George Ernie Pickett, Pt 8

The Olympics

by Bill Starr | August 19, 2013

george ernie pickett

The 19th Olympic Summer Games in the modern era held its Opening Ceremony with the parade of nations in Estadio Olympiad on October 12, 1968. To fully understand the mood that hung over the stadium that hot, muggy, Saturday, one must consider the tenor of the times. The unpopular war in Southeast Asia had fomented wide-spread unrest among students. On college campuses from Japan to the United States and in Europe, there were heated and often violent conflicts between the establishment and its increasingly strident students.

In the US, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy along with the withdrawal of President Lyndon Johnson from politics had hit the nation like a gut punch across the already troubled country.

And as one reporter wrote, “Mexico City itself is a mariachi band in discord.” Ever since Mexico City had been selected to hold the Games, critics had complained that it was insane to expect athletes to compete at their very best at one and one-half mile altitude. And it could get overbearingly hot during this time of year.

The promoters’ worry escalated ten days before the start of the Games when simmering unrest on the campus of Mexico City’s university over the long-term distress regarding the plight of the country’s poor. It was a publicist’s nightmare. Thirty students killed, more than one hundred injured and another three hundred jailed.

There were also doubts that the country could actually get the needed facilities built in time for the Games. As it turned out, they did, but by the skin of their teeth. Even on opening day, construction crews could be seen working frantically throughout the Olympic Village.

There was a cloud hovering over the Olympic Village that could be felt. Something was going to happen, but what, when, or where?

In this kind of atmosphere, it could be expected that security would be extremely tight. While there were large numbers of soldiers at the entrance to the Village and all the sports venues, they were more for show than actual protection against any sort of attack. Terpak had given Smitty and me laminated badges with “Official” stamped on them. These could be pinned to a shirt or jacket or hung around the neck on a cloth lanyard, brightly colored with green, white, and red stripes.

What struck me immediately was how easy it would be to duplicate these badges. They could be copied on any good printer or even by hand. I even drew a copy to see how difficult it would be. A piece of cake. Athletes came and went through the gate to the Olympic Village without having their bags checked, and everyone carried some sort of gym bag, and their badges were only glanced at. The guards appeared bored. It was not a good sign, but I didn’t dwell on it. There was nothing I could do if there was a terrorist attack and I was soon far too busy to think about it.

This Olympics will be remembered for several things. For the first time in the history of the modern Games, the Olympic flame was ignited by a woman. The honor was given to 20-year-old Norma Enriqueta Basilio, a hurdler.

The most impressive single achievement was, without any doubt, Bob Beaman’s long jump. In one spectacular effort, unmatched in the recorded history of track and field, he soared an incredible and incomprehensible 29’ 2½”. The jump totally eclipsed the world record by almost two feet and shattered the mythical barrier of 28 feet. Track historians attempted to translate his achievement into more meaningful terms. They calculated that his jump was the equivalent of running a 3:42 mile, high jumping 8 feet, or throwing the shot 76’ 7”.

Dick Fosbury, a high jumper from Medford, Oregon, changed the way that event was done forever. His unorthodox form was frowned upon by track purists – until he won the gold medal with a 7’ 4 ½” leap over the bar. As he left the ground, pushing off his outside foot rather than his inside foot, he turned his back to the bar and went over head-first. The style was called “The Fosbury Flop,” and it didn’t take very long for every other high jumper in the world to mimic him.

But the events that captured the news came out of two track events. Or, more accurately, the award presentations following the events. Two black athletes from San Jose State College competed in the finals of the 200-meter dash. Tommy Smith finished first in world record time, and John Carlos took third.

At the award ceremony, they made their protest. Shoeless, they mounted the victory stand with their sweat pants rolled up to reveal long black socks, a symbol of the ghetto. As the “Star Spangled Banner” was played, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and defiantly thrust their gloved fists skyward in a black power salute. It drew world-wide coverage.

As did another show of protest after the 100-meter dash. Two black Americans, Jim Hines, won with a 9.9 second world record, and Charlie Greene came in third. They refused to accept their medals from Avery Brundage, the most outspoken official whose conciliatory remarks and attitude about South Africa had angered blacks. To avoid further problems and embarrassment, the medals were presented by Lord Burghley of Great Britain.

