Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Cheshire Cat Strikes Olympic Gold

The 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles were noteworthy before they began. Most of the world's communist–bloc nations declined to participate because the United States had led a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.

So the Games were noteworthy for who was not there.

But it was also noteworthy for who was there.

President Ronald Reagan, who served as governor of California for eight years, was there to open the Games. Track and field star Carl Lewis was there, and he won four gold medals, matching the 1936 performance of Jesse Owens. Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin were there, and they participated on the U.S. basketball team that won the gold medal.

And Mary Lou Retton was there. Thirty years ago today, she became the first gymnast outside Eastern Europe to win the all–around competition.

Even with all those big names at the Games, Retton often seemed to be the only attraction. She had one of those smiles that was so big it seemed to exist all by itself — kind of like Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat.

Jordan, Ewing and Mullin had not yet begun their professional careers; Jordan, in particular, was not as famous as he would become. Eight years later, all three would be members of the so–called "Dream Team."

Mary Lou was America's sweetheart that summer. I don't think I have seen another U.S. female Olympian who was as adored as Mary Lou — with the possible exception of Dorothy Hamill.

In fact, it was during the '76 Summer Games — a few months after Hamill won her gold medal in figure skating — that Nadia Comaneci became the first gymnast to score a perfect 10.0 in Olympic competition. It was an achievement that most Americans probably dreamed — but dared not believe — one of their countrymen would match someday.

But Retton outdid Comaneci in 1984, scoring two perfect 10s, on the floor exercise and vault. The latter was particularly dramatic, given that Retton had knee surgery five weeks before the Games began.

Reagan, who was seeking a second term as president in 1984, enjoyed an approval rating of 52–54% during the Olympics — he accepted the Republican nomination in Dallas later that month — but my guess would be that Retton's approval far exceeded the president's that summer.

I don't know of any polls that were conducted at that time, but I'm reasonably sure Retton was the most popular person in America that year — at least in July and August.

Reagan went on to win 49 states in November, but, that summer, Retton might have been the only person in America who could have beaten him.

And she was only 16 years old.

Retton, now living in Houston with her husband and four daughters, recently attended a reunion of Team USA '84. A wistful time appears to have been had by all. Retton recalled that one of the highlights of her Olympic experience was riding on the bus to the Opening Ceremony with members of the U.S. basketball team.

Those '84 Olympic Games were, in the words of the Murfreesboro (Tenn.) Post, "one for the ages" — although I'm not sure where writer David Hunter heard that the Olympics in 1984 saved the Games.

(I know the Americans boycotted the 1980 Games in Moscow, and the Russians boycotted the '84 Games, but the Post's reasoning was too simplistic. Technically, Mr. Hunter was correct when he said that was "because of the Cold War," but that is really too general. The Americans and dozens of other countries boycotted because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.)

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