MIn the middle of the first week of the Olympics, the biggest Olympic star isn’t Mark Spitz, who is taking his first gold break. The star is the audience. When two swimmers, the Swede Gunnar Larsson and the American Tim McKee, finish first in the 400m individual medley final, the electronic timer shows the same time twice, 4:31.98 minutes. And twice the same placement, the one. Who won?
The judges deliberate for eight minutes, then present a new time unit. And reap a storm of indignation. Larsson’s time is now: 4:31.981. McKee’s: 4:31,983. Two thousandths of a second, that’s almost three millimeters in this race. Roughly the length that a fingernail grows during the Olympic Games. Shouldn’t McKee have cut his nails? Would he then have been at the front when it was attacked?
McKee becomes a lifeguard in Miami
The spatial distance is still halfway imaginable, the temporal distance eludes human measure. A blink of an eye lasts more than fifty times the time between Larsson and McKee. In 1973, the thousandth in swimming was abolished again. Too late for McKee, the closest beaten athlete in Olympic history. He soon turns to something more meaningful: working as a lifeguard in Miami Beach.
But the audience in Munich is smarter than any referee. It whistles and boos for minutes and demands gold for both – in vain, but a first rebellion against the increasing mechanization of the sport, which has never before lost its human dimension so clearly as in this race. It’s the human things that make Olympia so special.
On that day, for example, Olga Korbut’s tears, dried with a white lace handkerchief – a careless mistake on the uneven bars cost her the gold chance in the eight-way fight. Or the bad luck of the Australian military riders, who missed out on a team medal in fourth place and, unlike the third-placed West Germans, had to sell their horses after the games to pay for the journey home. Or the pride of Sawao Kato, the most successful gymnast in history with eight Olympic victories, who saw the red sun rise on the Japanese flag three times alongside two compatriots in the all-around event.
The Germans hear the many foreign hymns with a little envy. After four days of competition, after 31 decisions out of 195, the host country still has no gold. But the mood in the country is still relaxed. The Munich “Abendzeitung” found the right headline that evening: “The others win – we remain cheerful”.