Personal Stories Get Gold-Medal Treatment
Mark Spitz swam to seven gold medals at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany — an accomplishment that put Spitz on an ESPN list of top athletes of the 20th century.
Spitz’s accomplishment, immortalized on a Time magazine cover, will be challenged this month by swimming sensation Michael Phelps. Phelps’s race for a place in Olympic history will be one of the stories grabbing headlines at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.
Readers "expect emotions and human stories from the Olympics more than any other sports event," said Mike Lopresti, a Gannett News Service columnist who has covered 13 Olympic Games. "In virtually every other major event, the interest is results-oriented first and foremost. I think readers and watchers turn to the Olympics for the human stories every bit as much as they turn to see who wins the gold medal."
"Champions Come Home," a Boston newspaper heralded on May 8, 1896, when athletes returned to the United States after competing in the Games of the Olympiad, the first modern international, multisport Olympic Games. "The victorious Americans bore their honors gracefully, and hearty greetings were exchanged all around," The Boston Herald said after the Athens games.
The 112-year-old front page is among those that began a history of Olympic press coverage that has chronicled individual achievement from athletes such as track-and-field stars Jim Thorpe, Bob Beamon and Bruce Jenner.
"If you’re looking for a key event, there is always one rule of thumb for the Summer Olympics," Lopresti says. "When in doubt, look to track and field."
The title "Mighty ‘Babe’" appeared in a 1932 headline that topped a photo of Mildred "Babe" Didrikson, who competed in the javelin, 80-meter hurdles and high jump at the Los Angeles Olympics. Didrikson — named the greatest female athlete of the first half of the 20th century by the Associated Press — broke a world record by throwing the javelin "ten feet farther than any other girl in history," the Los Angeles Times reported. The Times called Didrikson "the Texas flash" and said, "Didrikson, 128 pounds of feminine dynamite, came through yesterday when all competitors of the so-called stronger sex failed in their world record-wrecking attempts."
Four years later, the Summer Olympics were held in Germany, where the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler used the games as a propaganda tool to promote the superiority of the Aryan race. But the athletic superiority of American Jesse Owens, a black athlete, couldn’t be overlooked. Owens triumphed in four events, becoming the first American to win four gold medals in track and field in a single Olympics. Three photos of Owens appeared on the front page of his hometown Cleveland Press on Aug. 4, 1936. The headline reflected a national pride during a time of international tension: "Jesse Leads Those Yankee Doodle Boys to Town at Olympic Games."
Since those early years of Olympic achievement, the press has shared news of the brashness of Muhammad Ali, the perfection of Mary Lou Retton, the grace of Carl Lewis, the charm of Peggy Fleming and the grit of Kerri Strug.
"She’s Perfect," Time magazine declared about gymnast Nadia Comaneci in August 1976. During the Montreal games, the gymnast became the first in history to be given a perfect 10 score.
Equally eye-catching headlines followed the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. "A Place in History" was how The Daily Telegraph of London described the performance of rower Steve Redgrave, whose gold-medal win was his fifth in five consecutive Olympics. A photo of Redgrave being embraced by fellow rower and gold-medalist Matthew Pinsent dominated the front page.
The words "Cathy’s Dream" filled the width of The Courier-Mail of Brisbane, Australia, on Sept. 26, 2000, the day after Cathy Freeman ran to victory in the 400 meters in Sydney. She was the first athlete to light the Olympic flame and then go on to win a gold medal.
An experience at the Sydney Olympics is Lopresti’s most memorable. "My favorite [Olympic moment] would be going to a movie about the 1972 terrorist attack at Munich with a woman who was on the Israeli team and knew all the team members who had been killed."
Former Olympic swimmer Shlomit Nir-Toor agreed to see the documentary and talk about it afterward with Lopresti. He wrote in his column: "The women were housed in another building. That is how Shlomit Nir survived Sept. 5, 1972, when the Palestinians struck the athletes’ village before dawn, on a day that ended with 11 Israeli men dead and the Olympics forever changed."
Jim McKay, ABC’s Olympics announcer, delivered the news of the athletes’ deaths. The longtime broadcaster would later say of sports, "We care because of the people."