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World Views: Bart Conner on the International Politics of the Olympics (Sep 03, 2012)
Olympic gold medalist Bart Conner returned from the London Olympics early last month.  The 2012 games marked his 10th trip to the Olympics as an athlete, broadcaster, or businessman.   He earned a journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma, where he also helped the men’s gymnastics team win back-to-back national championships in the late 1970s, and earned All-America honors fourteen times over four years.  He’s best known as a member of the gold medal-winning U.S. men’s gymnastics team at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, where he also won an individual gold on the parallel bars.  He married fellow gymnast and Olympic gold medalist Nadia Comăneci in 1996, and the two Norman residents are involved in numerous business ventures and charities, including the Special Olympics, and the Muscular Dystrophy Association.


SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: We’re in the studio today with Bart Conner.  Bart, welcome to World Views.

BART CONNER: Hi Suzette, nice to see you again.

GRILLOT: Bart is, of course, an Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics.  He’s an OU alum.  He’s an entrepreneur involved in numerous business ventures in the world of gymnastics, and he’s recently returned from London, where you were for the Olympics.  Let me start by asking, how were the London Olympics?  There was all this news about the lack of security, about not enough tickets, not enough seats.  What was your overall impression?

CONNER: It was fantastic.  I’d give it a Perfect 10, and I’ve been to ten Olympics, I guess, over many years, and they all have a little bit of a different flavor, a different culture, a different set of issues, but I have to say it was magnificent.  I’ve been to London several times for a day or two for different events, but never to stay three weeks and really feel like I got to know the city.  It was great that the home country, the athletes from the United Kingdom, were doing so well.  There was a great deal of enthusiasm there on the ground.  I found it to be a very sophisticated place, but not a stuffy place.  People were very friendly.  They had intense security, but it didn’t seem uptight, or somehow burdensome.  It was just part of the deal.  The Games were just wonderful, and the best thing about the Games is the stories of the athletes can rise to the top of the discussion, rather than discussion of venues, transportation, security, and other things.  That, to me, really allows you to believe it was a great Games, because we’re talking about these remarkable athletes, and the athletes who overcame enormous obstacles to make their great achievements, and that to me was just great.  We loved every bit of it.

GRILLOT: Well, I loved seeing how the British really rose to this occasion.  It was really an amazing Games to watch.  I’m still having withdrawals, I think, from it being over.  I have to count the days until the next Olympics.  Let’s talk a little bit about gymnastics; I imagine you attended the gymnastics events? (Laughs)

CONNER: We saw all of it, yeah.

GRILLOT: You saw every bit of it.  Having attended many Olympics yourself as an athlete, tell us a little a bit about what happened here with the women’s and men’s gymnastics?  What is your overall assessment of the men’s and women’s teams?  They were highly-touted coming into these Olympics.  We saw a tremendous amount of success with the women winning the gold, and the men falling a little bit short.  So what are your thoughts about that?

CONNER: Well, let’s take the women first.  The U.S. Women, reigning World Champions, were a heavy favorite to do well, and that’s always a little intimidating when you’re the leader of the pack, because there are such high expectations.  I was really proud the young ladies held it together, and they just ran away from the competition.  They were just flat-out the best.  Russia had a great team coming in, and they just couldn’t keep up with the Americans.  Neither could Romania, China, nor the others.  They were deservedly the gold medalists.  I was really excited to see Gabby Douglas, the first African-American all-around champion in the history of our sport.  She’s a bright, cheerful 16-year-old girl who’s just great for everything that stands for the good things about gymnastics.  On those levels, the women’s competition was magnificent.  For the men, as you know, our OU connection was pretty profound…

GRILLOT: Amazing, how many OU men were there.

