Archives Experience Newsletter - July 20, 2021

  • 🔥Torch of Competition🔥

Thorpe. Owens. Smith. Carlos. Ali. Jenner. Lewis. Griffith-Joyner. Retton. Luganis. Phelps. These names need no introduction or context. They are a few of the iconic names that stand above others in Olympic history.

Around the globe, nothing brings out a country’s patriotism like the biennial international competition. (Except maybe the World Cup in soccer.) Even for folks who aren’t really “into sports,” it is hard not to cheer for the underdog or scream as a world record is broken. In the U.S., we have no shortage of Olympic zeal when it comes to our athletes.

Over the years, the United States has hosted the games eight times. Presidents and first families have attended opening and closing ceremonies and have received many Olympic gifts. Olympians have visited the White House after rousing success. And the National Archives has the photos, records, speeches, and torches to prove it. To jump into the spirit, we share some of memories from our holdings with you this week. Let the games begin!

🥇

Patrick Madden
Executive Director
National Archives Foundation


The American Games

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The Olympic games are an international endeavor, and in keeping with that
spirit, they are held in different cities around the world every four years.
The modern Olympic games were first held in Athens, Greece, in 1896. Since
then, the games have been held in the United States eight times, more than
in any other nation.

In the beginning, the Olympic games included only
summer sports. It was not until 1924 that the winter Olympic games were
added. The summer games that have been held in the U.S. are the third summer
games in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904; the tenth summer games in Los
Angeles, California, in 1932; the twenty-third summer games in Los Angeles,
in 1984; and the twenty-sixth summer games in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1996. The
winter Olympics that have been held in the U.S. are the third winter games
in Lake Placid, New York, in 1932; the eighth winter games in
Squaw Valley, California, in 1960; the thirteenth winter games in Lake Placid, in 1980; and the
nineteenth winter games in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2002.

Two U.S. cities,
Los Angeles, California, and Lake Placid, New York, have hosted the games
twice. Los Angeles is scheduled to host the summer games a third time in
2028.


All in the Family

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American athletes of color have
long faced systemic racism
that has interfered with their success. Jesse Owens, a Black track and field
athlete on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team, thoroughly embarrassed Adolf Hitler
when he beat the German contenders and won four gold medals in Berlin. When
he returned home, however, Owens and the other Black Olympic athletes were
not invited to the White House, while their white teammates were.
Furthermore, Owens struggled to make a living, eventually having to file for
bankruptcy.

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A family of Black athletes who you may have heard less about is
the Joyners, who have devoted themselves to serving their communities since
they stopped competing. Born in East St. Louis in 1960, Alfrederick “Al”
Joyner won the gold medal in the triple jump at the 1984 Olympic games in
L.A. Al’s sister, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who also hails from East St. Louis,
medaled in the long jump and the heptathlon in four different Olympic games,
accumulating three gold, one silver, and one bronze award.

Al Joyner married
and then coached Florence Griffith Joyner, a sprinter from California
nicknamed “Flo-Jo,” who became the fastest woman of all time. Known for her
colorful outfits and fun nail art, Flo-Jo won a silver medal at the 1984
games in Los Angeles, and three gold and one silver medal at the 1988 games
in Seoul, South Korea. Tragically, Florence Griffith Joyner died in her
sleep at the age of 38.

After Flo-Jo passed, Al Joyner spearheaded the
efforts of the Flo-Jo Memorial Community Empowerment Foundation, which aims
to help young people around the world pursue their dreams. Al Joyner
continues to coach track and field athletes.

After she retired from track
and field competition, Jackie Joyner-Kersee returned to East St. Louis,
where she established the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation. The Foundation
partners with Comcast, the Christian Activity Center, and Intel to create
after-school programs and provide laptops, internet connections, and
computer clubhouses for low-income families. She was a founding member of
Athletes for Hope, and she has served on the
President’s
Council for Physical Fitness.

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Playing Politics

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Ideally, the Olympic games would be a politics-free zone where athletes can
compete strictly on their own merits. In reality, of course, it’s not at all
uncommon for politics to pervade the games.

