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John Harvard's Journal

Harvard in the Olympics

March-April 2006

Rarely will you hear a former Olympic and National Hockey League player use the word “fungible” twice within a few minutes, but C.J. Young ’90 did exactly that during a day-long program on “Harvard in the Olympics” at the Harvard Club of Boston. Just three weeks before the 2006 Torino Winter Games, Harvard Olympic athletes, coaches, administrators, and interested others gathered for a varied day that included a disquisition on the ancient Olympics by Jones professor of classical Greek literature Gregory Nagy, four panels, and a professionally produced short film on Harvard and the Olympics. The movie included interviews with Crimson Olympians, vintage film of competition, and anecdotes from Games past. (Coverage of the Harvard Club event will be available in the near future on [email protected], http://athome.harvard.edu.)

The panels looked at the Olympic experience, training and commitment, administrative issues, and life after the Games. Boston Globe sportswriter John Powers ’70, who has covered every Olympics since 1972, moderated two panels, steering speakers toward provocative questions like the disappearance of amateurism: the International Olympic Committee struck the word “amateur” from its charter in 1984. “The Dream Team [the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team of NBA stars] was the worst thing that ever happened to the Olympics,” said always-outspoken former athletic director Bill Cleary ’56, who won a silver medal in 1956 and a gold medal in ice hockey in 1960 at Squaw Valley. “It has become all about marketing, sponsorship, and sales.” Harvard’s current head men’s ice-hockey coach Ted Donato ’91, who skated in the 1992 Albertville Games, noted, “I felt I was the one with the privilege of wearing a USA jersey. Now it seems to be the country’s privilege to have a certain athlete.”

Since the start of the modern Olympics in 1896 (read “The Unexpected Olympians,” July-August 1996), more than 130 Harvard athletes have competed in the Games, especially in rowing and ice hockey. Head men’s crew coach Harry Parker spoke about his own experience as a sculler in the 1960 Rome Olympics, noting that his official duties as a U.S. Navy seaman included training for the Games. He joked, “It’s a dirty little secret—I was one of the first professional scullers in the sport of rowing.”

Lawyer Paul E. George ’63. a member of the International Olympic Committee’s Coordination (Oversight) Commission for the 2006 Torino Olympic Winter Games, ran a discussion about the administrative aspects of staging an Olympiad. The 1976 Montreal Games were a financial debacle that discouraged cities from bidding to host the competition; the panel’s consensus was that the Olympics might not exist today but for Peter Ueberroth’s creative marketing of the 1984 Los Angeles Games, which netted a $250-million surplus. ESPN’s Theresa Moore ’86, who worked on marketing the 1996 Atlanta Games, commented on the strictures of sponsorship: “You have to remember to say, ‘I will UPS this to you—not FedEx it.’” The discussion of post-Olympic life included Paralympian Bonnie St. John ’86, the first African American to medal in any Olympics in ski racing. “I was a long shot to be the one,” she joked, calling herself “The one-legged black girl from San Diego.” Her co-panelist Jim Herberich ’85, a bobsled driver at the 1988, 1994, and 1998 Winter Games, recalled, “I loved bobsledding. Every run, you felt like you cheated death today.”

The Harvard in the Olympics event, sponsored by the Harvard Alumni Association and the Harvard Varsity Club, amounted to a one-day crash course in Olympic athletics. It was self-contained, in its way, like the Games themselves. “For 17 days, there’s no world outside the Olympics,” said John Powers. “It’s sporting’s Brigadoon.”

~Craig Lambert