The Old Paths: Olympic memories

By Leslie Bray Brewer - Special to The Stokes News

I closed my window on Sunday night because the screechy-braked school bus stopping next door often wakes me up. I was printing out math worksheets for my little boy today while Facebook was saturated with “first day of school” pictures.

Yes, it is time to awaken from the summer daydream. Real life has recommenced.

I could feel it crouching at my door, waiting to pounce on me even as I watched the Olympics a few weeks ago. Because the Games are usually held in August, they somehow represent the end of summer for me. I binge-watch all day long when I can, trying to cram every morsel of competition into my Olympics-loving craw.

Do you find yourself watching even badminton and handball near the end just to keep getting your Olympic fix? Do you suffer Olympic withdrawals when the closing ceremony is done? Color me guilty.

Have you ever thought back to your first Olympic memory? I have a vague recollection of the 1972 terror in Munich. There is a wisp of an image in my brain of an armed terrorist on a concrete balcony…..a foggy feeling of longing for the Israelis to be okay (but they weren’t). The only athletes I recall are tiny Olga Korbut and Mark Spitz with his seven gold medals.

Can you pinpoint an Olympics that holds especially vivid memories? For me, it was 1976 in Montreal. My widowed grandmother, Irene “Reny” Richardson Smith, was undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer. Family members took turns staying with her, so I spent the night with her frequently.

My athletic Granny Smith had once set scoring records as a basketball star at Walnut Cove High. So she and I spent many an hour that summer of ’76 held captive by the TV broadcasts of Olympic feats. My memory is of her reclining on the couch as we vicariously dodged the blows along with our boxing stars Sugar Ray Leonard, Michael and Leon Spinks and others. Our hearts pounded as Edwin Moses leapt deer-like over the hurdles to win gold.

Decathlon gold-medalist Bruce Jenner was still a man, and so were the East German women swimmers. Granny and I marveled at how East Germany could produce such masculine-looking women who swam at such incredible speeds. We had never heard of performance-enhancing drugs on the old paths. Nor had we ever seen a perfect 10 in gymnastics until that

summer of Nadia. I became obsessed with that waif-like Romanian girl who was only slightly older than me.

When I simply walked to the hall to go to my bedroom, I lifted my hand to signal the judges and took off running for my imaginary vault. In my mind’s eye, I was as graceful as that dark-eyed young teen who stole the heart of the world. When I sat at the piano playing “Nadia’s Theme” (also the theme from “The Young and the Restless”), I imagined I was the one soaring high on the uneven bars.

Do any of you remember watching the 1980 Olympics? You are in the minority, since the U.S. boycotted those Moscow Games. No offense to former President Jimmy Carter who is a phenomenal man in many ways, but I still disagree with his decision. Doesn’t it go against the whole “Let’s bring the world together in peace every four years for the Olympics” theme to refuse to participate because you are mad at another country? Wouldn’t it have been better for world peace for all of us to cooperate rather than pout it out at home?

I know, I know—some of you agree with Carter’s decision and can give me great political arguments in favor of us “trying” to make a point by boycotting. But from studying history, I can’t find that it made a lick of difference. You think the Soviet Union cared? Nope. They simply won more gold medals with us and 64 other countries staying away. And they kept fighting in Afghanistan for another nine years after that, so our boycott seems pointless in hindsight.

Remember when one naughty kid misbehaved and the whole class had to stay in at recess because of it? I never agreed with that policy. I do not punish my little boy when his big brother does wrong. Why should innocent people suffer for another’s wrongdoing? That’s what happened in 1980.

Superb American athletes who had sacrificed years of time, money and/or normal life to train for what was perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime shot to compete in the Olympics saw their dream wither up in the hot July sun. Their bags had been mentally packed for years for the 1980 Games, never dreaming the U.S. would opt out. That 18-year-old gymnast would be 22 by 1984 and perhaps not as supple. That 20-year-old sprinter at his peak would be 24 and maybe slower or injured in four years.

This situation became very real to me when I went off to college and was placed in a dorm suite with Olympic-caliber athletes on scholarship at Carolina. I was a naive little freshman whose heart mourned when hearing the stories of my upperclassmen suite-mates who lost their shot at a medal, thanks to President Carter’s political decision. My friend across the hall, Gayle from New Jersey, had a real chance to compete in 1980; in fact, she

qualified for the Olympic trials in 1984 but decided to retire from swimming at that point. Her big opportunity was 1980; she told me a few weeks ago that she was simply devastated by the boycott that possibly robbed her of her dream.

Carter may have thought he was punishing the bad Communist boy on the world’s playground, but instead he punished many innocent people. My friend Brad Dunlap told me recently: “I’m not going to argue the politics behind the decision since it was still the Cold War era, but…I haven’t been able to really care about the Olympics since.”

Although I understand his disillusionment, I am still a fan of the Games. And just as this new school year has crept up on many of us before we were quite ready for it, all too soon it will be 2020 in Tokyo. Life is that way, you know? It moves along in its metronome-like regularity until what we had been anticipating is already a memory…..just like these bygone Olympics.

I don’t run my hall anymore pretending I’m Nadia. I no longer practice my freestyle at Hanging Rock, fantasizing that I’m Janet Evans. Age indeed steals even Olympic fantasies. Hey, I made an A in college archery; maybe there’s still Olympic hope for me there…..

Leslie Bray Brewer can be emailed at Her blog is at

By Leslie Bray Brewer

Special to The Stokes News

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