For a quarter century, I have had the best job in the world. It began when I convinced the sports editor who brought me to the Chicago Tribune, Gene Quinn, that the success of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (which, in many ways, represented the real revival of the modern Olympics) and the fact the next Games were in North America (1988, Calgary) meant the newspaper would benefit by having a full-time Olympics/international sports reporter.
The reporter I had in mind was, of course, me.
Thus began an adventure that has taken me to 12 Olympics (plus two more before I joined the Tribune), seven soccer World Cups (four men, three women), dozens of world championships and other major sporting events and more than 40 countries.
It is a journey that will continue at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and, I hope, for many more years to come.
The editors at the Tribune, and their cohorts at the Los Angeles Times, have allowed me not only to cover great sporting events and to profile hundreds of athletes, foreign and domestic, but to use the Olympics as a prism through which to explain politics (sports as an expression of a political system) and culture (for example: why 1992 Olympic host region Catalonia isn’t really Spain).
While the actual 25th anniversary of my Tribune tenure was April 1 (insert joke here), I was too involved in covering Chicago’s eventually unsuccessful Olympic bid to note it then.
Now that the bid already seems like ancient history, I have the time to mark my own, in what will be three blogs.
In the first, below, I pick the 10 most remarkable athletic performances I have seen while on the international beat:
1. The Carl Lewis – Mike Powell long jump competition at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo. Lewis showed why he is the greatest jumper ever – by a long way – with four jumps of 28 feet, 5 ¾ inches or more, including two over 29 feet. Powell improbably became the longest jumper ever, breaking Bob Beamon’s 23-year-old world record, then the oldest record in track and field, with a jump of 29 feet, 4 ½ inches. "The numbers had stood for more than a generation as a touchstone, out there on the distant horizon of man’s physical limits," I wrote of Beamon’s 29-2 ½, which had bettered the previous record by nearly two feet. Lewis had won 65 straight long jump meets over 10 years before the 1991 worlds, and Beamon’s record had become his white whale. Powell’s mark has now lasted nearly a generation itself. "I am living a fantasy," Powell said that night. So was everyone who watched it. "The whole thing," I wrote, "was, appropriately, about as astounding as Beamon’s world record had been 23 years ago.''
2. Lance Armstrong’s first Tour de France victory in 1999. I flew to France with a week left in the race and, only hours after I arrived, Armstrong invited the handful of U.S. print journalists covering the event to an interview that lasted more than an hour. He was yet to become a celebrity, and there had yet to be serious questions about whether he was just another cycling doper. It was, back then, one of the all-time feel-good stories: a man who survived being gravely ill with cancer, an innocent abroad on the first U.S.-sponsored team to win the Tour, a victory his oncologist described as nothing short of miraculous. I wrote this: "Willful, opinionated and driven, he challenged doctors as he challenged himself to be a better rider than he was before the illness . . . Maybe that is why Armstrong said 'Not really' to a TV interviewer who asked during the triumphant ride up the Champs-Elysees if this were the greatest day of his life."
3. The women’s figure skating final at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Never in the era when a passel of triple jumps became de riguer have two women skated so well under so much pressure. No runner-up (and almost no winners) in Olympic history has done a better free skate than Michelle Kwan, and Kwan's grace in defeat contributed significantly to her becoming the most beloved figure skater in U.S. history. At 15, Tara Lipinski became the youngest athlete ever to win an individual gold medal at the Winter Olympics. What she lacked in sophistication, she made up for with such infectious, unfettered delight – including a smiling scream after hitting a difficult combination – that the judges exulted right along with her. The lead of my story: "She had sat through 18 minutes of Beethoven’s 'Ode to Joy' at the Opening Ceremony, and it obviously gave Tara Lipinski some ideas. Lipinski would turn the next two weeks into an ode to her joy over being at the Winter Olympics."
4. Diego Maradona’s second goal in the 2-1 quarterfinal win over England at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. "The second goal," I wrote, "was a thing of such rare beauty that English coach Bobby Robson called it as 'a miracle.' " That was not an understatement. Taking the ball just beyond midfield, Maradona dribbled from his left foot to his right and back to his left, leaving the first English defender flatfooted. He would touch the ball nine more times during a 60-yard run through four more defenders, including the goalie, before tapping in the eventual game-winning goal for an Argentine team that went on to win the title. Seeing the man justify his reputation as one of the greatest players in history was a privilege.
