As in many American universities – actually more than in most American universities – sport plays a very important role at USC. Colleges in the US build their prestige (also) on the performances of their teams and their students/athletes. Being a great athlete is a sure short cut to get generous scholarships. In the last years USC had great results in volley, tennis and water-polo while the renowned basketball team had a disastrous season with a long row of defeats. However, the real pride of USC is its Olympic history. The University of Southern California had more Olympians than any other American university and colleges. Its glorious history – duly preserved and celebrated in its Heritage Hall in the center of the campus – started with Emil Breitkurtz who participated in the S. Louis edition of the Olympic Games in 1904. The first gold medal was won 8 years after by Fred Kelly in the 110 hurdles final of the Stockholm 1912 Olympics. Since then, the Trojans have earned at least one gold medal in everyl edition of the Olympics for a total of 122 victories until the lat one of student Rebecca Soni in the 200 m breaststroke in Beijing in 2008. If they were a country they would occupy the 12th position in the all-time ranking before countries like Canada, Belgium or Spain.
Talking about sport and Olympics, these are my favourite US athletes ever. What are yours?
# 5 – Greg Louganis – diving
One of the best diver ever – if not the best – he was only 16 when he got a silver medal in the Montreal Olympics behind Italian legend Klaus Dibiasi. He missed the Moscow games and then was able to earn 4 more gold medals in Los Angeles (1984) and Seoul (1988). He was one of the first top athletes to declare he was gay and HIV positive. I remember very well the image of his blood in the water when in Seoul he suffered a concussion after hitting his head on the springboard during the preliminary rounds. Still, he bravely managed to win the gold medal of that competition.
# 4 – Phil and Steve Mahre – alpine skiing
The two identical twins from Washington State were among the few non-European skiers in the Alpine Skiing World Cup circuit at the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s. The legend says that they would switch one with the other according to the results of the first run. Phil was a more complete and technical skier and he was able to win three World Cups between 1981 and 1983 in addition to two Olympic medals in slalom, silver in Lake Placid in 1980 and gold in the Sarajevo games in 1984. Steve’s specialty was slalom and he was second in Sarajevo behind his brother. Surprisingly, he was also world champion in giant slalom in 1983. They were absolute protagonists in the golden years of the World Cup.
# 3 – Mike Powell – athletics, long jump
At the 1991 Tokyo world Championships everybody was expecting Carl Lewis. Everybody wanted Carl Lewis to win and set the new world record which was standing since Bob Beamon supra-natural performance in Mexico 68. But Mike Powell decided it was his turn and flew to a distance that no other man has ever been able to overcome: 8,95 meters. Mike was less lucky at the Olympics as he was silver medalist twice in Seoul 88 and in Barcelona 92 beaten in both occasions by Carl Lewis who took his revenge.
# 2 – John Naber – swimming
Montreal 1976. I was ten and these were the first Olympic Games I followed from A to Z. They were also the first color TV games in Italy and I still remember the emotion when I first saw the beautiful light blue of the swimming pool on TV. John Naber became one of my sport heroes on those games. He won 4 gold medals and one silver and one of his victories was for the first ever 200-meter backstroke under 2 minutes. With his 1 minute 59.19 second win, John set a world record which stood for seven years. Naber became also the first swimmer in history to earn two individual medals on the same day of Olympic competition. And he was a Trojan from USC too.
# 1 – Tommie “Jet” Smith and John Carlos – athletics, 200 m
This is not only about sport but also about courage and engagement. Still, it was a fantastic sport performance. In the morning of 16 October 1968, during the Olympics held in Mexico, Tommie Smith won the 200 m final and set a fantastic new world-record time of 19.83 seconds, with Australia’s Pete Norman second and favorite John Carlos in third places. The two American athletes received their medals shoeless and saluting the anthem with their fist raised and wrapped in a black leather glove symbolizing the black power. “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight” said Tommie Smith after the celebration. The event was one of the most important political statements in the history of the modern Olympic Games. Tommie Smith’s record had to be beaten in Mexico City by Pietro Mennea 11 years after.