US ends 108-year hex in 1500 – are Cubs next?

Matthew Centrowitz not only won the gold medal in the men’s 1500 meters, he ended 108 years of American frustration in this marquee Olympic event.

You need to go back to 1908 to find the last time the USA took gold in the 1500 meters, aka the metric mile. Melvin Whinfield “Peerless Mel” Sheppard was the last American to win the 1500.

The year 1908 just happens to be the last year the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. Could this be a harbinger of things to come?

Sheppard won the first running medal at the 1908 and tied the Olympic record at 4:03.6. Sheppard also took gold in the 800 meters and medley relay in the 1908 Games, held in London.

Since then, four Americans – Abel Kiviat in 1912, Glenn Cunningham in 1936, Bob McMillen in 1952 and Jim Ryan in 1968 – placed second and took home the silver. But none could win the race.

Teddy Roosevelt was President at the time of the 1908 Olympics. Henry Ford produced his first Model T automobile that year, Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart and Milton Berle were born. In 1908, Bulgaria declared independence from the Ottoman Empire.

Some of the greatest runners in history have won gold in the 1500. Paavo Nurmi in 1924 Herb Elliott, in 1960, Kip Keino in 1968, and Sebastian Coe, in 1980 and 1984, the only two-time Olympic champ.


Rupp joins Mills, Tewanima in US 10K club

Billy Mills won gold in the 10k final in 1964, one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history.

When Galen Rupp won the silver medal in the men’s 10,000 meter final in London the other day, he became the first American to medal in the event since Billy Mills took the gold in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.

The only other American ever to medal in the 10K was Louis Tewanima, below, who took silver in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm.

Both Mills and Tewanima were native Americans. Mills, also known as Makata Taka Helawas a member of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Tribe. Tewanima was a Hope Indian and ran for the Carlisle Indian School, where he was a teammate of Jim Thorpe.

Mills’ victory is still considered one of the greatest of all Olympic upsets. The favorite was Australia’s Ron Clarke, the world record-holder in the 10K.

Mills was a virtual unknown. He had finished second in the U.S. Olympic trials. His time in the preliminaries was a full minute slower than Clarke’s.

Coming down the home stretch in Tokyo, Mills burst past several runners and sprinted toward the finish, overtaking Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia and Clarke, who earned the bronze.

American television viewers were able to hear the surprise and drama as NBC expert analyst Dick Bank screamed, “Look at Mills, look at Mills” For bringing that drama to the coverage, Bank was fired.

One hundred years ago, Tewanima finished second to Finnish runner Hannes Kolehmainen the same games where Thorpe won both the pentathlon and decathlon
.
Team GB
Mo Farsh, Rupp’s friend and training partner, won gold in London and Great Bitian’s first medal ever in the 10,000 meters. Both Farah and Rupp were coached by Alberto Salazar, three-time winner of the New York Maraghon and USA Track and Field Hall of Fame.


The Top 10 List of Top 10 Lists

Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak has held up for nearly 70 years. It’s one of 10 baseball records that will never be broken.

People like top 10 lists. They’re neat and tidy. They cut to the chase. They can be controversial. And they work. Ask David Letterman.

Throughout the past three years, the SportsLifer has posted a wide variety of top 10 lists. Here’s the top 10 of top 10s.

1. 10 Baseball Records That Will Never Be Broken

SportsLifer also appears on Bleacher Report, and this blog earned a gold medal with more than 5,000 reads. And it’s been grounds for debate, soliciting 39 comments on the SportsLifer web site alone.

2. The 10 Best College Football Teams of All Time

Another Bleacher Report hit, this one led to a silver medal with 2,000 viewers.

3. Top Ten All-Time Quarterback List

An early SportsLifer blog, posted after Brett Favre retired from the Packers. Upon further review and based on his ill-fated comebacks, Favre slips from third to fifth, behind Dan Marino and Otto Graham.

4. Lords of The Ringless: Wide Receiver Edition

One of the popular Lords of The Ringless postings, which also feature running backs, quarterbacks and MLB and NBA players.

5. 10 Things You May Not Know About Yankees Vs. Red Sox

A natural rivarly and a natural top 10. Did you know Horace Clarke knocked in the winning run in the longest game the Yankees and Red Sox ever played — 20 innings.

6. Hometown Heroes: The Best Athletes from White Plains

Art Monk, Washington Redskins wide receiver and NFL Hall of Famer, tops this homeboy list.

7. Top Ten Best NFL Championship Upsets Ever

This list was sparked by the Giants upset of the previously unbeaten Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. That epic ranks second behind the Jets win over the Colts in Super Bowl III.

8. The 10 Best Game-Winning Shots In NCAA Tourney History

GOOD! HE DID IT! BRYCE DREW DID IT! VALPO HAS WON THE GAME A MIRACLE!”  What a shot!

