The passing away of boxing legend Muhammad Ali a few days ago brought back a flood of memories. I remember him winning the light heavyweight boxing championship at the Rome Olympics in 1960, only though at that time he was still known as Cassius Clay. Later I came to know that he threw away that precious Gold medal in the Ohio River following an incident of racial discrimination. Some years after the Rome Olympics, Clay became what was then called a “Black Muslim” assuming the name of Muhammad Ali. I remember reading about some of his famous fights over the years when he defeated Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and many others. This article in the Indian Express details ten of his best fights. Reliving those moments brought back memories of the different Olympic Games I read about or saw on television.
The 1952 and 1956 Olympics were held when I was too small to appreciate what they were about, so it is not surprising that I have no memories of them at all. Apart from Cassius Clay’s winning the Gold, other highlights of the Rome Olympics was our very own Milkha Singh coming within a whisker of winning an Olympics medal for the 400 metres. The “Flying Sikh” narrowly lost – by just 1 second- on what was the last opportunity he got of winning an Olympic medal for India. (To see his feat in context, you must remember that no one won an individual Gold in the Olympics for India until Abhinav Bindra won his for the 10 m Air Rifle event at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.)
To add to this disappointment, we were crushed when for the first time the Men’s Field Hockey team failed to win the Gold losing 1-0 to our arch rivals, Pakistan. India had won this for the last 6 Olympics since 1928 and it came as a huge blow to us fans.
A great athlete of those times was Al Oerter of the US who in 1960 retained the Gold for the discus throw he had won in the 1956 Olympics at Melbourne. He went on to win the Gold for the same event in 1964 and 1968 as well!!
The next Olympics were in Tokya, Japan in 1964. Much to our delight, we once again became the Olympics Champions in Men’s Field Hockey by beating Pakistan by the same 1-0 margin.
These were followed by the Olympics at Mexico City, Mexico. I remember this for the Black Power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos when they won the Gold and Silver in the Men’s 200 metres. This became a major controversy at that time. India didn’t fare well in these Olympics with our Men’s Hockey team winning only the Bronze Medal.
In 1972, terror stuck at the Munich Olympics when members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation attacked the Israeli athletes and killed nine of them injuring many others. We were awed by the US swimmer Mark Spitz winning 7 Gold Medals but the Olympics were not a happy one for India. Our major hope, as always, was in the Men’s Field Hockey but once again we had to be content with the Bronze Medal.
By then I had graduated out of college and was doing my post-graduation. The interest in the Olympics waned somewhat and I was never the avid follower that I had been during my childhood and youth from 1960 to 1972.