Benita’s Olympics Diary: The Summer Olympics Wrap-Up
By Melissa Wickes
August 11, 2021
When I began my career as an athlete, I had no idea it would take me through adulthood and into motherhood, as well. When the Olympics began on July 23, I revived Benita’s Olympics Diary, which was a weekly column I wrote for the Austin American-Statesman in 1987, as I prepared to defend my 1984 Olympic Gold Medal at the 1988 Olympics. The diary I wrote back then was raw and honest and emotional—and only accessible in print. I explored topics such as why the sponsorships dried up, especially for a Black woman in the 80s, post-Olympics, and the disappointment of not being able to defend my title because of an injury.
This year’s new digital diary allowed me to reflect back on being an athlete during the Games, but also what it was like to be chief of sport for USATF during a time that the sport needed a reinvention, and watching my daughter grow through her own track and field career.
Today, I’d like to recap some of the most memorable moments from the past couple of weeks, both during the Olympics and for me personally.
Your Own Gold Medal Moments
As Rafer Johnson, the late great U.S. decathlete and Olympic Gold Medalist ran up the stairs of the Coliseum at the L.A. Olympic Games in 1984, I was one of the athletes there watching as he lit the torch.
When you watch the Olympics at home, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be present as an athlete in that stadium. It was certainly different for this year’s athletes because spectators weren’t allowed…but I know it was magical, nonetheless.
In the case of the athletes, they have spent their entire lives training for this one moment. It’s been challenging, it’s been exhausting, and it’s been heartbreaking, but the Opening Ceremonies represent a moment of triumph!
I’ll never forget arriving at the Olympic stadium wearing my Team USA uniform, surrounded by my teammates. We stood there and watched Rafer light the torch and took a moment to revel in everything we’d done that led to that exact moment. All the hard work, the sacrifices, the heartaches—and, of course, the wins.
Most Olympic athletes don’t go home with medals. The Opening Ceremonies is their Gold Medal moment and is a celebration of their success. There is nothing else in the world like marching through the tunnel and into the stadium, signifying the pinnacle of an athlete’s sports career. It’s a Gold Medal moment for all and the culmination of all of our Olympic dreams.
Sport Unites Us
The Olympic Village is the United Nations of sport. Thousands of athletes from around the world live, eat and play together in what really is a small city…with a lot of really fit people. There’s the dining hall that seats hundreds of athletes with every kind of food you can imagine, a beauty salon, a barbershop, retail stores and snack bars, a laundromat, a post office, and a bank too!
There are events and cultural activities happening each day, with lots of pin and jersey swapping. Throughout the village, you’ll see that countries have hung their flags from the windows, proudly displaying their team spirit.
At LeagueApps, we recently hosted our own Olympic Village with our semi-annual offsite that we call OTAs, short for Organized Team Activities. Our team was safely together on a college campus outside Philadelphia for two days of team building, and our theme this year was the new Olympics motto: Faster, Higher, Stronger—Together.
Much like this year’s unprecedented Olympic Games, we followed strict COVID protocols with testing, mask-wearing, and outdoor dining and activities—with plenty of learning, fun, and competition. We each shared our personal Gold Medal moments…those times when we’ve been champions in life.
The Olympic Games remind us that our country and the world should operate more like one massive Olympic Village. As Nelson Mandela once said, the power of sport, “unites people in a way that little else does.”
People from different races, cultures, religions, and political persuasions can indeed live, play and work together in peace. Our Olympic athletes have set the bar for all of us, and we should follow their lead.
Athletes’ Humanity Revealed
A couple of weeks ago, Simone Biles withdrew from several competitions to protect her mental health and it felt like the entire world was talking about it. She’s the GOAT, but now we realize she’s not a robot—she’s actually human.
When it happened, many of my friends and colleagues asked me what it must be like for Simone. I definitely empathize with her, but I cannot imagine the immense pressure she and the other athletes are under because, in 1984, there was no 24-hour news cycle reporting on every aspect of my life. Millions of social media followers and their opinions didn’t exist—we didn’t hear what anyone but the media had to say.
It’s easy to forget that Olympians occupy rarified air. When my daughter was eight, she asked me, “Mommy, how many Gold Medals do most people win?” Of course, as the owner of one Gold Medal, I answered, “One.” My husband quickly chimed in and said, “Benita, most people aren’t in the arena, much less winning a Gold Medal!”
For a couple of weeks, a meme was floating around that said, “Every Olympic event should include one average person competing, for reference.” The “average person” would be quite humbled to see their Olympic competitors achieve amazing physical feats, and do so while facing immense physical and mental hardships, including a global pandemic, isolation, and a social justice movement, with 24-hour news and social media to wrap it all together.