9. 10 Things You Never Knew About Jake Beckley

Who knew “Old Eagle Eye” had nearly 3,000 hits and and still leads all first baseman in putouts and total chances. Beckley retired after the 1907 season. Remember.

10. The SportsLifer Top 10

Bucky Dent’s home run in Boston in the 1978 Yankee-Red Sox game playoff game tops the list of games the SportsLifer has seen….in person.


Miracle on Ice: Game That Shaped a Nation

This Sports Illustrated cover told it all – there was no need for words.

Hard to believe, but it was 30 years ago today that the United States hockey team upset the heavily favored Russians in the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid.

Most Americans old enough to remember the Miracle on Ice can recall exactly where they were when they  first heard the news — that a bunch of amateurs and college kids from the United States had beaten the vaunted Russians, a team that had won four consecutive Olympic gold medals and was universally considered the best hockey team in the world.  That same Russian team had embarrassed the Americans in an exhibition match at Madison Square Garden barely a week before — a game that wasn’t as close as the 10-3 score indicated.

What most Americans don’t remember was that the Miracle on Ice was on tape delay by ABC — it was actually played on a Friday afternoon since the Soviets vetoed a later start that would have meant a 4 am face-off in Moscow. The game was aired in prime time that evening across America.

Before the game, coach Herb Brooks, shown right,  read his players a statement he’d written out on a piece of paper, telling them that “You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. This moment is yours.”

Avoiding the Score
In those days, decades before the era of instant communication, it was still relatively easy to avoid hearing a score if one wanted to watch a taped telecast “live.” My buddy and I avoided the Fort Lauderdale bar scene that day, only to find out the US team won when the cashier at a Wendy’s drive-in window greeted us with…. “Did you guys hear the US won 4-3.” Then she passed over our cheeseburgers and fries.

Oh well, we still watched the game, cheered Jim Craig’s acrobatic saves and Mike Eruzione’s winning goal, below, and counted down the final seconds as Al Michaels made his famous call….”Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”

That night the clubs along A1A on Fort Lauderdale’s famous strip were hopping, like New Year’s Eve, Mardi Gras and spring break all rolled into one.

Another aspect of that famous game that few Americans recall is that the win over Russia was not for the gold medal. Team USA still had to beat Finland two days later to capture the gold.

Before that Sunday afternoon game against the Finns, this one televised live nationwide, Brooks warned his players “If you lose this game you will take it with you to your graves.”

Comeback for the Gold
And the Americans, as was their habit throughout the 1980 Olympics, trailed after two periods before scoring three goals in the final period to beat Finland 4-2 for the gold..

Some 30 years later, grown men and women still tear up when thinking back to that famous weekend that forever changed the way Americans viewed their country. Following the tumultuous times of the 1960 and 1970s, known for race riots and peace marches and assassinations and the hostage crisis in Iran, Americans needed a reason to believe in their country again.

Perhaps that revival began in a tiny skating rink in upstate New York, where chants of USA, USA filled the air and Americans had a reason to celebrate the red, white and blue.

So now, in 2010, America is a much different place, strengthened by patriotism and fueled by the tragic events of 9/11. An African American man is now President, something few would have thought possible during the racial turbulence of the 60s.

Seldom if ever has a sporting event influenced an entire country like Team USA’s victory over Russia in 1980.

Post Script: The American hockey team is on a roll in the 2010 Winter Olympics, especially following last night’s 5-3 victory over Team Canada, America’s first win against its northern neighbor since the 1960 Olympics.

Team USA is in contention for a gold medal this year, but the stakes are so much different. Professional players, many from the NHL, are playing in the Olympics nowadays — we no longer see the matchups of amateur against professional.

A gold medal would be nice, certainly, but there will never be another Miracle on Ice.


Winter Olympics Recall Memories of Salt Lake

Simon Ammann of Switzerland  soars to gold in the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.

There’s something about the Olympics that can capture the imagination of an entire nation, even the world. .

Most Americans over the age of 35 remember exactly where they were that Friday afternoon in 1980 when the United States hockey team upset the vaunted Russians at Lake Placid in the “Miracle on Ice.”

The Olympics are made of magic moments and memorable athletic feats — like Cassius Clay and Wilma Rudolph winning gold in the heat of Rome in 1960, the great French skier Jean-Claude Killy, below, schussing down the slopes of Chamrousse near Grenoble, France, in 1968, and most recently Michael Phelps, the aqua man of Beijing in the 2008 Olympics .

Who know what’s going to happen in Vancouver. Will Lindsey Vonn win gold in skiing? Will Canada  finally win a gold on home soil in this, its’ third Olympics? Will the favored Korean teenager Kim Yu-Na take gold in the most popular event of the Winter Olympics, women’s figure skating.

Eight years ago, the SportsLifer had the thrill of attending his first and only Olympics — the Winter Games in Salt Lake City. For four days in Utah, the Lifer was right in the center of the Olympic universe.

