Boomers Tuned In to the Summer Olympics

The Summer Olympics are underway, giving viewers a great many memorable and historic moments. Before there was a Mark Phelps and Gabby Douglas, though, there were the Games of our boomer youth. Amazing feats of athletic prowess and political unrest peppered the Olympics we watched. As boomers, we were the first generation to be able to view the Summer Olympics on TV. How many of these historic Summer Olympic events do you recall?

1960: Rome — These games were the first to be telecast in North America. CBS won the rights to broadcast the Games for $394,000. Mister Boomer recalls seeing some of the Games on the family’s black and white Sylvania TV.

  • Wilma Rudolph was proclaimed the fastest woman in the world, winning three gold medals in track and field.
  • ┬áCassius Clay (before he became Muhammad Ali) won gold in the boxing light-heavyweight division.
  • The U.S. basketball team, including future hall-of-famers Walt Bellamy, Jerry Lucas, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, took home the gold, extending the U.S. dominance of Olympic basketball to five in a row.
  • Rafer Johnson won the decathlon gold, considered by many to be the greatest decathlon event in Olympic history.

1964: Tokyo — These were first Games to be telecast internationally, making its way to the U.S. via use of the first geostationary satellite, Syncom 3. It was also the first live telecast broadcast in color via satellite.

  • Billy Mills won gold in the men’s 10,000 meter distance running race. It was a shock to the world because he was little known, and no American had won that race before — or since.
  • Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina finished her Olympic career, adding two gold, a silver and two bronze medals to her career total of 18 medals. That record held until this past week when Michael Phelps broke her record in London.
  • Don Schollander won four gold medals in swimming events.
  • Bob Hayes equaled the world record of 10 seconds, winning gold in the 100 meter sprint. The Games at Tokyo were the last to have cinder running tracks.
  • Joe Frazier won the heavyweight division in boxing.

1968: Mexico City — That year was hugely tumultuous in the lives of boomers. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in March of 1968, and Bobby Kennedy, campaigning for the office of President of the United States, was gunned down in June. Protests against the Vietnam War continued practically non-stop and race riots occurred in several states. Against this backdrop the Games were only the third in history to be held in autumn (October), and they were the first be be held in a Spanish-speaking country.

  • Al Oerter won gold in the discus for the fourth consecutive time.
  • Bob Beaman won the long jump, setting a world record that surpassed the former by 22 inches. His record of 29.2 ft. held until 1991.
  • Dick Fosbury, inventor of the Fosbury flop, won gold in the high jump with his back-first technique. His method is now used as the standard for the jump.
  • At the age of 16, Debbie Meyer won gold in three swimming events: the 200, 400 and 800 meter freestyle swimming.
  • In perhaps the most well-remembered event of the Games, as the gold medal winner Tommie Smith and bronze medal winner John Carlos stood on the podiums to accept their medals for the men’s 200 meter race, they lifted black-gloved fists into the air during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner. Silver medalist Peter Norman of Australia wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in sympathy, as did the other two medalists. Their gesture was interpreted as a Black Power salute, but Tommie Smith stated in his autobiography that it was a human rights salute. The International Olympic Committee considered the gesture to be a domestic political statement which was not in keeping with the Olympic apolitical spirit. As a result, the two were banned for life from competing in future Olympic Games.

1972: Munich — This was the first time the Games had returned to Germany since Hitler’s infamous Games of 1936 in Berlin. The single-most remembered event of the Games was the massacre of nine Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists.

  • The men’s basketball team lost to the Soviets in a controversial game where confusion over the official time resulted in a replay — twice — of the final three seconds of the game. The U.S. believed they had won the game, but the Soviets prevailed in the game’s three-second replay, winning 51-50. The U.S. team declined to accept their silver medals, leaving the podium empty at the ceremony.
  • Before the massacre overshadowed all of the Olympic events, swimmer Mark Spitz won seven gold medals, a record that held until Michael Phelps won eight in Beijing in 2008. Spitz won the medals while sporting long hair and a ’70s-fashionable moustache at a time when the prevailing thought was that facial hair would cause drag that could slow down a swimmer. Despite a complete lack of contemporary swimsuit technology and his added facial hair, Spitz set world records in all seven of his wins.

The 2012 Games have been exciting to watch, but as a boomer, Mister B can’t help but remember the Games we watched in our younger days. Seeing these amazing athletes perform at the highest levels illustrates the constant progression of modern technology, training and evolution of our species (faster, bigger, stronger, and we have the technology!). It is a bit unsettling, though, to realize that these fantastic athletes setting historical records on our TV screens are young enough to be our children, and in some cases, grandchildren. Let’s at least take some solace in remembering that we are the generation that has begat these next-generation superstar Olympians, who are now carrying the torch into our future.

What memories do you have of watching Summer Olympics, boomers?

One thought on “Boomers Tuned In to the Summer Olympics”

  1. I remember Bob Richards on Wheaties boxes for about 20 years until replaced by Bruce Jenner in 1976. Richards had won the Gold in Helsinki in 1952 and again in Australia in 1956, for pole vaulting. Nowadays they change the Wheaties boxes every few weeks.

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