Olympic Touchstones Part I – Pan Ams 1987

Almost everybody discovers the Olympics at some point during childhood; you simply can’t escape the excitement that builds for each four-year cycle. Jim McKay, and later Bob Costas, helped bring the Games into homes in every corner of our country, and like many others, I spent hours as a kid paging through Olympic pictorials or histories of the Games over the years. Depending on where you grew up or happen to vacation, you may have been lucky enough to visit iconic Olympic locations like Lake Placid, Squaw Valley or even the Greek locales that link the ancient roots and modern manifestation of the Games.

The Olympic Stadium in Athens, Greece

While some competition venues do not stand as permanent Olympic monuments, other sites like the Olympiastadion in Berlin are steeped in a sense of history that far surpasses the simple rules and bounds of sport, and simply setting foot in such locations can evoke the spirits of events long past.

Jesse Owen on the podium in 1936

The past two weeks have provided both the time and impetus for me to reflect upon my own connection to the the Olympic tradition within the sport of track & field. Before anyone begins to form mistaken notions of a lofty personal relationship to the sport’s history, let me begin by saying that over the years my presence and part has represented a largely coincidental and casual role. Having observed the pageantry and drama that surrounds the events played out on the track, in the field, in the grandstands and behind the scenes from a variety of different vantage points over the years, I feel fortunate to have left even a very small footprint on the sport. Even as a very young track fan, I was introduced to the sport by people like the legendary coach Larry Ellis, who coached for over two decades at Princeton University and served as a national coach on a number of different teams, and experiences like watching the Penn Relays as a boy that thought I was way faster than I was in my ‘running shoes.’

The summer after my junior year in high school I had the opportunity to spend some time in Indianapolis, the host of that year’s Pan-American games. Back in that day, the Pan-Am Games enjoyed a far greater prominence than we assign to it in the US nowadays, and the stars of that period included JJK, Johnny Gray, Steve Scott, Carl Lewis and Gail Devers. During my time in Indy that summer, as a callow rising senior with months of driving experience under my belt, family friend Craig Masback was  gracious enough to find me a position working for CBS Sports performing tasks involving any and everything that nobody else wanted or had time to do. My ‘network TV job’ earned me a media credential that allowed liberal access to the press box, trackside, infield and anywhere else I, or anyone, thought I could be of use. In addition to moving freely amongst and around athletes, officials and meet personnel I also had free time to explore other venues, although I don’t think I missed much track & field action over the course of my time in Indy.

Carl Lewis in flight

Swept up in the excitement, I remember helping set up and film a piece that interspersed interview clips with shots that showed the distance of a Carl Lewis long jump in comparative terms the layperson could relate to (distance across a city street, length of a Coke delivery truck, etc.) and then standing foolishly close to the LJ pit and watching as Lewis won gold with a jump well over 28 feet. At an age where I was old enough to understand the importance of such athletes without yet possessing a fully developed sense of deference the probably also deserved, I felt as though I was intermixed as one of the many pieces that made the meet go that summer. In reality, I don’t think anyone would have missed my presence had I not been at the meet that year, and little did I know at the time that the summer of ’87 would establish a course for my connection to many national track meets to follow. I know that I felt fortunate at the time to have been granted the opportunity to combine an early work experience with a sport that I also enjoyed a great deal, and as I trace my own trajectory as a participant in the world of track & field I will attempt to parse out the impact and path formed during that formative summer of ’87.

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About Drew Wartenburg

Director of Cross Country/Track & Field at UC Davis
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