Utah Boondoggle

This was one of those rare NBC friend of a client deals, and the network went first class all the way for me and my buddy Matty, starting with the flight from JFK to Salt Lake City on a private commercial airliner. Once there, NBC outfitted us head to toe in winter clothing, everything from powder blue parkas with the peacock logo to leggings, hats, gloves and boots.

Each day we had the option of attending an event or staging a personal Olympics — skiing, skating or snowmobiling were among the options. We saw figure skating and short track racing, and caught the men’s long hill ski jump (that’s your big boy) on a frigid morning when Simon Ammann of Switzerland won his second gold. Ammann, who was shut out in 2006, earned the first gold medal of the Vancouver Games and his third overall

And although snowmobiling isn’t an Olympic sport, one day we went speeding up into the mountains and around a huge meadow outside of Park City, more than 12,000 feet above sea level.

On the inside track, we met gold medalists like Peggy Fleming, Katarina Witt and Kristi Yamaguchi, and 1980 US hockey goaltender Jim Craig. We saw concerts downtown in Salt Lake City, like the Bear Naked Ladies. We ate well and drank better, even in Salt Lake with its bizarre liquor laws.

It was an Olympics to remember….one in a lifetime of memorable Games.


Who Was The Real Cassius Clay?

Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed The World by David Maraniss is an excellent read that provides a rare glimpse into the 1960 Summer Olympics and the spy vs. spy mentality so prevalent in that era of cold-war diplomacy.

Set in Rome, just 15 years removed from World War II and the fascist regime of Mussolini, these Games really did represent a fulcrum point in so many ways — in civil rights, women’s athletics, doping scandals, and world politics. The rivalry between the United States and Russia was fevered, on and off the playing fields in Rome.

Cassius Clay, center, at the Gold Medal ceremony, 1960 Oylmpics, Rome.

The stars of those Olympics were Abebe Bikila, the bare-footed marathon runner from Ethiopia, and three Americans — decathlete and flag-bearer Rafer Johnson, sprinter Wilma Rudolph and an 18-year-old light-heavyweight boxer from Louisville known as Cassius Clay.

Clay, who was on his way to becoming Muhammad Ali, the greatest, the heavyweight champion of the world. But as a young black man from Kentucky he won Olympic gold by beating Poland’s Zbigniew Piertzykowski in three rounds.

On the flight back home from Rome, Ali wrote a simple rhyme, later to become a trademark of this boxing poet. It began:

To make America the greatest is my goal,
So I beat the Russian and I beat the Pole.

Ali was named the third greatest athlete of the 20th Century according to ESPN, behind only Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth. Many feel that Ali is the most recognized man, or at least the most recognizable athlete, of the 20th Century.

The Great Emancipationist
But who was the real Cassius Clay?

Cassius Marcellus Clay, nicknamed “The Lion of White Hall” 1810 –1903) was an emancipationist from Madison County, Kentucky, and a second cousin of famous politician Henry Clay.

The wealthy Southerner became a prominent anti-slavery crusader in the 1830s and 1840s. He worked toward emancipation, both as a Kentucky state representative and as an early member of the Republican Party.

In the late 1830s and early 1840s, Clay served three terms in the Kentucky General Assembly, but he lost support among Kentucky voters as his platform became more focused on ending slavery. In 1845, he began publishing an anti-slavery newspaper called the True American in Lexington, Kentucky.

Within a month he received death threats and was forced to barricade the doors of his newspaper office for protection. Shortly thereafter, a mob of about 60 broke into his office and seized his printing equipment. Clay later continued publication in Cincinnati.

His connections to the northern anti-slavery movement remained strong, and Clay was among the founders of the Republican party and a friend of Abraham Lincoln, whom he also supported for the Presidency.

In 1861, Lincoln named Clay Minister to Russia, where he witnessed the Czar’s emancipation edict. After being recalled to the United States to accept a commission as Union major general from Lincoln, he publicly refused to accept the commission unless Lincoln would sign an emancipation proclamation.  Although it is unclear how significant Clay was in Lincoln’s decision, following Clay’s return Lincoln issued the proclamation.

In Clay’s later years he became burdened by debt, increasingly eccentric and paranoid. He died in 1903 at the age of 92.

Muhammad Ali’s father, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr., was named for the emancipationist and passed the name along to his son.

And so it goes.


Olympics: And the Winner Is….China

The final medal count for the 2008 Olympics shows the United States as the overall winner with 110 medals, to 100 for China.

However, as noted in an earlier SportsLifer blog, weighing the medals to give more points for gold than silver or bronze changes the equation.

For instance, awarding three points for a gold, two for silver and one for bronze makes China the winner. China had 51 gold medals to 36 for the USA, and using this matrix was the leader by a slim three points, 223 to 220, in the overall medal race.