Amidst all this negativity, one athlete stepped up for the United States and endeared himself to every American sports fan. When reporters asked the heavyweight boxer George Foreman, who had grown up in the slums of Houston, Texas, what he thought about all the racial turmoil, he replied, “That stuff ‘s for college kids. They live in a different world.” Then the 19-year-old backed up his words. After stopping Iones Chepulis of Russia in the second round to win the gold medal, he acknowledged the cheers of the crowd by walking around the ring, waving a small American flag.

Americans have long memories of heroic, patriotic acts, and while I doubt if there are a dozen people who can name the pair who raised their gloved fists on the victory stand in Mexico City, I’d be willing to bet that millions can remember exactly what George did to honor his country.

As unlikely as it sounds, I knew nothing of these events, even though they were happening close by. Same for Smitty. We were totally oblivious to what was going on at the other sports’ venues. We were simply too busy dealing with the American weightlifters. We only found out about those events after we returned to York and read about them in sports magazines.

When we walked into the lifters’ living quarters on Saturday morning, we were greeted by everyone with open arms. They had been told that we were coming but were happy to see us in the flesh. Both Smitty and I knew all the lifters quite well. Smitty more than me in terms of Puleo and Dube. I had hosted the very first contest that Fred Lowe ever competed in at the Marion Y. I had trained and traveled to a great meet in North Carolina with Russ Knipp. Bob Bartholomew was a regular at the YBC on weekends from the time I had arrived at York. I had watched Grippaldi move up the ranks from the time he won the Teen-Age Nationals and attended the first Teen-Age Training Camp at York Junior College. And, of course, I had come to work with Ernie.

I asked how their training was going and Russ, who was the self-appointed spokesman and cheerleader of the group, told me that everyone was feeling the altitude, but it was getting better the longer they were here.

“Has Terpak or Major Ottot been any help?” I wanted to know.

There was a murmur of laughter, then Russ provided, “Well, they do show up at the training hall, but that’s about it. Terpak spends all his time visiting with the foreign lifters and coaches. He really doesn’t know what to tell any of us anyway. It’s rather amazing that he was such a good lifter but doesn’t have the slightest idea about how to coach anyone.”

I said, “It’s because he doesn’t care about helping lifters. Terpak looks after Terpak. How about Major Ottot? What does he do at the training hall?”

Puleo said, “He only showed up on the first training day, but he was like a ship out of water. Why did they bring him in the first place? How does a Marine who never did any Olympic lifting qualify to be an official for the Olympic Team? Why didn’t they bring Huszka? He trained four of us and Terpak could have still been the big cheese.”

Smitty replied, “Joe, you know damn good and well why. Hoffman would never allow a foreign lifter to coach what he regards as his team. But if his ego didn’t get in the way, he could have selected Mister Hise or Joe Mills, who have both proven that they can coach and handle lifters at big meets.”

Bartholomew provided, “And those two are both here.”

“RealIy?” I said in amazement, not so much for Mr. Hise but for Joe Mills.

“Joe and Al Stack drove all the way from Rhode Island,” Bob said.

“I think Hoffman knew that Terpak or the Major wouldn’t be of much help. That’s why he agreed to let Smitty and me come down.”

“Well,” Russ said, “all of us know what we want to do coming down the stretch, but you should see how those other coaches work with their lifters. They do all the loading, watch every single attempt, starting with the warm-ups, urge them on, and hover over them the whole time.”

“So what’s on your schedule?” Smitty asked them.

Russ answered for his teammates. “Today is all about the Opening Ceremony. But we’re all going to train tomorrow. The competition starts tomorrow with the one-twenty-three class and finishes next Saturday with the heavyweights.”

“So the first day we have any lifters competing is Wednesday?” Smitty computed.

“That’s right, me and Freddie,” Russ said. “Our training time is from two to four, which is just about perfect for us.”

“How’s the training facility?” I asked.

Several of them said in unison, “Great!” and Russ elaborated. “It has twenty-two platforms, plenty of squat racks, power racks, incline benches, flat benches, and a masseur on duty all the time. I tell you Starr, it’s a lifter’s dream.”

