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Opinion

July 6, 2012

I was once not interested in the Olympics, but now I am

Athens — For the past few days the Olympic trials have started to warm up my appetite for the games.

Four years ago, I didn't have any particular interest in the competition, until it started. Then I got riveted to the TV watching Michael Phelps swim to win-after-win.

I was caught up in the gymnastics drama where Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson became the first Americas to finish 1-2 in the women's all-round.

Soon I was watching wrestling, boxing, cycling, track and even field. No matter how I try to ignore them, the Olympics seem to have a special appeal.

When I was a kid, it didn't matter who was competing on our side, just so we beat the Soviet Union.  The USSR made the perfect foe with their regimented brilliance. They were machines – robots who came to conquer our athletes, just like they meant to bury our nation. Or at least, that's what we thought.

Then in 1972, the Soviet gymnastic team included a little dynamo name, Olga Korbut. She didn't win the all-around, but put on a show in the floor exercise and on the balance beam that won the hearts of a whole bunch of Americans.

In those days, the U.S. women were lucky to snatch an occasional bronze medal in gymnastics. Olga's performance had a lot to do with the increased interest in the sport over here, and ultimately with the powerful team we have headed for London today.

Olga's impact was only a foreshadowing of what would happen in Montreal four years later. Romanian Nadia Comeniche rocked the world, by not only winning the women's all-round with a perfect score.

A short time later, Nadia's coach Bela Karolyi, moved to the good old U.S., and trained our first women's all-round champ, Mary Lou Retton, in 1984.

One thing I loved about those Olympic games in the late 1960s and early 1970s was the coverage they got on ABC Sports. Jim McKay was the man in the booth, anchoring the telecasts. In 1972, he became the face of the coverage of the most memorable Olympic story in my lifetime.

Up until that point, the Olympic Games had been a time when the differences between cultures, governments and political systems was set aside, while dedicated young men and women battled it out on wrestling mats, balance beams and basketball courts.

Sure, there would be an occasional dispute over a gymnastics score, or how many seconds should be on the game clock, but by-and-large, the games were what they were meant to be.

Then, one day in Munich, that all changed. The meet that year had been dubbed "The happy games," by the West German officials.

For more than a week, it appeared the Munich games would live up to that name. Then, on Sept. 5, members of a Palestinian terrorist group broke into the Olympic Village, and kidnapped nine Israeli athletes, coaches and officials. The world watched for hours, hoping for the best. Those hopes were shattered when a somber McKay revealed their fate.

"They're all gone." he said.

They had accepted the challenge of coming to Munich to represent their small nation on the world stage. Now they were all dead. In that devastating moment, the outside world got inside the Olympic Village, and reminded us what a fragile ideal the games really are.

That was 40 years ago.  Thankfully, in spite of of the tragedy, the games carry on, bringing us up-close and personal glimpses of young men and women experiencing the "thrill of victory," and the "agony of defeat."

Here's hoping that those who come home without medals will appreciate the time they got to show their talents, and represent their countries on the greatest stage of all.

I can't wait.

Rich Flowers is News Editor of the Athens Daily Review.

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