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Getting ready for the Games: Some Olympic fun facts

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Ready or not, the Summer Olympics are finally coming!

Still branded as the 2020 Games, the 29th installment of the summer athletic spectacle is set to begin this weekend in Tokyo after being postponed from last year due to the circumstances of the pandemic. As to whether or not the Games SHOULD be going forward, well … that’s a complicated question. But, from where we sit as I write this introduction, mere days before the opening ceremonies, it certainly seems that they are going forward.

Now, as someone who is a fairly well-informed general sports fan, I possess a certain degree of Olympic awareness – more than most, I’d wager. However, that awareness is hardly enough for me to be able to give you any sort of reasoned analysis about the Games. I certainly won’t be able to give you an accurate prediction with regard to who might medal.

So I thought instead, why not share a collection of fun tidbits and trivia about assorted Olympic sports as a way to look forward to the next couple of weeks of athletic excellence? There’s stuff here from the distant and not-so-distant past, as well as some talk about what’s happening this time around.

I also dug around and found a few Maine connections to the Summer Games – there aren’t quite as many as we find in the Winter edition, for obvious reasons, but you might be surprised at some of the fun connections to the Pine Tree State.

And really, while this is the culmination of a lifetime for these competitors, for us – the people at home – the fun is what it’s all about.

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Baseball

Baseball has been in and out of the Games lineup over the years. After scattered appearances as an exhibition sport – 1904, 1912, 1936, 1952, 1956 and 1964 – it came back for two demonstration runs in 1984 and 1988 before being officially added in 1992, only to be removed from the 2012 and 2016 Games. And now, in Tokyo, it’s back. Got all that?

Among the most interesting situations on this year’s squad is infielder Eddy Alvarez, who will become the 135th athlete in Olympic history to compete in both the Winter and Summer Games. He also has a shot to be one of just a handful to medal in both editions – he earned a silver medal in short-track speed skating in the 2014 Sochi Games.

Bonus fun fact: University of Maine pitcher Bill Swift was a member of the US team that finished second during the 1984 Games in Los Angeles before going on to a productive career in Major League Baseball.

Basketball

It’ll be interesting to see how the United States basketball team fares in Tokyo. While the U.S. has been dominant – winning gold in every Games since NBA players were first allowed to play in 1992, with the sole exception of the ill-fated 2004 squad. However, it does seem like the rest of the world is catching up. We’ll see if this year’s squad – led by Kevin Durant – can keep the streak alive.

But for our purposes, we’re going to reach back to before the professional era, back to the 1984 Olympic squad. It’s considered by many to be among the best ever assembled, with future Hall of Famers like Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin and a dude you may have heard of by the name of Michael Jordan. If you looked down the bench, however, you’d also see a player with Maine ties.

Jeff Turner, who was born in Bangor, was on the team. He was a four-year player at Vanderbilt and went on to spend a decade in the NBA before transition to the broadcast booth.

Decathlon

For most of Olympic history, the winner of this competition was often referred to as the greatest athlete in the world, stemming from a tradition that began in 1912 when King Gustav V of Sweden told decathlon winner Jim Thorpe “Sir, you are the world’s greatest athlete” after Thorpe won at the Stockholm Games.

Consisting of 10 events spread across two days – Day One is the 100-meter sprint, long jump, shot put, high jump and 400-meter run; Day Two is the 110-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1500-meter run – the decathlon is considered one of the pinnacles of athletic accomplishment. Scoring is based on a points system rather than placing, with anything from the mid-8,000s being world class and 9,000 being almost unheard of.

American Ashton Eaton is the reigning Olympic champion, having won both in 2012 and 2016, but he has retired from the sport, opening things up for someone like France’s Kevin Mayer, current world record holder and one of just three men to score over 9,000 points in sanctioned competition – Eaton and the Czech Republic’s Roman Sebrle, the 2000 Olympic gold medalist are the others.

