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My first Olympic Games were in Tokyo in 1964 and that was very special. It was a big deal for the city to be hosting the Games and everything was perfectly planned and perfectly carried out. The Ceremony didn’t seem to take as long as it did at later Games - in the later Games, it felt like we waited all day to march in but in Tokyo, it didn’t seem like we had to wait all that long at all. I can still remember feeling the anticipation of walking into the stadium.
As we prepared to enter the stadium, we were all in line and we marched in, we didn’t all crowd in like the teams do now. The American team was organised by team and height so there were basketball players behind me. We all had cowboy hats and as we began to march into the stadium, I thought I lost mine so I turned around and I got out of step as I was looking around and saying: “I’ve lost my hat!”. And one of the basketball guys replied: “You did not you fool, it’s on your head”. It was there the whole time but that shows the thrill of it all. That feeling was amazing, it’s unsurpassed.
Tokyo gave me a real taste of the Olympic Games and gave me real motivation to be back there. In 1968, at the Games in Mexico, I was podium level. I was throwing well and I was in the form to win a medal. But the officials didn’t know the rules and I was (incorrectly) called for two fouls. I was so mad that I quit the sport altogether. I thought I’d never compete in another Olympics.
I didn’t throw a hammer again for 11 years. But in 1979, my wife, Shirley, encouraged me return to the sport. She said: “You quit mad, you’ll never be satisfied if you don’t give it another go.” So I started again and when I got back training, I had this vision of our team – this mass of people - going together through a tunnel up to the Coliseum, the stadium where the Opening Ceremony would be held. I felt like I was a part of that. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up and that’s when I decided to give it a real go and try to get into the team.
Ultimately, I made the team for the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. I was the oldest member of the American team and had had a pretty interesting journey to get to that point and so as the Games approached, people asked me if I would like to be flag-bearer. I’d always reply “are you kidding me, it’s the greatest honour that your nation can bestow upon you so of course I’d love to!” But I never thought I would be selected.
In the days before the Games, I went to a hotel to pick up some tickets for my wife and children. I was standing in line with one of the team coaches, Stewart, and we were behind some young swimmers and one of them asked the others if they had heard who had been chosen to be flag-bearer at the Opening Ceremony. One of them replied “yeah, I heard it was some old hammer thrower”. At that point, I thought it was my compatriot, Harold Connolly, who was the former world record holder and Olympic gold medallist. I looked at Stewart and said: “I think it’s Harold”. He looked back at me, his eyes got teary and he said “no, sonny, it’s you”.
I didn’t believe it. But I got to the front of the line and the official confirmed it and congratulated me. I got into the elevator to go to meet my family in the lobby and as the doors opened, my wife and two daughters were standing right there. It was perfect timing. So I told them I was flag-bearer and you can’t imagine the emotions we felt. There were so many amazing athletes in that American team so it was incredible that they selected me. But the reason they chose me was, I think, because of my story with my wife, Shirley, the fact there was 16 years between my last Olympics and this one and that it was all about determination and hard work.
The night of the Ceremony, it felt like we were waiting all day to march in because we were the last team. There were almost 100,000 people in the stands, most of them home fans, and as we waited to march, I was congratulated by so many famous Olympians who I’d looked up to, like Al Oerter, Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses and others.
As we were waiting to enter, the officials handed me the flag pole and asked if I could hold it with one hand. It was a brass pole, about 8 feet long, and it had been shellacked. It was extremely hot and my hands were sweating and I said, ‘I can’t hold that, it keeps slipping’. So the vice-president of our Olympic Committee started digging in the dirt for little stones that we could use to scratch the pole to help me get a good grip. It took us quite some time and we were frantic.
But we managed it and finally, it was our turn to enter. I led the team in, holding the flag with one hand. I still remember it so clearly – I was crying every step of the way. And when I got to the far curve of the track, I saw my two daughters in the stand.
I looked up to see what the flag was doing and it had tipped down and all of a sudden, I realised I’d lost all feeling in my right arm through the weight of it. People don’t know this but without breaking stride or flinching, I let go with my right hand and grabbed the flag with my left and carried on walking around the curve.
It was an incredible evening. And then I was asked to hold the Olympic flag while Edwin Moses took the Olympic oath, which was amazing. It really was quite a day.