thanks to Sriram’s pacing, and Sriram too set a national record that has only recently been broken. Juantorena also won the 400, a combination of events that had never been done previously and has never been repeated. There were other double gold winners; Tatiana Kazankhina in the women’s 800 and 1500, and Lasse Viren in the men’s 5000 and 10000 (repeating the feat from Munich), but Juantorena was a class apart to us kids. The African boycott meant that the defending champion and favourite for the 400 hurdles, John Akii-Bua of Uganda, was out of contention and we got a first glimpse of the great Edwin Moses. Other than that, 1976 signalled the end of white domination of the men’s 100 metres with Hasely Crawford of Trinidad edging out Don Quarrie of Jamaica (who took gold in the 200) and defending champion Valeri Borzov (we kids referred to him as ‘balls off’ – he later married Ludmilla Turischeva, another glamour doll who, along with my Nellie, took the gymnastics team gold) for the gold.
A word about the hockey – we finished 7th, and have never come near an Olympic podium ever since (except for the boycott ridden Moscow games in 1980). The main positive for hockey lovers was watching a golden generation of Australians establish their country as a hockey power on their way to a silver; Ric Charlesworth (later seen as a left-handed opener for Western Australia scoring 97 against Bedi’s Indians in 1977-78), Terry Walsh and Trevor Smith (they also hammered India 6-1).
All this was more than 40 years ago, and the world has changed. The Soviet Union and East Germany do not exist as countries, China is a sporting superpower, and the hockey team is not the sum of India’s medal hopes. Live coverage of the events is on all day for the entire month of the games, to the extent that it is almost boring even to hard core sports addicts like me. But, back in 1976, that daily 30-minute capsule brought the fascinating world of sports to my closeted existence and left imprints on my mind that can never be erased. Thank you, Doordarshan!