Last updated: June 9, 2012 12:19 am

The Olympians

FT Weekend Magazine interviews 24 living legends from every Olympic Games since 1928. Simon Kuper introduces the project
Zou Shiming©Sim Chi Yin

‘Winning the gold was like taking all the pressure off,’ Zou Shiming, boxer, Beijing Games 2008

Introduction by Simon Kuper

Ingeborg Sjöqvist is 100 years old, but now and then she still thinks back to her bad dive 80 years ago at the Los Angeles Olympics. Before that moment, the Swedish beauty had been heading for gold. After it, she went home without a medal. “If I could compete all over again, I would do it much better,” she told us. The oldest living Olympian still watches competitions on television and shouts advice at the divers (“they never listen”), but that one moment has defined her life. None of the dozens of Olympians and Paralympians we spoke to for this issue, going back to the Amsterdam Games of 1928, had much trouble recalling their moment.

All the interviews add up to a profile of the Olympian over time: how much has changed, and how little has. The Olympics (first edition, 776bc) are probably as close as humans have ever got to creating something eternal. In this issue we have tried to strip away the hysteria and the sponsors, and to put the athletes back where they belong: at the centre of the Games. Nobody in this series can be dismissed as a boring freak or dope fiend.

Our method was simple: we wanted to speak to at least one athlete from every Olympics, going as far back as possible. We wanted an array of countries, and a mix of men and women. We spoke to demigods such as Michael Johnson and Mark Spitz, but also to people whose Olympic moments have been forgotten by almost everyone except themselves. Tracking down a 96-year-old Italian former gymnast was complicated, but then suddenly, our correspondent was on the train to Pavia. We even got to a Chinese hero of the Beijing Games.

Looking back across 84 years, the first impression is how amateur the Olympics used to be. The British runner Muriel Pletts told us how she practised for the 1948 London Games by running to the bus stop every morning. Back then, some Olympians were amateurs in every sense. The New Zealand runner Harold Nelson had made a rough five-week sea voyage to Britain, carried his country’s flag at the opening ceremony (the hottest day in London since 1911) and then, before running the 10,000m, had deliberately dehydrated himself. That was the best scientific advice of the time. “We had been advised not to drink for the day before the match,” he told Janie Hampton, for her book The Austerity Olympics. “A dessertspoon of honey got rid of all the liquid in the stomach.” Poor dried-up Nelson didn’t even finish his race, stretchered off with cramp on the 18th lap.

Margaret Maughan©Kalpesh Lathigra

British Paralympian Margaret Maughan won the gold medal for archery in Rome in 1960

These were ordinary people with ordinary jobs, who if they were lucky became demigods for the day. The Briton Margaret Maughan, paralysed from the waist down by a car accident, had never won anything until on the coach back from the archery event at the first Paralympics in Rome in 1960, somebody asked, “Where’s Margaret Maughan? She’s needed for a medal ceremony.” She had won gold. Often, the winners then immediately returned to anonymity: in 1900 an unknown child emerged from the crowd to cox a Dutch rowing pair to gold in the Paris Games, posed for photographs and then disappeared before anyone could discover his name.

In the days before money, many Olympians were granted only one moment before having to return to normal life. Mark Spitz, winner of seven gold swimming medals at the Munich Games of 1972, told us: “You couldn’t make money. So I stopped swimming. My last event was at Munich.” He was 22. At least he had become famous enough to drop out of dental school. Most of his lesser-known peers went home, got a hug from Mum, and on Monday were back in the office knowing that they had already experienced the summit of their lives.

Jessica Ennis©Getty

Jessica Ennis will be throwing everything into her bid for an Olympic gold medal at London 2012

Few Olympians before the 1980s devoted their lives to their sport. The economics didn’t allow it. Many of them had broader interests, none more so than the American sprinter John Carlos, who with his compatriot Tommie Smith gave the “Black Power” salute in Mexico City in 1968. Incidentally, the power of that moment goes beyond Black Power. The salute was one of the rare occasions when officials, sponsors and TV directors lose control of the spectacle and suddenly, from underneath it all, a human being emerges. “The race had no relevance for me other than I had to get on the victory stand,” Carlos told Matthew Garrahan, our man in Los Angeles.

