Alan Hubbard

Nostalgia is very much in vogue at the moment as much by necessity as desire.

With watching live sport very much on the back burner at least lockdown provides the opportunity to unlock our minds and concentrate on the past.

Memories are made up of all sorts of things, the good the bad and some of the uglier things in sport.

For me personally, having exhausted my first boxing, and the fabulous fights I have seen, or I would love to have seen, I am now focusing on many of the highlights, and just a few of the low lights of the dozen summer Olympic Games I have attended, since my baptism in 1964.

It has been an enriching experience, not just recalling some stupendous sporting moments but for good measure one or two abiding memories. 

I have also listed them in descending order of merit as I saw them. 

All subjective, of course, but that’s the name of the game - and the Games - isn’t it. So here goes:

1 Sydney 2000

Sorry about this London. But of the 12 Olympics I have covered, Sydney was simply the best, from every aspect: organisation, atmosphere, ambience, weather, facilities, and above all the touchy-feely friendliness of the Aussies themselves.

Every Olympic visitor was greeted with a cheery corridor of ‘G’day’s and a welcoming arm around the shoulder from volunteers and those hefty lady cops - who were genuinely proud to be hosting a family show.

Of course, it helped that everyone spoke English but for sheer getting-it-togetherness Sydney surpassed any other Games, including London, my home city, although by just a tad. 

Sydney is one of the world’s great sporting citadels and unlike in many other places where the Games have been staged in half-empty stadia, packed crowds had a true appreciation of what they were watching, and if they didn’t always know the nuances of taekwondo, Greco-Roman wrestling or artistic gymnastics, what the heck, they cheered anyway.

And the women’s beach volleyball on Bondi was a sight to behold. Especially from behind. And the mud crab was to die for.

Our columnist says that the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games was his favourite from the 12 he attended ©Getty Images
Our columnist says that the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games was his favourite from the 12 he attended ©Getty Images

London 2012

Delivery of London’s third and finest Olympic Games were a triumph of the human spirit, showing Britain at its best in terms of showmanship sporting excellence and creative thinking. 

Who would have expected to find expressing ourselves with such abandon as our athletes went from triumph to triumph.

In all my years of covering sport I never imagined I would hear wide-eyed youngsters passing through West Ham on the Jubilee Line excitedly discussing the finer points of the heptathlon rather than Sam Allardyce’s penchant for the long ball game.

A true Festival of Britain. Only the genuine mateyness of Sydneysiders marginally surpassed it.

My abiding memory remains that of head honcho Seb Coe strolling nonchalantly through the Media Centre on the day of the Opening Ceremony chatting to everyone as if he hadn’t a care in the world.

3 Athens 2004

I have always carried a Torch for the Olympics, and for these historic Games I was actually privileged to do so, invited by the Greek Organising Committee to run a leg when it passed through London. By coincidence it happened to pass my birthplace in Lambeth, where I handed it to Ian Botham outside The Oval.

The return of the Olympics to their cradle after 108 years was special. There was a warmth which you only get from familiarity and the Greeks offered a traditional hospitality, taking the Flame from Sydney with great panache, despite the construction and financial hiccups along the way.

The last lick of paint had barely dried on the refurbished Olympic Stadium before the Games began but in the end they were superbly orchestrated by Gianna Angelopoulos, a billionairess diva of striking beauty and political astuteness, who later became the country’s Foreign Minister.

Athens was hot and hectic, but you departed feeling that the Olympic Games had come home, if only briefly, and that you wished it was where they should have stayed.

Our columnist was responsible for Joe Frazier crashing his bike in the Athletes Village at the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games ©Getty Images
Our columnist was responsible for Joe Frazier crashing his bike in the Athletes Village at the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games ©Getty Images

Tokyo 1964

They say you always remember your first, whether it was a kiss or a curry.  Mine was Tokyo, Games that remain etched in the consciousness as the last of the ‘pure’ Olympics, untainted by drugs, terrorism, boycotts, security overkill, or rampant commercialism.

Nobody played politics and perhaps for the last time competitors seemed to reflect the Olympic ideal that it is not so much the winning, but the taking part. Baron Pierre de Coubertin was surely smiling down on them benevolently through the soft rain.