CONNER: Of eight athletes, five on the team and three reserve athletes, five of them were OU athletes.  So that was very exciting, and made us all very proud.  Of the two athletes who competed, Jonathan Horton, who’s a recent graduate of OU, and Jake Dalton, who’s a current OU student, they did themselves very proud.  They had excellent competitions, and they played important roles.  The other three reserve athletes, of course, didn’t compete, but they were there training and waiting to see if they could get the call up.  It was a little unfortunate, because what happened, I think, the U.S. guys had done really well in the trials.  They started thinking, “Hey, we could win the Olympics.”  And I think you need to believe you can win the Olympics, but I think they made a little bit of a tactical error.  After the first day of competition, they were the top qualifier.

GRILLOT: They came into that final round in the lead.

CONNER: In the lead.  Of course, China, we knew they would be better than they were in qualifying.  They saved their best for last.  We knew Japan would do the same.  Great Britain was, of course, at home, and they had improved enormously over the last eight years, so we knew they would be an important challenger, as well as the Ukraine.  I think the U.S. men felt like they were going to win the whole thing, so when they had their first minor error on the floor exercise, I think it rattled them a little bit.  And then they went to the pommel horse, which is just a terrifying event anyway.  It’s very nerve-wracking; much like the balance beam is for women.  It’s easy to fall off when you lose your concentration a little bit.  They buckled there, and they had some other mistakes throughout the competition.  I was disappointed to see that.  They’re young guys, they’ll have a chance to come back, and I hope that most of them do, because they represented us well.  It just didn’t go as well as they’d hoped.

GRILLOT: Well, it’s tough to be an Olympic champion, as you know, and an Olympic athlete.  There’s a lot of pressure.  Obviously years of training for one chance…

CONNER: And that’s what makes it so intense.

GRILLOT: …how did they manage this?  Particularly these extremely young ones - Gabby Douglas at 16.  All of the girls, especially, that are in their teenage years.  How can you manage such amazing stress and pressure?

CONNER: Well, my wife is Nadia Comăneci, and she won the Olympics when she was 14, and she even says to this day, actually having been quite young, she thought it was an advantage.  She didn’t really understand what was at stake.

GRILLOT: She didn’t even know how much pressure she was under.

CONNER: She didn’t realize the whole world was watching.  By the time she went to her second Olympics, she was 18, and much more aware of the enormity of the Olympics, and I think it overwhelmed her a little bit, and she didn’t do as well her second time.  In some ways, it’s an advantage to be a little bit younger.  But yeah, that’s one of the things about the Olympics.  These are the best people on the planet.  They’re all deserving of winning a medal, so a lot of things have to go into making that happen.  They’re all great athletes, but the planets have to line up for you.  For some they do, for some they don’t, and for others, there’s four years of waiting and preparation to try to get another shot.  It’s very exciting.  I think it’s one of the things that make the Olympics so compelling.  You can’t write the script beforehand.  You don’t know who’s going to be the star.  Going into the Olympics, everyone thought Jordyn Wieber, world champion, was going to run away with it.  She’d been undefeated the last few years.  She was the guaranteed winner.  And guess what?  The tables turned a little bit, and this bright young lady out of Iowa stepped up and won the gold medal.

GRILLOT: But now you have this rule change that affected Jordyn Wieber - this rule that you can only have your two top scorers per country.  Really, she was in the top four in the entire competition, is that right?

CONNER: Yeah, she’s fourth-best on the planet.

GRILLOT: Fourth-best on the planet, and she couldn’t compete in the all-around.  Gymnastics in some ways has been a bit of a mystery for many of us, in terms of the scoring…

CONNER: I think it’s a problem for our sport.  You have people who are really enthusiastic about it, and every four years they pay attention and are like, “What?  What was that all about?”  It disillusions some people.  Many years ago, in the Fifties and the Sixties, all the athletes were from the Soviet Union.  You’d go to the finals, and the top eight athletes would all be from the Soviet Union.  No other country got to compete at all.  So they instituted that rule to sort-of spread the love a little bit, and give some other countries a chance to make the finals.  So the rules have been in place for a long time.  Even the inquiry rules have been in place for a long time, and there is a procedural issue that if you’re really serious about protesting, you have to also be willing to put some money down.  You can’t just frivolously protest, and you can only do it a couple of times in the competition.  I know it looks a little bit strange to the outsider to see all this.  All of it makes sense for us, who know the sport, and in most cases the right results end up.  I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and most of the time, the right people get the right results.  It works for the most part, but I’ll apologize for my sport.  If there was anything that left you a little bit concerned, I’m sorry.  But it was a great competition.

