Tuesday, July 3, 2012

My Mexico City

At the time I’m writing this in June/July of 2012, every muscle of my middle aged body is aware that this is an Olympic year.  Which means that if the TV network that airs the Olympics in the US doesn’t screw it up like in previous years, I will be transfixed and transported in front of the TV again, just as I was when I was a kid.  To me nothing compares to the Olympics.  There is no other sporting event, no post season madness, bowl game, or cup final that compares to the romance, heart and drive the Summer Olympics have for me.  It’s where I learned things that school would never teach me.  Sitting in front of my black and white TV as a 10 year old in 1968, I was there.  The glow of the cathode ray tube may have been in South Philadelphia, but in ‘68 my soul was in Mexico City.

I lived with my mother and maternal grandparents.  My older sister lived there too, but by that time she was either off at college or working somewhere.  And since my mother worked two jobs to support us all, I watched all TV, including the ’68 Olympics, either by myself or with my grandfather, a former boxer.  Whenever boxing was on, Olympics or not, and especially when there were black boxers fighting, like the then 19 year old George Foreman who won the gold medal that year fighting a Russian, my grandpop watched.  And during the middle of that James Bond / Man From U.N.C.L.E., cold war era of ‘68, as George stood tall, my grandpop cheered, even though he could barely see the bouts.  My grandpop was then blind in one eye and had bad sight in the other, so he watched our TV with his face inches from the screen.  And still he couldn’t see clearly.  Watching boxing with grandpop sounded something like this:
   “Hey, is he black?”
   “Yes grandpop, he’s black.”
   “And what about that guy?”
   “No he’s from Poland – not black.”
   “Are you sure?  Play with that knob on the side again.”
   “I can play with the contrast knob all day grandpop, but the Polish guy is not black.”

Even though my Mexico City Olympic experience was seen from an acute angle in order to see around my grandpop, whose forehead kissed the screen, I was still transported.

Jim Hines winning the 100m dash.
To this day three images from that time stand out for me.  Images that have been circulating in my mind since before puberty and will hang with me until the day I stop competing in this sprint called life.  The first image is that of black men flying across our TV.  Now I loved to run when I was small and I knew I was fast.  But what I saw in ’68 were men my color, who went to college, flying around a track.  I saw them muscling around curves and down straight-aways, not as if they were getting away with something, but like they owned the track.  Go to college, run track, be the best in the world.  Oh ok. That’s the sequence?  Got it.  My ten year old mind had a model to follow – go to college, compete, be the best.  OK.

And that other guy?  Australian Peter Norman won
silver and on the podium wore the badge for the
Olympic Project for Human Rights.  He was left
off the 1972 Australian team.
The second image is fists in the air. Tommy Smith and John Carlos, after winning gold and bronze in the men’s 200m dash, made their awards ceremony a salute to the struggles of kids like me and a protest visible enough to wake up the world.  The ’68 Olympics were the first real televised Olympics for Americans.  Just south of the border, we didn’t have the time zone issues of Rome or Tokyo in ’60 and ’64. It was a live televised event.  So the live black power salute during the national anthem also served as a wakeup call to Americans who wanted to believe that trouble makers like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X could be contained within our borders, and were never - never in a position to represent our flag like Smith and Carlos.  It was a lesson in how national policies of ignorance, like racism, represent our country just as much as national athletic pride.  Smith and Carols were champions who wanted everyone to know something about the competition they faced off the track everyday.  And at 10 years old I learned that sometimes to be the best, you have to stand up, even if no one else is standing.

The third image is of the water, in an event that according to online records, never actually took place at the ’68 Olympics.  Yet I have this memory and it is vivid.  Perhaps what I’m remembering is something from the very popular ABC Wide World of Sports, since ABC was the network that aired the Olympics in the US that year.  Perhaps when I was home from summer camp and watching ABC in preparation for the Olympics, which actually took place in October, ABC featured a sport I had never seen before.  What I remember is men standing tall and powerful on the craggy peak of a cliff, high above the water. [Image: cliff diver] The backdrop behind them was more cliffs and the expanse of the ocean.  Below them were waves waxing and waning, as each man chose his moment to gracefully leap, the camera following them all the way down to a tiny splash, just feet away from the rocks below.  I had never seen cliff diving before.  It was hypnotic.  The divers would just stand there for who knows how long, waiting for the water, that appeared to be about a mile below them, to be just right.  How could they even see it?  These guys – and they were all guys, who on our black and white TV all looked like they had that George Hamilton 60’s TV California tan, though I’m likely remembering the Mexican athletes – these guys stood on cliffs!  First off, I didn’t even understand how they got up there.  It’s like an Olympic event to haul their ass up to top of a death defying piece of rock.  But then to stand there like a Rio de Janeiro Jesus and jump – and make it beautiful!?

This was a relationship with water that I knew nothing about.  That one could be on the highest part of the earth, essentially be a part of the sky, and fling themselves elegantly into the waiting arms of the water below.  I know that I could never judge such a competition.  It would be like grading prayer.  How does one measure individual skill, wrapped so tightly in faith, belief and the wisdom of knowing how to navigate so quickly through the worlds of earth, sky and water.  “You get the gold, you get the silver, and you the bronze.”  Yeah, whatever.  At 10 years old in 1968 I learned that success sometimes means taking a leap, falling with grace, and even with a tiny splash, celebrating life.