I still sometimes hum the catchy jingle that woke us every day: “Good morning, Tokyo, happy to be greeting you.” Nor scowling armed guards at the Olympic Village, just a cheery chappie bowing low who would happily wave you through, especially if you crossed his palm with a bottle of his favourite Booths gin. 

These really were happy Games, especially for Britain, who collected 20 medals overall with long-jump golds from both Lynn “The Leap’” Davies and the original Golden Girl, Mary Rand.

No hype, no hassle, and for me a moment when I almost changed the course of sporting history.

I was wandering through the Athletes’ Village – it was possible to do so unhindered then – when hurtling around the corner on a bike came this large American with the biggest thighs I had ever seen. He swerved to avoid me and promptly crashed. Thus I became the first man to put the late ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier on the floor.

Fortunately he wasn’t hurt or looking for a fight. “Sorry man,” he grinned as he picked himself up and rode off to become the Olympic heavyweight champion and subsequently the heavyweight champion of the world. But what might have happened, I wonder, had he broken an arm or a leg – or worse?

Barcelona 1992

A very pleasant Games which marked the return of an apartheid-free South Africa and a united Germany. For ambience and friendliness it was among the best, with true translation of the Olympic ethos and finally a golden Games for Britain.

Chris Boardman reinvented the bicycle wheel and Linford Christie, who four years before in Seoul had been lucky to escape a ban after overdosing on ginseng tea, won the 100 metres at 32 while 400 metres hurdler Sally Gunnell impishly reminded us that “Essex girls do come first.”

Our columnist interviewed Sebastian Coe at the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games after he won two gold medals ©Getty Images
Our columnist interviewed Sebastian Coe at the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games after he won two gold medals ©Getty Images

 Moscow 1980

We were warned it would be all bad in boycott-ravaged Moscow, which controversially staged the first Games behind the Iron Curtain. But actually it wasn’t and was very well organised. 

Margaret Thatcher had ordered the British team to stay away over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan but Sebastian Coe was among those who defied the Iron Lady who was later to become his political mistress. 

Just as well, as he collected the first of his two 1500m gold medals in that Chariots of Ire duel with bitter rival Steve Ovett having lost out in his specialist 800m.

I had interviewed Coe for a magazine which had a cover depicting the Olympic rings being incinerated by Soviet flame-throwers. This was confiscated at Sheremetyevo airport as ‘bourgeois propaganda’. 

He was probably right but as it was an International Olympic Committee obligation that journalists should have access to any material required for their work when covering the Games, I made a formal protest to them.

Next day I was summoned to a windowless room in the Kremlin where the magazine was handed back to me with a curt nod by a grim-faced apparatchik.

Returning to my hotel I found I had been upgraded to a very comfortable suite, big enough to hold a farewell party on the last of the Games. 

As Georgian champagne popped a colleague suggested that the room might be bugged. Jokingly we raised our glasses and said: “To all our listeners – Cheers!”

A few second later the phone rang and a Russian voice chuckled: ”And cheers to you too, tovarich!”

Who says they don’t have a sense of humour!

Montreal 1976

Because of events in Munich security was intense, and a times stifling.  And the French-speaking Canadians weren’t particularly welcoming unless you made some attempt to ’parlez-vous’. African nations boycotted because of the New Zealand rugby tour of South Africa.

British athletes had a pretty dismal time with only one medal on the track, Brendan Foster’s bronze, and Princess Anne fell off her horse. But swimmer David Wilkie and Jim Fox’s modern pentathlon squad came good with gold. We also savoured Nadia Comaneci’s Perfect 10 on beams and bars, and the sumptuous grub at the famed Moishe’s Steakhouse, once in the company of Princess Grace. So it wasn’t all bad.

Nadia Comaneci's Perfect 10 was one of the highlights of the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games ©Getty Images
Nadia Comaneci's Perfect 10 was one of the highlights of the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games ©Getty Images

 Los Angeles 1984

Inevitably the Soviet Bloc stayed away as a reprisal for Moscow, it was left to Coe and Ovett to again headline the outlandishly Hollywood show with a repeat of their Moscow matinee. 

