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Steve Christilaw: New heroes will be born at Rio games

Steve Christilaw

The Olympic Games open Friday in Rio de Janeiro with the pageantry of the opening ceremonies.

This Olympiad will be interesting on so many fronts. Brazil is frantically trying to finish preparations – and may well be doing so right up until the torch is sparked to flame. There is the concern over the Zika virus and its continuing impact on the games – with some athletes opting to stay home rather than risk the mosquitos that carry Zika.

There will be much debate over domestic priorities – should countries like Brazil, which have widespread poverty and other pressing domestic concerns, divert limited resources to pay for two weeks of Olympic glory? Especially with empty soccer stadiums aplenty following the 2014 World Cup?

There will be long debates over steroids and other ways of cheating the system – there always are. It’s a shame that, as long as there is competition, there will be athletes (and countries hungry for Olympic glory) who find ways to cheat.

The political debates will continue long after the last runner has crossed the finish line and the final whistle has sounded.

On the field, the games will leave us breathless time and again. Heroes will be revealed.

I’m an Olympic purist at heart. I miss the days when the games were strictly a competition between amateur athletes from around the world, but I admit that it would be difficult to determine just when the last time that happened. The same effort some Olympic programs put into finding chemicals to give them an edge they used to put into finding ways to get professional athletes into the many and various competitions.

Yes, the Soviet Red Army could have fielded its own Olympic team – or so it seemed, back in the day. And yes, it became laughable trying to enforce the rules of amateurism.

But that doesn’t stop me from being wistful for the days of Jesse Owens and Jim Thorpe, of Cassius Clay and Pete Radamacher, of Johnny Weismuller and Buster Crabbe.

We produced Jim Ryun and Bob Mathias and Rafer Johnson under the amateur system. We produced Wilma Rudolph and Mary Lou Retton and Babe Didrikson Zaharias.

But alas, we have turned the page.

I look forward to great Olympic moments like the one that still tugs at my heart from the games in Sydney in 2000.

I have Native American blood running in my veins, and I empathized with and, in many ways, identified with Cathy Freeman, an Australian runner. She wasn’t just Australian. She was an aboriginal Australian – the Down Under equivalent of Jim Thorpe.

She carried the Olympic flame into the stadium to begin the Games, and later, when she ran in the finals of the 400, she carried not just the hopes and dreams of her country on her shoulders, she ran for the dignity of a people too often treated as second-class citizens.

I will look for athletes like Rulon Gardner, the wrestler who pulled off perhaps the greatest upset in the history of the games when he bested Russian three-time gold medalist Alexander Karelin, who hadn’t lost a Greco-Roman match in 13 years and hadn’t so much as surrendered a single point in six. Little-known and unheralded, Gardner withstood the powerful Karelin in overtime to produce the upset.

Will there be anything to rival the great Vasily Alexeev? At the Montreal Games in 1976, the great Soviet weight lifter easily won gold in the clean and jerk. Famous for breaking his own world records by the smallest of margins – making it easier to break them repeatedly since he got cash bonuses from the government with each new record.

But after besting East German Gerd Bonk, Alexeev smashed his own record by lifting 562 pounds on his final lift.

I met Alexeev when he led the Soviet contingent into the old Coliseum as head coach of the weightlifting team at the Goodwill Games, and for the only time in my career I broke my own rule about collecting autographs from athletes I’m covering.

He was a massive, bear of a man in person, but his smile broke whatever language barriers existed between countries. My favorite memory of the man was him attending the volleyball competition and repeatedly posing for photos with six women (all volleyball players) hanging from his body – two on his shoulder and the rest hanging from his gigantic biceps.

Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps will make headlines over the coming fortnight.

But who will be the new names to burst onto the scene in Rio?

We joyfully look forward to meeting them, one and all.

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