GRILLOT: But nonetheless, people are gymnastics fans, plain and simple.  Bart, something that really struck me this year was the fact that this was a Twitter Olympics, and the impact that Twitter made.  I couldn’t stay away from Twitter, because, as you know, here in the United States we couldn’t see anything live.  By the time we got home and watched what was on TV, we knew what had already happened.  There was a lot of complaint about this, in some respect.  On the other hand, I actually quite liked being able to follow the headlines and know whether Michael Phelps won another gold medal, or who made the all-around, or if Gabby Douglas won the gold.  What were your feelings about this, and what were you seeing in London where you saw everything live?  Was there a lot of buzz?

CONNER: Yeah, there was, obviously, social media was a big component of good things and bad things that happened in the Games.  There were some athletes expelled from the Games for some inappropriate comments on social media.  But I experienced it in real time, so I don’t quite have the same experience you had, knowing the results in advance.  I was just sitting there watching it.  I knew it was on a tape-delayed basis here in the United States.  How did it change your experience?   Did you still watch it with the same level of interest, even though you knew what the results were?

GRILLOT: I did, but it was different.  I didn’t have the kind of jumping up and down at the end to cheer Michael Phelps into the wall, because I already knew where he was coming in...

CONNER: Right.

GRILLOT: …but I still watched.  I watched it every night.  I still was a participant, but I knew the outcome, so it wasn’t quite the same experience for me.

CONNER: You know, it’s funny.  I have mixed feelings.  I’m 54.  I don’t know at what age you sort-of “Tech Out,” but I’m pretty savvy with technology…

GRILLOT: Well, you tweet.  That’s pretty good.

CONNER: Well, yeah.  I’m a little bit on Facebook.  My wife has about a dozen fraudulent Facebook accounts.  There are a lot of Nadia Comănecis who aren’t her.

GRILLOT: People that have set up fraudulent accounts in her name?

CONNER: And in fact, they steal her tweets, and put them on Facebook.  And her tweets are real, so it really looks like it’s her, because they’re getting real information from Nadia.  I don’t know how you police that, and I’ve lost interest in actually tracking it down.

GRILLOT: It’s hard to understand, I know.

CONNER: But I do see the enormity of it, though.  It’s pretty amazing.

GRILLOT: It’s made an incredible impact, positive and negative.

CONNER: Well, look at the Middle East.  You’ve had revolutions that have been driven by social media.

GRILLOT: Exactly.  We’ve talked about that a lot on this program.  So talking about change – we’ve had this change with social media, but Olympic sports in general have changed.  Athletes have changed.  It seems to me in watching these Games.  Every single time the Olympics come around – increased athleticism, increased ability – it makes me feel really lazy sitting there on the couch watching the show.  At least before Twitter I was jumping up and down and burning a few calories.  What have you noticed over time?  Not just in gymnastics, but in athletics in general?  The athleticism is amazing.

CONNER: It is amazing.  A lot of it has to do with changes in technical requirements.  It’s like with all sports.  You change the golf club shaft, and all of a sudden the golf courses are too short, so you have to make golf courses longer.  Gymnastic equipment is a perfect example.  We used to tumble on a wrestling mat, which was about an inch and a quarter of what they called Resolite foam, but now it’s about a 10-inch system with springs and plywood and foam and carpeting.  So it’s very springy, and the athletes can go higher and farther and do more complicated skills.  The balance beam actually has a little bit of a spring system in it that’s more forgiving on the athletes.  It doesn’t necessarily throw them up in the air any more, but it’s more forgiving on the landing, so you can train longer hours, and therefore get better.  So a lot of the improvements have to do with technical things as well.