One example of the presence of
politics in the games is the “Miracle on Ice,” the 1980 U.S. men’s ice
hockey team’s victory over the Soviet Union’s team in the penultimate match
of the winter games in Lake Placid, New York. “That game was and is to me
the greatest upset in the history of sport, any sport, any place, any time,”
broadcaster Jim McKay said at the opening ceremonies of the Salt Lake Winter
Olympics in 2002. The 1980 men’s team went on to defeat Finland in the final
game and claim the gold medal. The “Miracle on Ice” is one of the best-known
stories in sports of all time.

What has become rather obscured, however, are
the reasons the U.S. win was considered so significant at the time. The
long-running Cold War contributed to the animosity between the two nations,
but also, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to virtually
universal and worldwide condemnation. The victory of the U.S. team,
comprised almost entirely of amateur athletes, over the Soviet team, which
was mostly made up of professional hockey players, was seen as a triumph of
American righteousness over Russian aggression.

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That summer, President
Jimmy Carter announced that the United States was boycotting
the Olympic games in Moscow because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of
Afghanistan. In retaliation, the Soviet Union boycotted the summer games in
Los Angeles, citing security issues and
anti-Soviet
sentiment in the United States.

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Other nations have boycotted the Olympics—for instance, many African
nations did not participate in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal because New
Zealand was competing there. Earlier that year, the New Zealand rugby team
had toured South Africa, which at the time was subject to a sports embargo
because of its apartheid social systems. Nevertheless, athletes from New
Zealand were still allowed to compete in Montreal, which sparked the
boycott. But many historians contend that neither the 1980 nor the 1984
boycott had any discernible effect on the political point the boycotting
nations were trying to make. They did, however, derail the careers of many
athletes who had been training all their lives to compete in the Olympics
and disenchanted many members of the public as well.


History Snacks

…and 268 Days Old

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You might think that Olympic competitors can state their ages in
conventional terms—for instance, “fifteen and a half” or “going on sixteen.”
But when athletes are competing in the Olympics, their ages are calculated
down to the day. Marjorie Gestring was the youngest American to win a gold
medal in the Olympics, beating her teammate and odds-on favorite Katherine
Rawls in the three-meter springboard diving competition at the 1936 summer
Olympics in Berlin. Those back
home in the U. S. could have read about her victory and others in the
Civilian Conservation Corps Newspaper, “Happy Days.”
Gestring was thirteen years and 268 days old when she won her medal—almost fourteen by most standards, but that metric is not quite fine-grained enough for the Olympic games.

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The Final Light

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At every Olympic games since 1936, a flame ignited in Olympia, Greece, has
been carried to the site of the games via a torch relay. Once it reaches the
host nation, the torch is carried through towns large and small. In 1984,
President Ronald Reagan welcomed the torch bearer to the White House.

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In the final leg of the relay, the flame is borne to the
Olympic cauldron by a person of great significance—usually an elite athlete,
but sometimes a nonathlete who has notably contributed to society. The
identity of the final torch bearer is always a closely guarded secret.

At
the Olympic games that have been held in the United States, the torch
bearers on the final leg have included all sorts of people. At the 1960
winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, Ken Henry, a gold medalist in
the 500-meter speed skating event at the 1952 winter Olympics in Oslo,
Norway, lit the cauldron. In 1980, at the Lake Placid, New York, winter
games, the final leg was run by Charles Kerr, a psychiatrist who was chosen
from among all fifty-two of the torch-relay runners. At the Los Angeles
summer games in 1984, Rafer Johnson, the decathlon gold medalist in the 1960
summer games in Rome, Italy, ran the last leg of the relay. In 1996, at the
summer games in Atlanta, Georgia, Muhammad Ali, who won a gold medal in the
light heavyweight division of the boxing competition in 1960, ignited the
cauldron.* And at the Salt Lake City winter games in 2002, the 1980 U.S.
men’s hockey team, the winners of the Miracle on Ice game,
converged on the podium to light the flame together.

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Among the
holdings of the National Archives is the
USIA Motion Picture
Collection
and African American History, which includes important films such as The
Rafer Johnson Story and the Television Satellite series that documented the
lives and work of many Black athletes, artists, and military figures,
including Muhammad Ali and General Colin Powell.

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*By the way, yesterday,
July 19th, was the 25th anniversary of Muhammad Ali lighting the torch at
the ‘96 games. Documentarian and Foundation Board member, Ken Burns, has a
new documentary about Ali that highlights this electric moment in Olympic
Games’ history. More here from the Today Show here!

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