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Letters from London - Mitchell Garner’s Blog from London #9

London, England - August 3, 2012

“The journey is always greater than the triumph.  The battles are always greater than the victory.” - Gail Devers, American Olympic track and field gold medalist

On July 12, 2012, American Olympian Christine Lilly, a member of the United States women’s soccer team that won a gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics, was inducted into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame at an induction ceremony in Chicago.  In her acceptance speech, she said that people often ask her how it feels to win an Olympic gold medal.  Her standard reply is, “When you were in school, did you ever have a snow day?  Multiply that times 10.”  Her response speaks volumes for the Olympic gold medalists.

On Friday, I attended two events, beach volleyball in the morning and athletics in the evening.  The beach volleyball session started at 9:00 A.M.  When I entered the venue, the crowd was already revved up with excitement.  For me, it was reminiscent of the pre-kickoff excitement of a University of Michigan football game, except that the kickoff was in the morning instead of the afternoon.  Judging from the chants of the boisterous crowd, you would think that everyone had already visited the local pub and breakfasted on their favorite English brew instead of porridge.

No American teams were playing during this session, and so I was left to cheer for my favorite team.  In the first match, two female German teams were pitted against each other.  The only difference was that one team wore blue bikinis and the other red.  At the start of the match, I boldly predicted that Germany was going to win, and my prediction proved correct.  I should have made a wager on the match at one of London’s local bookie shops.

In the second match, two men’s teams—Poland and Switzerland—battled.  I had to cheer for my Polish cousins, and they did not disappoint me, winning their match 2-0 and advancing to the next round.  Their Polish supporters cheered for them deliriously as the match ended.

In the evening, Gary Morgan and I went to the Olympic Stadium for the first evening session of track and field, or “athletics” as they say here in Great Britain.  The Olympic Stadium seats about 80,000 fans.  Thus, it is significantly smaller than Michigan Stadium, a/k/a the Big House, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I live.  The Big House holds about 110,000 fans.

What the Olympic Stadium lacks in capacity it returns in world class athletics.  There were two finals on Friday evening, the women’s 10,000 meters and the men’s discus.  However, the big buzz centerd on Jessica Ennis, Great Britain’s gold medal hope in the women’s heptathlon.  Since the beginning of the Olympics, she has been the darling of the British media, which covers her every move, public and private, like an undercover detective.  She cannot do or say anything without generating a story by the British tabloids.

In the women’s 10,000 meters, Team USA had two runners, Amy Hastings and Lisa Uhl.  They both ran outstanding times for the 10,000, but on this night, the Ethiopians and the Kenyan runners were just too strong.  We are improving in this event, and in time we will be more competitive with the East Africans.

In the other final, Tomasz Majewski of Poland became the first gold medalist in athletics at the London Olympics.  Tomasz is a big, burly man.  Think of a refrigerator with a human head on top.  No one would mistake him for a Kenyan distance runner.  He beat a host of fellow shot putters, equally big and burly, to become the first man since 1956 to retain an Olympic shot put title.  He won his gold medal while the women’s 10,000 meters race was finishing.  He was hardly going to let a pack of slender female distance runners curb his celebration.

The 30-year-old Pole extended his winning margin to a meager three centimeters with the last shot in the final, then raced across the track to see his coach and grab a Polish national flag to drape over his shoulders.  He got across the track just a few seconds in front of the frontrunners in the 10,000 meters race that was being run on the track.  He is the first non-American to win back-to-back titles in the shot put, and the first man since Parry O’Brien in 1952 and 1956 to repeat as champion.

There is something extraordinarily moving about an Olympic medal ceremony.  You must be present in the Olympic venue to fully appreciate the moment.  Here in London, the ceremony begins with an announcement, first in French and then in English, that a medal ceremony is going to take place, and the theme song from Chariots of Fire begins to play.  French is the official language of the Olympics because the modern Olympics represent the efforts of a French nobleman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who championed the cause of resurrecting the ancient Olympic Games.  Because I am proficient in French, I always know about the ceremony before the announcement is made in English.  The three athletes who are to receive medals walk slowly to the podium in single file, preceded by two dignitaries from the International Olympic Committee.  The athletes are accompanied by medal ceremony attendants who separately carry the medals and flower bouquets on trays.  The medals are awarded in reverse order of finish, from bronze to gold, by one dignitary.  The other dignitary presents each medalist with flowers.  I have never seen an athlete be nonchalant after having an Olympic medal draped around his or her neck.  After the medals and flowers have been presented to each athlete, everyone is the stadium is asked to rise for the national anthem of the gold medalist’s country.  Everyone faces the area where the flags of medalists’ countries are raised, and the crowd in the stadium comes to a dignified hush out of respect for the athletes.  The camera in the stadium will usually show a close-up of the gold medalist’s face, and the sight of tears streaming the athlete’s cheeks is common.  Anyone who has ever had the opportunity to speak to an Olympic gold medalist about his or her journey to the top of the Olympic podium knows that this moment represents many years of pain and sacrifice and perseverance.  There is no shortcut to an Olympic gold medal.  For those who reach the top of Olympia, the journey is always greater than that moment of triumph on the podium.

On Friday evening, there was no snow in the London Olympic Stadium, but Tomasz Majewski was enjoying a snow day.

Keep climbing that mountain and have faith.
Mitch “Iron Bulldog” Garner

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