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Letters from London - Mitchell Garner’s Blog from London #4
London, England - July 28, 2012
“Sport should be able to unite everyone together in peace and honor.” - Elena Meyer, South African Olympic athlete
One of the things that Americans attending the Olympics must understand is that the Olympics span a multitude of sports, many of which may not be significant in our country. For example, the Asian countries are crazy for table tennis (ping pong for the uninitiated), and Olympians from those countries who medal in table tennis are heroes to the same extent as, for example, Michael Phelps is a swimming hero in the United States. Among American sports, boxing used to have greater importance than it does now. Those of us old enough to remember can recall Cassius Clay’s (later Muhammad Ali after his conversion to Islam) gold medal performance at the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics in boxing’s light heavyweight division. Following the Olympics, Ali was a phenom in the United States, garnering the attention of the press for his outlandish statements about his pugilistic feats and politics. During the 1960s, he was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. He refused to enter the military, once saying, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? In his autobiography, Ali stated that he threw his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River after being refused service at a “whites-only” restaurant, and fighting with a white gang. In 1996, at the Atlanta Olympics, he received a replacement Olympic medal.
On Saturday, Gary and I journeyed to Excel, the Olympic boxing venue, to attend preliminary sessions in men’s boxing. During the commuter train ride to the venue, I noticed some French fans who were going to the same venue to watch judo matches. Many people regard the French as social snobs, but for my part, I have never felt that way. I think it may have something to do with language proficiency. Having left Yale during my junior year (1969-70) to study at the University of Paris, I acquired a modest proficiency in French and have retained that proficiency over the years. We had a pleasant conversation about the Olympic host city selection process. Both Paris and Chicago (the city in which I was born and raised) were “losers” in the Olympic site selection process, Paris for the 2012 Summer Olympics and Chicago for the 2016 selection process. Chicago was unceremoniously knocked out in the first round of the finals. For Paris, the elimination was much more dramatic. In the final round, the choice was between London and Paris, and the smart money was on Paris. However, it was not to be. Thousands of French were left heartbroken when London was named as the host city for 2012. We discussed what the 2012 Summer Olympics would have been like if they had been in Paris instead of London.
The crowd in the boxing arena was electric. Saturday’s card featured men’s bouts in two different weight divisions. The first bout pitted an American boxer named Joseph Diaz against a Ukranian boxer named Pavlo Ishchenko in the 56 kilogram division. Diaz won handily, and we cheered.
Later in the afternoon, a Venezuelan boxer entered the ring against a boxer from another European country. There was a large Venezuelan contingent in the arena, and they began cheering vociferously for their athlete. Standing above them was a woman cloaked in the Venezuelan flag who began organizing the cheers. She could have been one of those “outside agitators” (this phrase goes back to a line in the film The Graduate in the 1960s) who staged demonstrations during the Vietnam War era. She would shout something, and the crowd would respond. She would shout another cheer, and again the crowd would respond. This went on and on without interruption for all three rounds of the Venezuelan boxer’s bout. By the end of the bout, she had worked the crowd into a frenzy. The Venezuelan fans were on their feet and shouting deafening cheers. Alas, all the cheering fell short, as the Venezuelan boxer lost his bout by a narrow margin. Despite the outcome, the Venezuelans gave a final robust cheer for their boxer as he exited the arena.
At the end of the session, I came upon a group of Irish fans who were there to support an Irish boxer, Darren O’Neill. The whole family was there—mother, father, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins—to cheer on “their boy.” They carried a huge Irish flag overlayed with words of encouragement for Darren. Like the American Diaz, Darren won his bout handily, and before returning to London, they stopped at the bar incide the Excel venue for a pint or two (probably more than two). They were in fine spirits, and I engaged them in conversation. My mother-in-law is from County Kerry, Ireland, and so I know something about the affinity the Irish have for celebrating. They could not have been prouder of Darren, and rightfully so. Good luck to Darren in his remaining bouts!
The name O’Neill has a special place for me in the Olympics. In 2004, I was in Sacramento, California with some of my Yale classmates to watch a pair of Yale distance runners, Laura and Kate O’Neill, compete in the women’s 10,000 meters race at the United States Olympic track and field trials and support them in thier bid to make the Olympic team. That was a magical night, as Kate finished third and qualified for the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics. Her twin sister Laura also ran well and narrowly missed making the team. Having attended the Olympic trials, I was determined to complete the experience by going to Athens to see Kate compete. My daughter Kathleen (known more by her Polish nickname “Kasia”) and I travelled to Athens and were in the Olympic Stadium on August 27, 2004 to cheer for her. The 2004 Athens Olympics were my first Olympics, but not my last.
In the evening, I was undecided about dinner and stumbled upon a lettle French restaurant called Cafe Rouge in a section of Central London called Charing Cross. As luck would have it, my server was Alex, a young man from Paris, and we began speaking French. He told me that he is in London to learn English and hopes to travel to other cities around the world to learn other languages. I had a steak frites, which is the most poplular French bistro dish. I felt so happy to be able to speak French to a native Parisian after all the years in exile from Paris.
For many years I have discussed the value of language study with my daughter, who is currently a senior at the University of Michigan. This past summer she studied German at Freiburg, Germany and Polish at Krakow, Poland. Like me, she has come to appreciate language as a way of understanding other cultures. Next year, she will be spending a full semester in Germany. Perhaps I inspired her to follow in my steps and broaden her cultural horizons thorugh language study.
Here at the Olympics the many languages of the world are spoken. However, through sport, we are united in peace and honor.
Keep climbing that mountain and have faith.
Mitch “Iron Bulldog” Garner