Daley Thompson arguably established himself as Britain’s finest all-timed Olympian (even his pal Seb says so) with his second gold medal in the decathlon, afterwards donning a T-shirt which asked: ”Is the world’s second greatest athlete gay?” Who could he have meant?

We also drew breath at the multi-medalled brilliance of Carl Lewis, and an opening ceremony that was pure La La Land.

 Mexico City 1968

The music was memorable in Mexico City from the wonderful mariachi bands which constantly serenaded us in thin air of the first Games to be held at altitude. “There will be those who die,” the late Chris Brasher had warned ominously –and hundreds did. 

But not from the lack of oxygen but the hail of bullets fired by machine guns by Government troops in helicopters hovering above young demonstrators protesting in the infamous Place of the Three Cultures about the Olympics being given priority over basic human needs in their impoverished nation. 

Three weeks later a new phrase entered the Olympic lexicon: Black Power. American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, stood defiantly on the rostrum, heads bowed and each with a fist encased in a black glove. They were to be ostracised and vilified for this brave protest against racial prejudice in their homeland.

 10 Munich 1972

After Black Power came Black September. That terrible Tuesday when Palestinian terrorists invaded the Games Village, took hostage and finally murdered 11 Israeli athletes. The Olympic Games had been scarred for life by the Munich massacre.

I witnessed the appalling drama that unfolded on the longest day I have ever known. I felt then, and still do, that those Games should have been abandoned because sport is not worth the shedding of anyone’s blood in the name of political insanity.

But at least Munich was partially uplifted by the human dolphin Mark Spitz, ironically an American Jew, who struck gold a record seven times; the wrecking-ball punching of Cuban heavyweight Teofilo Stevenson, who I dubbed ‘Castro’s ‘right hand man’; and went on to win two more gold medals, plus the coquettishness of cute gymnast Olga Korbut, who became the engaging face of Soviet sporting womanhood in an era of butch Amazonians.

Usain Bolt's performances on the track were our columnist's highlights of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games ©Getty Images
Usain Bolt's performances on the track were our columnist's highlights of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games ©Getty Images

11 Beijing 2008 

In Beijing, Government money was no object. No city could have staged a flashier, more expansive extravaganza and to witness Usain’s lightning bolt was breathtaking but you still felt you were trapped in a sanitised, politicised Olympic bubble.

I had again been invited to run with the Torch but this time a moral debate raged in my mind, recalling those protesters over human rights who had been jailed, and that the Chinese had threatened to shoot any demonstrators during the most controversial leg of the Relay in the Tibetan capital.

However my decision to run with the Torch in the city of Xi’an in north west China, ancient capital of the Tang Dynasty, was because it is supposed to represent traditional Olympic values and not be symbolic of the host country.

It was certainly no endorsement of the Chinese regime as I have always believed it wrong to have awarded the Games to Beijing.

The Beijing Torch now rests with that from Athens among my Olympic souvenirs, destined for my grandchildren along with the replica of the London 2012 Torch I received during a Games which provided a gloriously memorable finale to my own Olympic odyssey.

12 Seoul 1998

And pretty soulless it was too, in a grim, grey city with a depressing overture that again saw protesting students under siege, this time by tear-gas tossing police. Sports-wise, all else was overshadowed when I received a 4am call from my colleague John Goodbody urging; ”Get your arse down to the media centre quick. Ben Johnson has failed a drugs test.”

There we learned that following the 100m the significantly red-eyed Johnson’s ‘unbelievable’ 9.79sec was literally that –unbelievable. The result of a steroid-fuelled rage which remains the biggest drugs scandal the Games have ever known. Until Russia’s chemists fiddling with their test tubes…

And that bloody kimchee [pickled rotting cabbage] with everything. I can still taste it…

 *You will note that I have omitted Atlanta 1996. These were the only Games I missed in almost five decades of Olympic reporting as I was deskbound, sports editing The Observer Sunday newspaper.

Colleagues say I was the lucky one, with the organisation a shambles, Gone With The Wind country providing the antithesis of southern hospitality and catastrophe when a crazed loner planted a bomb that killed one woman and injured over a hundred. 

Miserable Games that are now best remembered for the quivering hand of Parkinson's-stricken Muhammad Ali lighting the flame, a moment so poignant it even had President Bill Clinton in tears.