There is no shame in admitting you are human and taking care of yourself first. Simone joins Naomi Osaka, Simone Manuel, and Michael Phelps as athletes at the top of their sport who’ve brought their mental health challenges to light and revealed their humanity in the process.
Balancing the Parenting Act
I was anxiously awaiting the start of the 400 meters. My heart was racing and my palms were sweaty. All I could think about was the training and preparation that went into this moment. On your marks, get set…go!
This was my daughter’s first-ever race at the National Jr. Olympics. She also ran the 200 meters and ran close to her personal best. It was an ironic parallel to the start of Olympic Track & Field in Tokyo. While Olympians began their quest for gold, thousands of kids, ages 8-18, were pursuing their dreams as well—a spot on a middle/high school team, a college scholarship, or competing at a future Olympic Games.
My daughter dreams about being one of them. When she was nine years old, she said, “I can’t wait to win my Gold Medal!” As parents, it’s a careful balancing act to be the caretaker of their goals and help them navigate the inevitable challenges, which can be great when your mom is a gold medalist. I’m so proud of the grit she displays with every practice, every race—focused on making her dreams come true.
Not Today, Shirley!
Each Olympic athlete has a similar story—a young kid with a dream and a community of family and friends supporting them, and that love was on full display this year at Olympians’ family watch parties across the country.
One great piece of advice I learned as an athlete is not to slow down until you’ve “run through the finish line.” I put that lesson to good use when I won my Olympic Gold Medal.
In 1983, at the first-ever World Track & Field Championships, Shirley Strong from the U.K. beat me in the hurdles and then smoked a cigarette after the race! I made a promise to myself then and there that she would never beat me again.
A year later, both Shirley and I were favored to win the 100m hurdles at the Olympics. Towards the end of the race, she and I were neck and neck, and I thought to myself, “Not today, Shirley!” I felt like God put wings on my feet as I ran through the finish line a mere 0.04 seconds ahead of my rival.
I was blessed to have the race of my life on August 10, 1984. I ran my personal best time of 12.84 seconds and stood on that victory stand with the Gold Medal around my neck, singing our national anthem!
We all experience defining moments in our lives, and it is often only a slim margin that separates us from achieving our goals. Although we may hit some hurdles along the way, we must run through the finish line to have any chance at victory.
The Highest Honors
I was one of eight Olympians to carry the Olympic Flag around the stadium during the Opening Ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta Centennial Olympic Games. The honor was bestowed on my birthday, when Billy Payne, president of the Atlanta Olympic organizing committee, called to give me the good news a couple of weeks prior.
The names of the flag and torch bearers were a secret, so I couldn’t even tell my family until just before the opening ceremonies. We practiced under a cloak of darkness in the stadium the night before.
On the magical night that Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic torch, the presentation of the Olympic flag was the opening act. President Bill Clinton declared the Games open, the lights were dimmed, and the Olympic hymn played while we rose up from the bowels of the stadium to make our entrance.
I was on the back inside corner, so I got to see and hear the athletes screaming from the infield as we seemingly floated along the track with the flag.
The Olympic flag is an iconic symbol of peace, unity, and the power of sport. As I watched that flag rise above the Olympic stadium, I reveled in the moment and realized that aside from standing on the victory stand in L.A., this was the highest honor of my life.
Attaining the Unattainable
I remember when I first broke the 13-second barrier in the 100m hurdles at the Penn Relays. I’d overcome both mental and physical “hurdles” to become one of the best in the world!
World records in track and field don’t happen often, so to have two world records fall in the women’s and men’s 400m hurdles back-to-back in Tokyo is even rarer. In a sport where wins and losses are measured by .1, .01, or even .001 of a second, both Sydney McLaughlin (51.46s) and Karsten Warholm (45.94s) smashed their previous world records by a half-second or more in breaking the 52- and 46-second barriers!!!
What was once unfathomable soon becomes commonplace. Roger Bannister first broke the 4-minute mile in 1954, and since then more than 1,400 men have done so. The men’s mile world record is now 3:43.13, and the women’s world record is 4:12.23, closing in on that 4-minute barrier!!
In track and in life, the key to human performance is believing that we can attain what others may think is unattainable; and by knocking down barriers ourselves, we open the door for many others to follow.
Benita’s Olympics Diary
If you’d like to read or watch all of Benita’s Olympics Diary entries from the past two weeks, you can find them on LinkedIn.