“Plus,” Freddie added, “we get to watch some of the best lifters in the world train and see how their coaches work with them. Just watching Veres, Talts, Zhabotinsky, Baszanowski, Ouchi, Nassiri, and Kurentsov gets my juices flowing.”

“I bet it does,” I remarked, anxious to be a part of that scene. “How far is the training center from here?”

“Not that far,” Puleo said, “It’s on the campus of the University of Mexico City. We catch a bus just outside the main entrance. We leave here right at one o’clock just to be on the safe side, because the buses don’t keep to a tight schedule.”

I nodded that I understood, then got up and walked around their living quarters. Everything was brand-spanking new so it was clean as a whisker. The room we were in was the largest, with two large tables and four smaller ones along the walls. There were six chairs and two couches for lounging and a TV, which was on with the sound muted. A soccer match was in progress.

The bedrooms were spacious and adequate, and the bathroom was designed to accommodate a half dozen people. Each room had two beds, and I wondered how Ernie was managing because they didn’t look long enough for his 6’ 5” frame. It reminded me of college dorms I had been in, and from what I had read, that’s what these would become once the Olympics were over.

When I walked back into where everyone had gathered, Ernie said, “We’re going over to the dining halls. We have to eat early today because we’re leaving for the Opening Ceremony in about an hour.”

Ernie and I were the last to leave, on purpose. I wanted some time with him alone to see how he was making out in this strange environment. I knew he was very particular about where he slept and what he ate.

“That bed seems kinda short?” I began. “You able to sleep all right?”

“Not great, but not that bad either. I figured out how to make it work. Being up on the tenth floor helps. We don’t get as much noise as those guys do on the lower floors.”

“Next question, how are you handling the altitude?”

“Like Russ said, every day it gets better, but that first workout was rough. I didn’t try anything heavy, just did a light workout to get the kinks out.”

“That was the right thing to do. So you’re setting aside your rule about not staying overnight in some place that’s not as nice as your apartment?”

He laughed, “Well, I don’t have much choice, do I? I would have much rather stayed in a hotel like we did last year and eaten at the hotel restaurant, but when I found out what the situation was going to be, I resigned myself to suck it up and adapt. After all, as Daddy Hoffman would say, it’s only for a couple of weeks.”

“You guys been doing any sight seeing?”

“One trip to the pyramids, that’s about it. Every time any of us walks out of the Village, we’re mobbed for autographs and people wanting to trade pins. At first, signing my autograph was fun, made me feel important, but after a while, it got to be work, so except for going to the training hall, I’ve been sticking close to the Village.”

“There’s some things I want to see while I’m here,” I remarked. “You can go with me. I’ll protect you from your fans.”

“Yeah, like you protected me from Hirtz when we were in L.A.” That made both of us laugh as we recalled all the pranks that Tommy had pulled on Ernie.

Finally I asked Ernie about the food. He was the most finicky eater I had ever met. He didn’t answer me right away and I took that as a bad sign. “You know me, I’m particular about what I eat. Everyone else likes it and you can eat all you want, so I guess it’s okay.”

“But you’re not eating much?”

“No, not much, and this heat isn’t helping either.”

I knew that Ernie had brought a half-dozen canisters of Hoffman’s High-Proteen Powder with him so he could make protein shakes, and I had carried two more canisters in case he ran out. The protein shakes were how he gained and maintained his bodyweight. He ate like a bird.

“Are you drinking shakes to make up for not eating?”

“I tried the first day we were here. I got a girl in the dining hail to make me one but I couldn’t drink it.”

“Why not?”

“What they call milk isn’t real milk. It’s some sort of artificial substitute. It tastes like shit. I just couldn’t handle it.”

“Ernie,” I said sternly, “you’re going to have to force them down or start eating more. If you don’t, you’re going to lose weight in this heat and humidity. How about mixing the protein powder in some kind of juice?”

“I guess I can give it a try,” he replied with hope in his voice.

The dining hall was huge and it was open from 6 a.m. to midnight. It was cafeteria-style and there was no limit on how much an athlete could eat.

As we entered the dining hall, got our trays, and stood in line, I asked, “Who’s your roommate?”

“Bartholomew,” he replied. “We get along fine. He’s quiet, cleans up after himself, and doesn’t snore.” He grinned and added, “That’s good enough for me.”

