My Favorite Olympics Moment

One of’s top headlines today was “50 Memorable Moments of the Games.” How about that Gabby Douglas? or Michael Phelps? or Usain Bolt (talk about an appropriate name!)? Amazing athletes, all. My favorite Olympic moment—in rowing (no surprise to those who know me)—did not make the list.

First, let me say NBC did not show nearly enough rowing, and they made it way too hard to find specific events on their TV schedule (not to mention how far off schedule they got). So when serendipity led me to the Men’s Lightweight 4 final, I rejoiced simply to see some blades in the water.

Great Britain was the clear favorite, having dominated the early heats. Denmark and Australia were also contenders—but truly, on any given day, most of the crews had a shot. As with elite runners and swimmers, top rowers frequently finish their race within fractions of a second of each other. The Men’s Lightweight 4 race was no exception, with the top three crews finishing within a third of a second—on a six-minute race.

The different race strategies were evident. Do you start fast to gain an early lead? Or row a steady pace, then power it in at the end?

Quick lesson: The rower in the stern-most seat is called the “stroke.” The stroke sets the pace; everyone else follows. When the stroke’s oar hits the water, all the oars hit the water. When the stroke speeds up, everyone speeds up. While the whole crew knows the strategy going into the race, everything is dependent on the stroke’s executing the strategy and the rest of the crew’s following.

At this elite level of rowing, I expected exemplary technique, stellar athleticism, and a photo finish. What I did not expect was South Africa’s winning its first gold medal in rowing.

When I think of South Africa, I still think apartheid. I remember learning about it in school, trying to figure out whether it was pronounced apar-thide, apar-tide, or apar-tate. I remember wondering what I would do if I ever met a white girl from South Africa—could I be her friend or would that be a tacit endorsement of institutional discrimination? Of course, it was perfectly fine—and practically required—to be friends with any black girl I might meet from South Africa. (Neither of which was remotely likely in the middle of Iowa.)

History has never been my strong suit, so while I knew South Africa had not attended the Olympics for many years, I had to visit Wikipedia for a refresher on dates. South Africa participated from 1904 to 1960, was banned in 1962, then returned in 1992, apartheid having been started in 1950 and dismantled 1990-1994.

Now, I keep a pulse on global politics, but I’m by no means an expert on current affairs in South Africa. I imagine that a couple of decades is long enough for significant change, but not nearly long enough for all the old daily injustices to have been completely removed. How much progress has been made?

When South Africa won the men’s lightweight 4, James Thompson, Matthew Brittain, and John Smith followed stroke Sizwe Ndlovu to victory.

My favorite moment of the Olympics was when three white South Africans followed their black leader—and it got so very little attention. Progress indeed. Well done, crew.


9 thoughts on “My Favorite Olympics Moment

  1. Wonderful moment indeed. Thanks for highlighting. You know I hardly watched the olympics this time, though we had a cousin (of sorts) who won a bronze (amazing) in mountain-biking, so watched her! But you are so right about NBC as well as about this wonderful S.A. victory. k.


    • Congrats to your cuz! Exciting! To the best of my recollection, I have known only one person who qualified for an Olympic team–a P.E. teacher who was a runner; unfortunately it was for the boycotted 1980 Olympics. Many inspirational stories of Olympic athletes–and a few that are lost to us…


  2. I have a friend from South Africa who’s 31, and therefore of the first generation to grow up entirely without Apartheid. What made him happiest about this was what you noticed — the lack of endless attention called to it by the announcers. As he put it, “We can’t forget the past, but if you never stop looking back, you never start looking ahead.”

    That applies to a whole lot more than South African politics alone, and has stayed with me since he said it.


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