But something changed after that. The Olympics became professional. In the old days, talent, nerve and luck could make an Olympic champion. Nowadays you need 10,000 hours of practice, a great coach and sometimes drugs, too. This transition happened relatively late: the hapless British Olympic team of 1996 still consisted mostly of part-timers. Only after the UK began pouring National Lottery funds into sport did British Olympians transform into monomaniac workaholics. None of them would now say, “The race had no relevance for me.” Politics is an irrelevance to the modern athlete: British athletes heading for Beijing in 2008 signed a contract agreeing not to incite political unrest in China. No athlete from any country boycotted the dictatorship’s Games.

You understand why they went. Modern Olympians suffer so much pain for so many years that their Olympic moment becomes the point of their lives. The Japanese author Haruki Murakami, in his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, argues that they do it for the pain. “If pain weren’t involved, who in the world would ever go to the trouble of taking part in sports like the triathlon or the marathon?” he asks. “It’s precisely because we want to overcome that pain that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive – or at least a partial sense of it.” Olympians push through pain to touch their human limits.

It’s a pursuit of perfection that we ordinary humans don’t know about. Whatever the business books may claim, we office workers aren’t trying to be perfect. Most days we just aspire to get by. Olympians enact human perfection live on TV. And most of them do it for little reward. Day to day, this still isn’t a glamorous existence. A few years ago, taking a suburban train back from the athletics world championships in Paris, I sat squeezed in a packed carriage beside a German athlete who had just run the marathon. She was telling two fellow passengers, east German fans – a mother and daughter who were staying in the cheapest hotel in Paris – about athletes’ parties. I bet the daughter still remembers. You don’t get that at football world cups.

Some athletes never get their 15 minutes of fame. In a lifetime they are granted just a minute, or perhaps a few seconds, at the Olympics. In the eyes of others, and sometimes even in their own eyes, that moment becomes their life. When we asked the Ethiopian marathon runner Gezahegne Abera how winning gold in 2000 had changed his life, he replied: “In what way didn’t it change?”

Kokichi Tsuburaya©Corbis

Bronze medallist Kokichi Tsuburaya killed himself after failing to win gold at the Tokyo Games

One piece of bad luck, and you miss your moment: in the semifinal of the 400 metres at the Barcelona Games of 1992, the British runner Derek Redmond tore his hamstring. He insisted on completing the race despite gruesome pain, helped round the track by his father while the crowd gave him a standing ovation. It was probably no consolation. Some find the failure unbearable: Kokichi Tsuburaya, the Japanese who finished third in the marathon in his “home” Games in Tokyo in 1964, later killed himself out of shame.

Most Olympians do move on. In a Norwegian kindergarten once, somebody pointed out to me a mother picking up her child. The mum had an Olympic gold medal for cross-country skiing at home, but that was in the past. As the saying goes, “An athlete dies twice.”

Many Olympians subsequently put their perfectionism to work in other fields: an American pentathlete from the 1912 Games turned into General George Patton. Harold Sakata, an American weightlifter in 1948, became Oddjob in the James Bond film Goldfinger. But far more Olympians end ignominiously, like the Polish runner Stanislawa Walasiewicz. She won gold in 1932, later emigrated to the US, changed her name to Stella Walsh, was shot dead in Cleveland in 1980 as an innocent bystander in an armed robbery, and was revealed in the autopsy to have male genitalia.

Emil Zátopek©Corbis

Emil Zátopek gave away the gold medal he won in the 10,000m in Helsinki in 1952

Yet wherever Olympians are from and however they end up, they all have something in common. Sometimes, the PR guff is true: the Olympics are about human fraternity. The athletes dedicate themselves to a shared passion that hardly anyone they know cares about. Suddenly, in the Olympic Village, they meet people from the other ends of the earth who have been doing exactly the same thing. Then they share the supreme moment of their lives together. No wonder they connect.

