Sunday, August 31, 2008

My Olympic Moment with Billy Mills

Who is Billy Mills?

The man won the Olympic gold medal in the 10,000 meters in 1964. A movie, "Running Brave," was made about him.

When I was about the same age as some of the Chinese Olympic gymnasts, I was in the student leadership group for my school. We got to go to a couple of events and workshops with motivational speakers and teamwork exercises. Our advisor told us about an upcoming assembly where an Olympic gold medalist would speak to us. I hadn't heard of Billy Mills at that time, and I hadn't yet become a runner, but it still seemed cool that a gold-medal-winning runner would speak to us.

We attended the conference, and Mills told us of his upbringing as a part-Sioux American Indian and his experiences as an Olympian. He signed autographs - I still have that piece of paper at my parents' house. I don't remember a lot more details from that meeting, but I remember him describing his thoughts/feelings as he neared the end of his 10K race:

I won! I won! I won!
Looking at the video in this post, I am reminded that he first thought, "I can win! I can win!" Later, he took his positivity up another notch. Now I also remember Mills playing a clip of the announcer going bananas at the end of the race.

To call Mills' victory an "upset" would be a major understatement. From what I've read or watched recently, it's been said not a single reporter asked Mills a question in the days leading up to the race. He wasn't on anyone's radar.

But the rest is history.

If my memory serves me, when our group of students got back to school after the conference (which took place in a town about 40 miles away), I told one of my teachers we met an Olympic gold medalist. I didn't say the name initially because I didn't think it would be a name she would recognize. She asked who the speaker was, and, when I said "Billy Mills," she said, "Billy Mills! I think he is a real American hero."

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Redeem Team lives up to name/Beijing Olympics monumental

When Jerry Colangelo was given the reins to the USA men's basketball program, certain changes were implemented with the intent of bringing the gold medal back to the United States. Colangelo asked for a firm, three-summer commitment from players who were interested in playing for the national team. Players were thus given more practice time to build team chemistry and become more familiar with each others' games. The athletes also grew in their knowledge of FIBA basketball and the style of play of their opponents. All of these developments led to the successful recapturing of gold at the Beijing Olympics.

When the U.S. Olympic team was hyped as the favorite going into the basketball tournament, someone(s) came up with a name that was a spin-off from the 1992 Dream Team moniker: The Redeem Team. This was supposed to be the team that atoned for the failures of other U.S. men's basketball teams who were unable to take home the gold medal in either the World Championships or the Olympics earlier this decade.

One question often asked now is who would win a game between the 1992 squad and this year's team. It may not be fair - or accurate - to state this year's team is more talented. However, based on the fact the level of competition has risen each successive year, it may be fair to claim the 2008 team's performance reached a higher standard than that of any of their predecessors.
Hats off to Team USA basketball for being gracious in victory, not getting involved in trash-talking matches with opponents and limiting their banter with referees, regardless of what they thought of the calls being made. Congratulations are in order to Spain for such a well-contested final game, and to all the Olympians, regardless of their sport or country, who helped make this year's Games a rousing success.

I miss the Olympics already.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Beijing Preview

Time Magazine came out with a list of 100 Athletes to Watch at the Olympics. At the top of the list is a certain U.S. men's basketball star.

Also on the list...Lopez Lomong, Liu Xiang, Marta and more.

And, as a big hoops fan, here is my prognostication for the men's basketball tournament:

12th place: Iran - They won't win a single game in this tournament. In fact, they lost two summer league NBA games (many of the players in those games are minor leaguers who won't be on an NBA roster when the season begins) at the Rocky Mountain Review by a combined 42 points, but Iran's victory comes just in competing at the Games.

11th place: Angola - The perennial African champion has made great strides since the days of being elbowed by Charles Barkley in 1992, but they still have a way to go before they reach the level of the elite teams.

10th place: China - The host nation is big on size, led by their 7'6" flag-bearer, Yao Ming, but a medal is out of the question.

9th place: Australia - The Boomers gave Argentina and USA a run for their money in pre-Olympic play, but just to reach the quarterfinals, they'll need to finish pool play ahead of either Argentina, Russia, Lithuania or Croatia.

8th place: Germany - They're led by superstar Dirk Nowitzki - with help from American-turned-German Chris Kaman - but this squad is a bit short on depth. Still, they were able to qualify for the Beijing Games and are strong candidates to reach the quarterfinals.

7th place: Croatia - This country has produced high-level basketball talent and should perform well enough to make the Croatian faithful proud.
6th place: Lithuania - After three consecutive Olympic bronze medals, they hoped to have taken another step toward gold when they beat the U.S. in 2004. They returned to play the U.S. again that year in the bronze medal match, but went home empty-handed. A medal will not come easily in China either.

5th place: Russia - They won last year's European Championships when they pulled off a major upset in rallying to beat Spain. The Russians were relatively competitive against the Americans in a pre-Olympic exhibition.

4th place: Greece - Winners of the silver medal at the 2006 World Championships, it seems unfathomable that a team this good won't win a medal. However, in a field of competition this talented, there are no guarantees. The top four teams may all have aspirations of gold, but at least one of them won't even medal.

Bronze Medal: Argentina - The gold medal winners of the 2004 Athens Games have their work cut out for them. They struggled a bit in the friendlies prior to the Olympics - losing to Spain twice and Lithuania once, and getting a better-than-expected game from some other opponents - so picking them ahead of Greece may show bias on my part. However, the Argentines have generally put their best foot forward when the games count most, and they could advance to the semifinals (or better) for the fourth straight time in major world competition. Miracles can happen when you have this man on your team.

Silver Medal: Spain - The defending World Champions are loaded with talent and should have a chip on their shoulder. Not only would they love to avenge their loss to Russia in the last EuroBasket, but they also were shafted in the last Olympic games. After going unbeaten in pool play in Athens, Spain ran into Team USA in the quarterfinals - on a day the Americans' outside shots were finally falling at a high rate. That left Spain to settle for seventh place, despite a 6-1 record. Spain actually beat the silver and gold medalists of that tournament (Argentina and Italy), but went home with nothing.

Gold Medal: USA - By no means is this a sure thing, and after dominating Olympic basketball for generations, the U.S. may never be a clear-cut favorite again. With that being said, they still have a good chance at the gold - it just won't be easy. Their players are trained for a different brand of basketball than what FIBA plays, and other countries' headlining players are more familiar with international basketball - and with their teammates (see this Kelly Dwyer column for more on the challenges the American team faces). However, if they dictate the tempo of their games, the Americans should stand at the top of the medals podium.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

My neighbor is an OLYMPIAN!

Niklas Arrhenius, who lives a few steps away from me, will be competing in the discus at this month's Olympic Games in Beijing, China. Nik was the 2007 NCAA discus champion while at BYU. Although he is American, he will be wearing the blue and yellow colors of his father's homeland, Sweden.

Nik has been featured in recent stories in the Daily Herald and The Daily Universe, as well as other media outlets.
Congratulations, Nik!