5. Usain Bolt in the 100 meters at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin. A year earlier, at the Olympics, Bolt’s competition had been seriously diminished by the injury to 2007 world champion Tyson Gay. At Berlin last summer, Gay was back in full stride, as his U.S. record time of 9.71 seconds would prove. And yet Bolt still had no competition as he lowered his world record to 9.58, a performance that I said had "redefined the standards of the most basic human athletic pursuit, running as fast as one can over a measured distance."
6. Joan Benoit Samuelson’s victory in the 1985 Chicago Marathon. This was – and still is - - the greatest women’s marathon ever, matching the 1984 Olympic champion (Benoit), the 1984 Olympic bronze medalist and eventual 1988 Olympic champion (Rosa Mota of Portugal) and the world-record holder (Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway). The indomitable Benoit gave Kristiansen a lesson in race tactics, varying her pace enough to confuse the Norwegian’s attempts at a metronomic run. Benoit won in a time of 2 hours, 21 minutes, 21 seconds, that would stand as the U.S. record for 18 years.
7. Brian Boitano’s gold-medal figure skating performance at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. So few skaters ever have delivered their best when the lights are brightest, but Boitano did. "It was the best performance I’ve ever seen a skater do," said his teammate, Paul Wylie. The amazing thing is that the sport’s judging was (still is?) so corrupt that Boitano’s virtually flawless performance (one two-footed jump landing) beat Brian Orser’s, which had significant mistakes, only by the slimmest of margins: one-tenth of a point on one of the nine judges’ cards decided, by a 5-4 decision, what should have been a clean sweep.
8. Kerri Strug’s vault in the team gymnastics final at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. This was serendibity: At the last minute, after I finished covering an event at the nearby Georgia Dome, I suggested to my editors that I go to the gymnastics in case the U.S. won the gold medal, which would make the paper want a second story, or "sidebar." The headline on my story said it all: "Vault Belongs to the Ages; U.S. Gymnast Leaps in Pain, Lands in Glory." Vaulting on a badly sprained ankle, thinking the gold depended on her as 32,040 fans at the Georgia Dome screamed encouragement, she landed on both feet before hopping and collapsing in pain. The U.S. had clinched its first team gold in women’s gymnastics.
9. The men’s 400 freestyle relay at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. So many subplots – the Michael Phelps eight-gold-medal quest; the French overconfidence and controversy about its relay order, the impossible task anchor Jason Lezak faced even with 50 meters left; French anchor Alain Bernard’s mistakes (out too fast, swimming too close to the lane line so Lezak could surf on his wake); the moment everyone realized Lezak had a chance to catch Bernard. It would not be a stretch to call it the most exciting race in the history of swimming.
10. Michelle Akers in the final of the 1999 Women’s World Cup at the Rose Bowl. Many think Akers, not Mia Hamm, is the greatest player in the history of women’s soccer. It was Akers whose two goals hard beaten China in the World Cup final eight years earlier. In 1999, at 33, it was Akers in a different role – that of defensive midfielder – who repeatedly kept China from scoring the goal that might have prevented the overtime drama in the most watched women’s team sport event in history. Despite chronic fatigue syndrome, Akers flung her body relentlessly all over the field in 90-degree heat before dehydration and dizziness forced her to the locker room after 90 minutes. As the crowd chanted her name during the medal ceremony after the U.S. victory, Akers tottered back onto the field to accept her prize. "The fans today were treated to witnessing one of the greatest women athletes in history, a true champion leaving everything on the field," U.S. coach Tony DiCicco said. "She inspires me." I saw Akers as the paradigm for the modern woman athlete: supremely talented, fiercely competitive, tough as nails.
-- Philip Hersh
(Coming next: My 10 most memorable trips)
Photos, top-to-bottom: Mike Powell's world-record leap (Associated Press); Lance Armstrong after his first Tour de France victory (Associated Press); Tara Lipinski exults in the 1998 Olympics (Don Tormey / Los Angeles Times); Two fast cats: Usain Bolt and cheetah he met, now called "Lightning Bolt," in Kenya this fall (Karen Prinsloo / Associated Press); Kerri Strug hobbles after her historic vault (Associated Press / Joe Ledford via Kansas City Star); Michelle Akers leans on coach Tony DiCicco for support after 1999 World Cup Final. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times).