Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Olympians Come to Pitt

Thanks go out to my friend, Mark Matera, who clued me in on and invited me to join his son and him at an event at the University of Pittsburgh last night.  The event in question was the premiere of a documentary film called "The Renaissance Period of the African American in Sports."  

The film was produced by Pitt alumnus, Trustee, and Olympic Bronze Medalist (1948), Herb Douglas.  The film focused on nine African American track and field athletes who were on the United States Olympic Track and Field team at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, which were staged under the watchful eyes of Adolf Hitler.  Of course, the most famous of these athletes was Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at those games.  However, other medals were won by these nine athletes, including a gold medal by Pitt's John Woodruff, and Mack Robinson, whose younger brother, Jackie, would go on to make some history of his own eleven years later.

Following the film, a panel discussion moderated by WTAE news anchor Andrew Stockey featured the following Olympians:

Harrison Dillard, winner of four Olympic Gold Medals, two each in both the 1948 and 1952 Olympics.  Dillard is now 91 years old.  His Olympic teammate, Herb Douglas, is 92, and if you saw both men you would put them in their late seventies or early eighties.

Bob Beamon, Gold Medalist in the long jump at the 1968 Olympics.  Beamon's Gold Medal is is most remembered because in a sport where records my be broken by fractions of inches, Beamon's Olympic jump broke the then world record by almost 22 inches.  

His record in the long jump stood for an amazing 23 years.

Edwin Moses, Gold Medalist in both the 1976 and 1984 Olympics, and Bronze Medalist in the 1988 Games.

Moses so dominated his event, the 400 meter hurdles, that he won 122 consecutive races in this event, a streak that lasted for nine years ands nine months (1977-87).

If you haven't been keeping score up until now, that was four athletes on stage with nine Olympic medals, seven of them gold, among them.

Hearing these men talk about their careers, with an emphasis on the African American experience that they shared, was remarkable and enthralling.  I only wish that Stockey would have asked Beamon to talk about the atmosphere in the Olympic Village in Mexico City after the protest on the Medal stand that was staged by Tommie Smith and John Carlos.  (For you younger readers who may not know what I am talking about, look it up.  It was a remarkable story, and a story that defined a distinct era in American history.)

Beamon did tell the story of his record setting leap in Mexico City.  About how he concentrated so hard not to foul, about all the years of training that led to this moment, about how is heart was pounding, and how, as he was at the apex of his jump, he took time to look at his watch. That last part obviously didn't happen, but it was the laugh line in the story.  This is obviously Beamon's "go to" story, and you can tell that he has told it many, many times over the years, but you know what?  That was okay by me and the rest of the audience.

The evening ended with Pitt Chancellor Emeritus Mark Nordenberg telling a very moving story about 1936 Olympic Champion John Woodruff, and also introducing from the audience former Pitt football player Bobby Greer, who became the first African American to play in the Sugar Bowl football game in 1957, after Sugar Bowl officials wanted to not allow him to play in segregated New Orleans, and Pitt said "he plays, or no one plays".

(During the reception prior to the event, Mark Matera introduced me to Chancellor Nordenberg, and I have to tell you that he is one very impressive gentleman.)

As we were leaving the event at the end of the evening, I got to say hello to and shake the hands of both Bob Beamon and Edwin Moses, and I have to tell you, it was a VERY cool experience.

I am most grateful to Mark Matera for thinking of me and including me in this experience.  It was a very memorable evening.

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