In 1966 the Australian runner Ron Clarke visited the retired Czech legend Emil Zátopek in Prague, behind the Iron Curtain. They had a wonderful time together. When they were saying goodbye at the airport, Zátopek slipped Clarke a packet, and whispered to him not to open it until he’d left Czech airspace. Clarke recalled, “I wondered whether I was smuggling something out for him. I retired to the privacy of the lavatory. When I unwrapped the box, there, inscribed with my name and that day’s date, was Emil’s Olympic 10,000-metre gold medal. I sat on that toilet seat and wept.”

Arie Gluck, Israel: http://on.ft.com/KoHXKH

Ben Ainslie, Great Britain: http://on.ft.com/KoHZT3

Billy Mills, USA: http://on.ft.com/KoI3SP

Carla Marangoni, Italy: http://on.ft.com/KoI8Wn

Derek Redmond, Great Britain: http://on.ft.com/MRP7wg

Ellie Simmonds, Great Britain: http://on.ft.com/MRQICi

Gezahegne Abera, Ethiopia: http://on.ft.com/MRQGKJ

Ingeborg Sjöqvist, Sweden: http://on.ft.com/KoJ4tS

John Carlos, USA: http://on.ft.com/KoJ3pU

Kenneth Matthews, Great Britain: http://on.ft.com/KoJ0un

Kip Keino, Kenya: http://on.ft.com/KoIYT2

Larisa Latynina, USSR: http://on.ft.com/MRQmfb

Lawrence Lemieux, Canada: http://on.ft.com/KoIRqG

Margaret Maughan, Great Britain: http://on.ft.com/MRQg7c

Mark Spitz, USA: http://on.ft.com/KoIOuW

Michael Johnson, USA: http://on.ft.com/MRQ9sc

Muriel Pletts, Great Britain: http://on.ft.com/MRQ7Ay

Nadia Comaneci, Romania: http://on.ft.com/MRPYxh

Nawal el-Moutawakel, Morocco: http://on.ft.com/MRPRS4

Odlanier Solís, Cuba: http://on.ft.com/KoIBIj

Olga Fikotová, Czechoslovakia: http://on.ft.com/KoIrRg

Sándor Tarics, Hungary: http://on.ft.com/MRPvuY

Sarah English/Anthea Stewart, Patricia Davies, Zimbabwe: http://on.ft.com/KoIigC

Zou Shiming, China: http://on.ft.com/KoIfkS

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Our Olympic team

Writers:

April Dembosky, San Francisco correspondent

Guy Dinmore, Rome correspondent

Sarah Duguid, UK

Andrew England, Southern Africa bureau chief

Matthew Garrahan, Los Angeles correspondent

Isabel Gorst, Moscow

Leslie Hook, Beijing correspondent

Nabeelah Jaffer, UK

Johanna Kassel, New York

Alison Kervin, UK

Sam Knight, UK

Hester Lacey, UK

Katrina Manson, East Africa correspondent

Xan Rice, West Africa correspondent

Michael Stothard, Stockholm

Jude Webber, Argentina and Chile correspondent

Photographers:

Tessa Bunney, UK

Josephine Dvorken, USA

Maja Fink, Sweden

Alexi Hobbs, Canada

Jamie Kingham, USA

Kalpesh Lathigra, UK

Spencer Lowell, USA

Dominic Nahr, Kenya

Max Sher, Russia

Steve Schofield, USA

Shamil Tanna, UK

Brandon Thibodeaux, USA

Gianfranco Tripodo, Spain

Winni Wintermeyer, USA

Sumio Yamada, USA

Sim Chi Yin, China

Mattia Zoppellaro, Italy

Gareth Phillips, UK

James Dodd, UK

Sam Hofman, UK

Project co-ordinators:

Sarah Duguid, UK

Nabeelah Jaffer, UK

Sam Knight, UK

Tina Nandha, UK

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