Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sun, 22 Aug 2004 14:33:23 -0400

Distant Looks at Olympics


(rerun from October 2000 RW)

How much do you care about the Olympics? How much should you care?

The Olympics are entertaining if you watch them as that -- an entertainment spectacle. But if you yell at the television for not showing enough distance running and for overexposing Americans at the expense of the world's majority, or if your running suffers as you use that time to glean every last crumb of news from cable and computercasts, you probably care too much.

My caring peaked a long time ago, at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. This was partly the result of my job, my first Olympics with Runner's World, and partly a function of age. The runners that year were my age-mates and many of them, from Doris Brown to Francie Larrieu and Jeff Galloway to Mike Manley, were -- and still are-- friends.

My caring about the Olympics didn't end at Munich. But it took a healthier turn, thanks in large part to the example of my hero from those Games.

It wasn't Frank Shorter, the first American to stand atop the marathon victory platform in 64 years. It wasn't Lasse Viren, who jumped up from a fall to set a world record in the 10,000 and later won the 5000.

My hero from Munich was a gentle man named Tom Johnson, who attended the Games only as a tourist with the Runner's World group that I helped lead. Before that trip, Tom had never flown. He'd never ventured far his home in Washington, DC, where he worked as an editorial artist for the Post.

When Tom boarded the plane, he was dressed for running. He carried a small backpack holding everything he would need for the next two weeks.

The tour group saw little of him after we arrived in the tiny village, 100 kilometers from the Olympic city, that served as our headquarters for these three weeks. His second home became the trails through the "Sound of Music"-like hills and along the trout-rich local river. Here he ran-walked for hours on trails.

Buses took the tour group by autobahn to Munich each day. Tom skipped most of these rides.

German TV, with commentary he didn't understand, would show him all of the Olympics that he wanted to see. When asked how he could be this close to the Games and not watch them in person, he either didn't have the words or the need to explain. He just smiled and shrugged.

I watched too closely and cared too much at Munich. The athletic and real-world events there exhausted me emotionally before the Olympics ended.

The last three days of running went into history without my help. By then I'd sold my tickets and quit taking the daily bus rides from the village to the city. I'd arrived at a place where Tom had been from the start.

On the day Frank Shorter ran for his gold medal on the streets of Munich, I ran along a river so clear that the trout looked like they swam under glass. Families walked the trail, stepping aside and mouthing German greetings as we met. I spent most of the run smiling.

On our last day in Germany some tour members told of being tired of the travel and crowds, and haunted by memories of the non-athletic events of Munich. I asked Tom Johnson how he'd liked his trip.

He called it "the greatest experience of my life." He himself, and not the Olympic Games, had made it that way.

My Olympic-watching didn't end at Munich. I went to Montreal and have watched all subsequent Games (except Moscow, blacked out in the U.S.) on television. Free of illusions about what the Olympics are, I can enjoy the spectacle from a safe emotional distance.

Having come to this place, I can tell you to watch the current incarnation of the Olympic Games if they interest you. Just don't let good news take you too high or the bad sink you too low.

If you feel that happening, turn off the TV and computer, close the newspaper and go for a run. That's more important to you than any of the running happening in Olympic city.

UPDATE. One reader of that column written four years ago was Kathy Clarke, Tom Johnson's niece. She sent a bittersweet letter.

"Your article perfectly describes my Uncle Tom," she wrote. "He lived in Washington, DC, and frequently visited us when I was a child. He always ran the 15 or so miles to our house in Rockville, Maryland, and then gathered up his six nieces and nephews and took us running in the neighborhood with him."

Travels on foot were typical of him since he never owned a car. "When I visited him in Washington, he took me to fancy restaurants that he frequented," said Clarke. "The owners welcomed him even though he wore his running clothes everywhere."

She reported that the man who planted her own lasting love of outdoor activity died in 1993. "I am so glad that you saw Uncle Tom as your hero, because he was my hero too. That was the impact he had on people."


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