They would make a good fit, I thought. They knew each other from training together at the Barbell and lifting in meets together. Bob was a welder while Ernie operated a giant lathe, so they were both blue collar workers. Both were introverts. Yeah, I concluded, they were the perfect roomies.

I wasn’t very hungry since Smitty and I had stuffed ourselves at breakfast, but they had fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, and an assortment of vegetables so I was in business.

As we carried our trays of food toward the table where the rest of the American team was sitting and already eating, I saw that they had company. “Is Rigby hanging out with you guys again?”

Tommy had told me that at the Little Olympics, the Australian heavyweight had made himself a part of the American team. “Yeah,” Ernie said, “just like last year. He keeps us entertained and he is one funny character. Think of him as a larger version of Tom Hirtz”

I, of course, knew who he was from the photos of the Little Olympics, so I introduced myself and told him that Tommy Suggs said to say hello and wished him the best in the lifting.

We chatted for a few minutes, him mostly asking about Suggs and some of the other York lifters – March, Garcy, and of course he wanted to know how Grimek and Stanko were getting along.

Then I noticed that the conversation around the table concerned what had transpired at the Congress of the International Weightlifting Federation. Hoffman and David Matlin represented the United States. Clarence Johnson, a long-time associate of Hoffman was elected the new President and Oscar State of Great Britain was reelected as the General Secretary.

The 1969 Worlds had already been awarded to Warsaw, Poland, and the 1970 Worlds were going to be held in Columbus, Ohio.

But the news we were all more interested in was that the press came within two votes of elimination from future Olympic lifting competition, and the 242-lb. weight class had been accepted for international meets, including next year’s World Championships.

The new weight class was good news because we had a wealth of strong lifters that could compete successfully in that division: Barski, of course, March, Gary Deal, Winston Binney, Suggs, Joe Murry, and a few others who were too heavy to make the 198 lb. limit or were having difficulty making weight for the middle heavyweight division.

Dropping the press, however, was bad news for this group of lifters. With the exception of Freddy, every member of the American team relied heavily on their presses, especially Knipp and Grippaldi.

“Well,” Russ said somberly, “when they drop the press, I’ll retire.”

Bob, who also depended on his strong pressing to win contests, spoke up, “It doesn’t matter to me one way or the other.”

“Why not?” asked Russ. “The press is your bread and butter too.”

“Because this is going to be my last meet,” Bob replied matter-of-factly.

“That’s crazy,” interjected Phil. “You got lots of lifting left in you. That ten-thirty-five you made at the Trials was your best ever. You’re still improving.”

“Hey,” Bob said, “I know I was lucky to come in second in the Trials. Capsouras was off and if Chuck Nootens had jerked that four-o-seven, he would be here instead of me. And if March and Gourgott had showed, I doubt if I would have finished in second. But it’s not that so much as my body is just wore out. All those injuries I’ve had over the years keep coming back. It’s just not worth it. I’m not moaning the blues, just accepting the facts. I plan to enjoy myself here and have some fun. The only way I could get a medal is if about six lifters bomb out. This is my swan song. I’ve achieved my goal, to make an Olympic team, so I’m going out with a smile on my face.”

Everyone looked at him with admiration, but said nothing. 

Puleo broke the spell, “I wonder how many pesos Daddy Hoffman shelled out to get the two-forty-two class accepted, Clarence elected to be the next President, and to get Columbus awarded the Worlds in seventy?”

Smitty answered him, “A lot. Plus, I bet he did some trading off of votes in regards to eliminating the press.”

In a shocked tone, Phil said, “You mean he’s for getting rid of the press?”

“Yes and no,” Smitty replied. “On one hand he likes the press because so many of our lifters have been breaking records in the lift, but on the other hand he likes the idea of having shorter meets. And don’t forget that he’s first and foremost a politician. He can see the writing on the wall. The press is going to be eliminated in seventy-two, so he’s getting in on the bandwagon now while he can still reap something for himself.”

Smitty had summed it up nicely, so everyone went back to eating. Except Grippaldi, who got up and went back for more. I looked at Ernie’s tray. He had only taken a small slice of ham and some vegetables and half of that was still on his tray. I leaned over to him and said in-a low voice, “Ernie you have to eat. Force it down.”