GRILLOT: I think that’s something we don’t even realize, is the technological impact on the way in which they train.  Swimmers, right?  The techno-suits or things they wear…

CONNER: …it creates buoyancy, and the way they have these treadmills now where they can actually swim in place, and they can do all the scientific studies with computers to graph out the efficiency of their swim strokes, so yeah, I mean, that’s natural that they’re going to continue to improve that way.  And the rewards are better now.  I think the incentives are better.  Some of these athletes go on to make quite a good living, and it has a chance to become an overnight star, so the game has changed.  It really changed in about the mid-70s, when some athletes started doing well, and started ending up on Wheaties boxes, and all of a sudden other people started to envy that, and wanted more of that.  Many of the athletes, depending on the sport, and it’s very sport-specific, because you can make a decent living if you’re in a sport where there’s a decent professional avenue.  If you’re in archery, or table-tennis, or flat-water canoeing, there’s not much of a way to make a living as a professional doing that.  But some of the sport, there’s a decent living out there if you’re successful at it.  So I think that’s also incentivized the athletes to train a little bit harder as well.

GRILLOT: So, a little shift in gears here.  We’ve talked on this program before, and in fact in the run-up to the Olympics, about the international politics of the Olympics.  You’re somebody who did get caught up in some of the international politics.  You made three U.S. Olympic teams, in ’76, ’80, and ’84, but in 1980 we boycotted…the U.S. Olympic team boycott.  This is a huge blow, right?  Anyone who trains for that long, who makes the Olympic team, and then you boycott.  But we’ve talked before on this program about why is it that the Olympics have to come together with politics?  This is the whole point of the Olympics, is to try to bring people together and ignore politics for 17 days.  So as somebody who experienced that yourself, how did that make you feel, and how do you see it playing out in today’s Olympics?

CONNER: It’s interesting, because when I was a teenager, the three boys in our family played lots of sports growing up in the Chicago suburbs.  My first term paper, I didn’t know what to write about.  My dad was fascinated by the Olympics, and the concept of “Olympism.”  Of the world coming together in peace, fostering a greater sense of humankind, and to play fair, but to try to win, and all those concepts of the Olympics he thought was important for him to teach his sons.  So I understood a little bit about the Olympics, so I was obviously, having come up through sports, and then made it to the national, world level, and finally an Olympic level, really disappointed when President Carter suggested to the U.S. Congress that we shouldn’t go to the Olympics in 1980 because we were protesting that the Russians had invaded Afghanistan.  I remember going to the White House, there was 100 of us invited to the White House – athletes, administrators, and others.  We thought we were going to have a discussion about whether we should go to the Olympics or not, and in fact we were just told we weren’t going to go.  And it was devastating, but it put the athletes in a very awkward position.  This is 1980.  The President of the United States is saying we’re protesting the Russians for invading Afghanistan.  In one way, you feel like I need to a patriot, and support my country, support my president, support the wishes of Congress, and not look like a selfish athlete who just wanted to train and go to the Olympics because that’s what we do.  And it was an awkward position for us to be in, because I didn’t think you should blend politics and the games.  But inevitably, we were one of the more prominent countries to initiate and Olympic boycott, which I thought was futile.  The irony of it was here we are, a bunch of athletes, going to the White House.  We’re sitting in the East Room, and the National Security Advisor at the time, Zbigniew Brzezinski, there was a map of the Persian Gulf, and he had a pointer, and here are a bunch of athletes sitting there, and the first thing we started on was a conversation on the strategic importance of the Persian Gulf…

GRILLOT: …and did they relate that at all to…?

CONNER: …yeah, what does that have to do with the parallel bars?  But it was all about oil, and it was all about protecting those oil reserves.  And that was in the early 80s.  It was an intense political time.  It’s hard to say what the right solutions are, because four years later the athletes from Russia chose not to come to the United States in 1984, and none of it really mattered.  The Games go on, and I think that’s one of the great things about the games.  They go on.

GRILLOT: The show must go on, and so must the Olympics.  Well Bart Conner, Olympic gold medalist, entrepreneur, and an outstanding human being, thank you for being here with us today on World Views.

CONNER: My pleasure, thanks for having me.

Copyright © 2012 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

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