By Rick Fromm
By Rick Fromm

     There’s arguably never been a better time for the Olympic Games. I hope the magic of the Olympiad spreads throughout the world and serves as a real sign of hope in these turbulent times. Let the Games begin.

 I’ve been an Olympic devotee since I was 10 years old and watched intently as the U.S. of A. competed in the Games of Rome. Big-time track and field had drawn my attention primarily due to the accomplishments of a young high jumper by the name of John Thomas. 

At the tender age of 17, while a freshman at Boston University, Thomas became the first man to clear 7 feet (2.13 m) indoors. He subsequently pushed the world indoor record to 7’1½” (2.17 m), and broke the world outdoor record three times, with a career best jump of 7’3¾” (2.22 m) in 1960 while just 20 years old.

I tinkered with the high jump quite a bit as a young lad and was enamored with Thomas. I liked to use the “straddle” style jumping method (this was pre Fosbury Flop), which Thomas also employed. I was hoping my man would bring the gold medal home from Italy, but alas it wasn’t to be.

Big John settled for the bronze behind Russia’s Robert Shavlakadze (gold), and Valeriy Brumel (silver). In 1964 in Tokyo he was again beaten by Brumel, who cleared the same top height as Thomas, but was declared the winner based on fewer misses at lower heights.

Over the years I watched Thomas and Brumel compete against each other countless times, but admit I was more than a little disappointed when the American failed to win the gold. However that wasn’t the thing I remember most about those first Olympics. What is burned into my permanent memory is what the Olympic spirit meant – and still does to this day.

As I watched the sensational athletes of the world compete in epic fashion, I was struck by the fact that, in the final analysis, it really didn’t matter what country they were from. All that mattered was the competition and witnessing men and women give their all in pursuit of the Olympic dream.

When Brumel edged Thomas for the gold in 1964, one of the first things the Russian did was embrace the U.S. phenom and the two of them celebrated together. It wasn’t an American against a Communist, it was just two athletes with a mutual respect for one another.

That same scenario played out in just about every Olympic venue. It wasn’t an “us vs. them” kinda thing, it was about the purity of sport and how the uniform you were wearing really didn’t matter. It was about love and admiration for a fellow human being regardless if they were from Spain, Bulgaria or the U.S.A.

That is the true Olympic spirit and there remains a strong lesson there for all of us. The Games serve as a strong reminder – perhaps more than any other event in world history – that people are just people. Forget what language they speak or the hue of their skin, it’s their character, their soul, their essence that shines through and ultimately defines them … as it does all of us.

I hope these upcoming Winter Games show all of us who dwell on Earth what life is all about: understanding and accepting each other … even total strangers. Politics and power be damned.

I just have to believe the world would be a much better place if we all adopted and followed that Olympic spirit. Winning the gold medal is nice, but making a true friend is better. If only that way of living would spread throughout the land.

While we’re on the subject, I’m often asked (well maybe not often, but that makes it a better story) what my favorite moments from both the Summer and Winter Games are. That’s easy.

The Olympic Games of Innsbruck Austria provided the setting for my No. 1 memory from all the Winter Games. It was 1976 and everyone knew the Austrians were out to show the world that when it came to downhill skiing they knew no peer. Especially since the competition was on their “home” snow on their “home” mountain.

Leading the charge for the Austrians was none other than the legend himself: Franz Klammer. The pressure was palpable as Franz stood in the gate for the premier event: the downhill. He had to do it. Period. An entire nation held its breath.

To this day I still get goose bumps when I think about Franz Klammer’s mad dash down the mountain. It was nerve-racking and exhilarating all at the same time. Seemingly out of control as he literally flew over moguls and around sharp turns, Klammer seemed on the verge of disaster during the entire run. In fact, he was on one ski a considerable portion of the time.

Some how. Some way. He did it. He became immortal.

Top recollection from the Summer Games? I know you won’t remember, but I do.    

His name was William Mervin “Billy” Mills, also known as Makata Taka Hela (born June 30, 1938). He was a Native American who had somehow managed to qualify for the finals of the 10,000 meter run (6.2 miles) at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Most thought he had no business even being in the race. A United States Marine, Billy Mills was/is a member of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Tribe.

A virtual unknown, Mills had finished second to Gerry Lindgren in the U.S. Olympic trials. His time in the heats was a full minute slower than Australian Ron Clarke’s time. Clarke set the tone of the race by using a tactic of surging every other lap. 

Halfway through the race, only four runners were still with Clarke: Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia, Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia Kokichi Tsuburaya of Japan, and Mills. Tsuburaya, the local favorite, lost contact first, then Wolde. With two laps to go, only two runners were still with Clarke. On paper, it seemed to be Clarke’s race. He had run a world record time of 28:15.6, while neither Gammoudi nor Mills had ever run under 29 minutes.

Mills and Clarke were running together, with Gammoudi right behind, as they entered the final lap. They were lapping other runners, and Clarke was boxed in down the backstretch. He pushed Mills once, then again. Then Gammoudi pushed them both and surged into the lead as they rounded the final curve. Clarke recovered and began chasing Gammoudi while Mills appeared to be too far back to be in contention. 

Clarke failed to catch Gammoudi, but Mills pulled out to lane 4 and sprinted past them both. His winning time of 28:24.4 was almost 50 seconds faster than he had ever run before and set a new Olympic record for the event. No American had ever before won the 10,000 m.

American television viewers were able to hear the surprise and drama as NBC expert analyst Dick Bank screamed “Look at Mills! Look at Mills!”

And look we did. I get choked up just thinking about it.

Long live the Olympics.