He nodded and nibbled at the ham. This is going to be a problem, I thought. I had tasted the milk they served and it was terrible. I could doctor it with chocolate and get it down but I knew that wouldn’t work for Ernie. I had to figure out what to do to help him maintain his bodyweight.

Terpak and Major Ottot came over to our table and John announced, “You need to finish up and get dressed. There’s going to be chaos out there when all the countries are getting on buses. We need to get there early and we all need to stay together.”

All the athletes, including Rigby started getting up. All except for Phil, who was gulping down the remaining food on his tray like a starving refugee. Terpak stared at him in utter amazement, then barked, “Hell Phil, you’ve had enough. You can eat again when we get back. C’mon!”

Phil reluctantly obeyed and everyone chuckled. He was an eating machine.

The dining hall was clearing out rapidly and soon Smitty and I found ourselves about the only people left. “No sense us getting in a hurry to go back to the house,” he said. “Until all the buses have left for the opening Ceremony, we don’t stand a chance in hell of finding our bus.”

“Well, let’s explore the Village,” I suggested.

It was much larger than I thought. There were perhaps two dozen high-rise buildings that served as quarters for all the athletes, coaches, and officials, a heated pool, a quarter-mile practice track, and an imposing structure they called the International House. That’s where a lot of the participants of the Games gathered before and after practice sessions.

The weather had cooled down appreciably and Smitty offered, “That’s good. Those athletes are going to be tired enough just standing, marching, and standing some more for over two or three hours. At least they won’t be doing it in the heat.”

As we strolled around the Village, we were treated to our own version of the parade of nations as athletes and coaches were percolating out of the buildings and racing to the pick-up area to be transported to the Estadio Olympiad. The wide range of colors and designs of the various uniforms was fascinating to me, and I could see that Smitty also found the scene inviting. We sat on a bench and took everything in, hoping to be able to record this moment for future reference in our minds.

After about two hours, there were only a few athletes walking along the sidewalks. These were the athletes that would be competing tomorrow or Monday and didn’t want to tap into their reserves by walking and standing in the Parade of Nations.

“I think we can head out now,” Smitty said.

We started making our way to the entrance. Once we got there, we had another hour wait until our bus arrived, then it was stop and go all the way to our destination. As we walked toward the Dollero house where we were staying, I said to Smitty, “I really want to go visit the Anthropology Museum while I’m here. It’s supposed to be the largest in the world.”

“Yeah, you should.” Smitty knew that I was teaching Anthropology at York College in the evenings.

“Well,” I went on, “Tomorrow looks like the best time to go. I could get up early, visit the museum and make it to the Village before the bus leaves to go the training center. You want to go with me?”

“Sure, That’s sounds like it would be worthwhile to see and you can explain some of the stuff to me.”

So that’s what we did. Up at eight, we found James and asked if he could tell us which bus, or busses, to take to the museum. He told us that because of all the activity around the Olympic Village, we would be better off taking a taxi to the museum and catching a bus to the Olympic Village from there.

“There will be buses coming and going to the museum and Village all day. It’s the biggest tourist attraction in the city. You won’t have any difficulty finding a bus to the Village.”

The taxi ride to the museum had both our hearts pounding and our knuckles white. The streets were packed with cars, buses, bikes, motorcycles and everyone was in a hurry, with no one yielding. It was a game and when we went around one of the numerous circles, it was a challenge to all vehicles to get in their desired lanes as quickly as possible, even if that meant cutting off the competition. It was unnerving, but I finally figured out this was normal behavior, so I tried to relax.

We spent an hour at the museum. While the history of the Incas and Aztecs wasn’t but a small part of my course, I knew enough to make it interesting to Smitty. We marveled at the centerpiece of the museum, the enormous Aztec Calendar.

As James had said, we had no problem catching a bus to the Olympic Village. Thus began the routine for Smitty and me for the next seven days, where we spent the bulk of every day either waiting for a bus or riding one. We would leave the Dollero house before nine and would often return after eleven at night. However, I did find time to take Ernie on a couple of excursions into the city. One was enjoyable while the other turned out to be a nightmare. For Ernie, not me.

  • Part 1
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  • Part 3
  • Part 4
  • Part 5
  • Part 6
  • Part 7
  • Part 9
  • Part 10
  • Part 11
  • Part 12
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