Golf

Before the game was added to the slate for the 2016 Rio Games, it had been over a century since golf had been contested as an Olympic sport. During that long-ago time, all the way back in 1900 during the Paris Games, Americans saw their first-ever female gold medalist when a 22-year-old Margaret Abbott shot a 47 over nine holes and took the win.

As a delightful added bonus – and reminder that the Games haven’t always been the monolithic machine we see today – Abbott had no idea she was competing in the Olympics. She was studying art in Paris and saw an ad for a tournament and decided to enter, with no clue that she was about to be a part of U.S. Olympic history.

Gymnastics

Obviously, we couldn’t do any sort of Olympics feature without talking about gymnastics. The sport has consistently been one of the most popular in the Games for decades - Nadia Comaneci’s first-ever perfect 10 in 1976, Mary Lou Retton becoming America’s sweetheart in 1984, the injured-ankle heroics of Kerri Strug in 1996 – up to and including the mesmerizing and mind-blowing dominance currently being demonstrated by Simone Biles.

There are 18 events in all. In the artistic category are the events with which we’re most familiar. Men and women both do vaults and floor exercises. Men-only disciplines are the pommel horse, rings, parallel bars and the horizontal bar. Women-only disciplines are the uneven bars and the balance beam. Both categories feature individual and team all-around competitions as well.

In addition, there is rhythmic gymnastics – contested by women only on both an individual and team basis – and trampoline, featuring men and women (and which is kind of bonkers to watch if you’ve never seen it since its addition to the Games back in 2000).

Again, you probably don’t need me to tell you this, but you should really watch Simone Biles compete this year. She is shattering the sport’s paradigm in so many ways as perhaps the most physically dominant gymnast of all time. She’s still going strong, but she’s going to stop someday – don’t miss your chance to see true greatness in action.

Handball

I’ve always been fascinated by handball, simply because it isn’t a sport that is all that familiar to American sports fans. Even the relatively knowledgeable among us aren’t too clear on how exactly it works, but I have to tell you, it’s actually quite thrilling to watch.

I’ll be real with you – I don’t even know where to begin as far as explaining handball to you. For a VERY basic idea, think a kind of basketball/indoor soccer combo with elements of lacrosse and a little water polo mixed in. Six players plus a goalkeeper on each side, with a court that is 40x20 meters. Goals are 2x3. It moves very quickly. If you really want to know more, let me recommend just watching the game – it’s the best way to learn any sport. And again – super fun to watch, even if you don’t really know what the heck is happening.

(Note: If you’re a particularly jingoistic Olympics viewer, you’ll probably want to give handball a pass. Not only did both the men’s and women’s U.S. National Teams fail to qualify for 2020, neither team has qualified this century, with both squads making their last Olympic appearances in 1996.)

Marathon

The marathon has been contested since the very beginning of the Olympic Games, instituted to commemorate the legendary run of the Greek soldier Pheidippides following the Battle of Marathon. The current distance of 26.2 miles (42.195 km) was standardized in the early 1920s. A women’s competition was added in 1984.

Hey … speaking of that first women’s marathon. If you’re reading this as a loud and proud Mainer, you probably already know this, but for those who don’t, the gold medal winner in that inaugural women’s marathon was Maine’s own Joan Benoit, who was in the midst of an absolutely dominant stretch of competition – she also won the 1983 Boston Marathon and the 1985 Chicago Marathon. An all-time great and one of the greatest athletes our state has ever produced.

Modern Pentathlon

This is one of those Olympic events that has been around forever – contested in every Games since 1912 – but that relatively few casual sports fans know much about.

It consists of five diverse events – fencing (epee), freestyle swimming (200 meters), equestrian show jumping (15 jumps) and a finale combining pistol shooting and a 3200-meter run (as of a decade or so ago, this combo is now called the laser-run, as it alternates four rounds of laser pistol shooting with 800-meter runs). Does this sound nuts? Absolutely – how did such a strange combination of events come to be considered a single thing?

It’s called the modern pentathlon to differentiate it from the original ancient Greek pentathlon, consisting of wrestling, javelin, long jump, discus and a foot race. It’s alleged to be inspired by the necessary skills for a 19th century cavalry soldier behind enemy lines.

