Paris, a flop in '00, was fabulous in '24 Nurmi topped drama with five gold medals, Olympiads in review

March 31, 1996|By Bob Herzog | Bob Herzog,NEWSDAY

As part of the countdown to the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, a chronological look at past Olympiads is appearing each Sunday. A little Hollywood splash and dash helped make the 1924 Summer Olympics a smash for host Paris. After the mismanaged 1900 Games in Paris, IOC president and Olympics founding father Pierre de Coubertin was justifiably proud of his country's effort in the final Olympics of his reign.

A record 44 nations competed in 17 sports, with 3,092 athletes (including 136 women) putting on a show that included six world records in track and two in swimming.

There was no greater showstopper than Paavo Nurmi, 27, the Flying Finn who won five gold medals -- cross-country team, 3,000-meter team, cross-country individual, 1,500 meters and 5,000 meters. The last two produced a defining moment in Olympic history.

On a steamy July 10, with the temperature above 100 degrees, Nurmi performed a feat never before even tried: He would run the 1,500 and 5,000 with only an hour's rest in between.

He won the 1,500 easily, but in the 5,000 was facing his countryman, Ville Ritola, who had won two distance golds. Ritola recalled that he led with about 300 meters to go, and held off Nurmi's first attempt to pass. "But on the final turn he made another surge," Ritola said. "I could not believe that after running the 1,500 earlier, he still had the strength. But he did." No runner before or since has won five gold medals at a single Olympics.

Two other teammates provided the dash that turned on the world in 1924, and Hollywood 57 years later. Harold Abrahams, the son of a Lithuanian Jew and a student at Cambridge, won the 100 meters. His biggest challenge should have come from another British runner, his close friend Eric Liddell, the son of missionaries from Scotland.

Liddell was the Commonwealth record-holder in the event, but the Olympic 100 was scheduled for a Sunday, and being devoutly religious, he refused to compete. Instead, he made the difficult switch in his training to concentrate on the 400 meters, in which he won the gold medal in Olympic record time. The tale of friendship and sportsmanship of the runners, who trained together and rooted fervently for each other in Paris, became the Academy Award-winning 1981 movie, "Chariots of Fire."

There also was a sizzling Hollywood story line in the pool, where American Johnny Weissmuller won the 100- and 400-meter freestyle events and helped the United States take the gold in the 4 x 200 freestyle relay.

As if that wasn't enough, he played on the bronze-medal-winning water polo team. He became the first swimmer to crack the one-minute barrier in the 100 and went on to win another gold medal in the 100 at the 1928 Olympics in a time of 58.6 seconds. Not bad for someone who was thought to have a weak heart as an infant and spent much of his childhood regarded as a weakling.

That image was dispelled forever when, after the 1928 Olympics, he became a movie star most known for his role as Tarzan.

The queen of the pool for the United States was Gertrude Ederle, who won two bronze medals and a gold in the 4 x 100 relay. Two years later, she became the first woman to swim the English Channel.

The 1924 Olympics in Paris established a formula for the Games that has stood for generations: large outdoor stadiums, sparkling indoor pools, even the first rudimentary Olympic village.

It was a fine way for Coubertin to bow out as IOC boss. When, after 30 years, he passed the Olympic baton to Belgium's Count Henri de Baillet-Latour in 1925, he could point to the '24 Paris Games and write in his farewell letter: "The world institution that we have built is ready to face any eventuality."

1924 Games

Site: Paris

Dates: May 4-July 27

Men: 2,956

Women: 136

Nations: 44

Medals leaders:.. .. .. .. ..G .. .. S .. ...B .. .. ...T

United States .. .. .. .. ..45 .. ..27 .. ..27 .. .. ..99

Finland .. .. .. .. .. .. ..14 .. ..13 .. ..10 .. .. ..37

France .. .. .. .. .. .. ...13 .. ..15 .. ..10 .. .. ..38

England .. .. .. .. .. .. ...9 .. ..13 .. ..12 .. .. ..34

Italy .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..9 .. ...3 .. ...5 .. .. ..17

Switzerland .. .. .. .. .. ..7 .. ...8 .. ..10 .. .. ..25

Norway .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .5 .. ...2 .. ...3 .. .. ..10

Sweden .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .4 .. ..13 .. ..12 .. .. ..29

Holland .. .. .. .. .. .. ...4 .. ...1 .. ...5 .. .. ..10

Denmark .. .. .. .. .. .. ...2 .. ...5 .. ...2 .. .. ...9

Pub Date: 3/31/96

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