(Oh, and in case you were wondering, there WAS a Mainer who competed in this event. Lewiston-born Robert LeGendre competed in both the 1920 and 1924 Games, finishing fourth and third respectively.)

Rowing

You probably know that rowing is an Olympic event, but you may not know just how many varieties exist within the discipline. All told, there will be 14 different medal events contested at the Tokyo Games, seven each for men and women. They are broken down into sweep rowing (where competitors each use a single oar) and sculling (two oars on opposite sides of the boat).

All told, you’ve got single sculls, coxless pair, double sculls, lightweight double sculls, coxless four, quadruple sculls and eights. It’s a lot, I know, but just think of it this way – sweep rowing is what you might see at the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race, while sculling is basically what we think of as crew.

Oh, and just by the way, one of the dominant female Olympic rowers ever just happens to be from – you guessed it – right here in Maine! Elle Logan – born in Portland and raised in Boothbay Harbor – won gold in the women’s eight in each of the last three Olympics before retiring from international competition. She’s among the greatest the sport has ever produced.

Is that all? Nope! Turns out, one of Logan’s teammates on the 2008 team that won gold was Anna Goodale, who was born in Camden.

Sailing

This is another one of those sports that has a remarkable number of events under a fairly wide umbrella. There are 10 medal events in total – five for men, four for women and one (the Nacra 17 multihull, whatever that means). Again, I am woefully underinformed about the vagaries of competitive sailing, but the idea that there are so many different variations is fascinating to me.

Of course, the main reason that I’ve got sailing here is because of Maine connections. In this year’s games, we’ll see David Hughes, a University of Southern Maine graduate who is returning to Olympic waters after finishing fourth in 2016. He and his partner Stu McNay will be competing in the two-person dinghy.

And lest we forget, Bangor-born Kevin Mahaney made some major waves back in 1992, winning a silver medal in the first-ever Olympic soling competition – a combo format – when he competed with the American team in Barcelona.

Swimming

Obviously, we all know that there are a ton of different swimming events for both men and women, but you might not know just HOW many there are. We’re talking about 36 different events in total, split equally between men and women. And these events run the gamut, both in terms of distances (ranging from 50-meter sprints to the staggering 10-kilometer marathon) and styles (disciplines include the backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle). There are also assorted relays in play.

It was back in 1972 that Mark Spitz became an American icon by winning seven golds in a single Games. More recently, we’ve watched American swimmers like Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky put forward dominant performances spanning multiple Olympiads; it seems unlikely that Phelps’s record of 23 gold medals is likely to be topped anytime soon.

But in the midst of that magnificent Phelps run, there was a swimmer from Maine who was making an Olympic splash as well. Ian Crocker of Portland competed in 2000, 2004 and 2008; over the course of those three trips, he amassed a total of five medals, including three golds in the 400-meter medley relay and a silver in the 100-meter butterfly in Athens in 2004.

Weightlifting

In the Olympics, there are two different competition lifts – the snatch (a wide-grip, one-move lift) and the clean and jerk (close-grip, two-move) – with individual competitors grouped by body mass. The sport has been included on the men’s side of things since the very beginning, but women were only allowed to compete starting in Sydney in 2000.

In case you were wondering – I was – the current combined record for the men’s super-heavyweight division (105 kilograms-plus) is 473 kilos, set by Georgian lifter Lasha Talakhadze in Rio. His 263 kg in the clean & jerk is also a world record (for the pound-loving imperialists among us, those numbers are approximately 1,042 and 580, respectively).

Probably the biggest news with regard to weightlifting in these Games – and certainly among the most controversial – is the inclusion of New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard, a transgender woman, in the super-heavyweight division (87 kilograms-plus). While there are some who argue that her appearance here is unfair, the rules set forth by the IOC are very clear on the matter and Hubbard meets all of the required guidelines to compete.

Last modified on Tuesday, 20 July 2021 11:32

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