Friday, August 3, 2012

Olympic Memories: 40 Years Since Augsburg (Part One)

This August six NOC alumni celebrate the 40th anniversary of their appearance in the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich. The list includes Carrie Ashton, Louise Holcombe, Cindi Goodwin, Russ Nichols, Angus Morrison and John Burton . We caught up with John to discuss whitewater paddling—which was making its Olympic debut, the thrill of going to the Olympics, how the games changed his life, the tragedy of the Munich massacre and what it's like watching the London games on TV 40 years later. John also gives us a look into his Olympic scrapbook and reflects on the significance of participating in the world's biggest sporting event, the Summer Olympics.

Road to the Olympics

NOC's Executive
Vice President John
Burton celebrates the
40th Anniversary
of his 1972 Olympic
appearance this
John Burton found the obscure pastime of whitewater paddling at Camp Mondamin in Tuxedo, North Carolina. As a youngster he learned paddling fundamentals and began to enjoy whitewater canoeing. He excelled in the activity, and became one of the better paddlers at the camp. Years later, the first two people he met at Dartmouth College were Jay Evans, advisor to the Ledyard Canoe Club, and Wick Walker, C-1 paddler who had just returned from the 1965 World Championships in Europe.  When Wick needed someone to help build a mold for the new boat he had just brought back from Europe, John was happily recruited/duped/Tom-Sawyered into performing the chore. That's how he entered the realm of competitive whitewater racing. Shortly thereafter he started training with a ragtag four-member local canoe club in Median, Pennsylvania and began racing internationally in '67.

Meanwhile, a combination of factors were leading to the whitewater slalom's Olympic status in 1972. The whitewater world championships were getting bigger and bigger, and even in the U.S. where it was considered a fringe lunatic sport (more on that shortly), John claims "there must have been 25 races in the East." Politically, the West Germans decided to use their host status to field an event where they could win gold, and along with East Germany, who also had a strong paddling team, they lobbied for canoe and kayak slalom across the usually impregnable Iron Curtain. The event was established, and the US Olympic Committee found itself scrambling to build an Olympic team.

All of a sudden, John and his paddling companions on the US world championships teams found themselves as the primary hopefuls for the US Olympic Team's whitewater slalom athletes. The team trials were held on the Savage River in Maryland, and John paddled well enough to qualify. He actually qualified in both one-person canoeing and two-person canoeing events, but he and partner Tom Southworth made a strategic decision before team trails that if the two-person boat made the Olympic Team, they would paddle that instead of the one-person boat—thus enabling the other boater to make the trip to Munich.

To accommodate the new sport West Germany built an unprecedented new course at Augsburg. The course, originally a diversionary canal for river ice on the Lech River, is fed by river water through a sluiceway. The water then spills down a 10 to 12 meter wide channel with vertical concrete walls and 35 concrete humps that create the whitewater features. Over 20,000 spectators fit into the venue which provides excellent up-close seating on terraced terrain surrounding the course. The almost 2,000'-long course took most teams about five minutes to complete (very long by modern standards). You can see some photos of the construction and competition in a clipping from John's scrapbook.

While whitewater racing was (and remains) very popular in some European countries, but American sportswriters didn't really know what to make of the event. Red Smith of the New York Times wrote: "The sport, is a hasty search for a watery grave, with rules. It is an outgrowth of white-water racing, which appeals to people whose idea of fun is to be flung down the rapids ears over appetite, hurled against rocks and submerged until the coroner arrives."

To clarify Smith also noted, the sport is "...a slightly suicidal undertaking new to the Olympic Games, which combines the best features of skiing down the Matterhorn, shipwreck, and going over Niagara in a barrel."

"Fame" and the Games

John and Tom handled their newfound Olympic "fame" with a grain of salt. Before the Olympics the Olympic team sent the paddlers a publicity form asking for sportswriters who had been following them thus far; they filled out the form writing only, "Are you kidding?" At the time John was employed as a securities analyst for Philadelphia National Bank and Tom joked that, while he could get the required seven weeks off unpaid from his generous bosses, there was no way even John could get him a loan from PNB to help cover his Olympic expenses. Paddlers have always been suspicious--even Olympic paddlers.

Perhaps adding to the athletes' self-deprecating attitude was the fact that they had to make almost everything they used to compete, and they certainly had to pay for it all. The athletes built their own boat and even their own paddles. John made the t-grip for his canoe paddle on a lathe at Dartmouth out of walnut. Reflecting on the boat they paddled, John notes that they unwisely added an inch of extra material around the boat's seam (which basically traces the waterline of the boat). This decision gave the boat extra volume and was meant to help navigate the "weird" waters at Augsburg, which have a tendency to pulse and boil due to the course's unnatural vertical walls. It turns out the winning East German team actually squeezed volume out of their boats and sneaked most of the big water features—a style that tends to dominate in modern racing. You can also see from the photos that John and Tom raced an "end hole" boat, where the paddlers sit with considerable space between them, almost like a traditional canoe. In '72 the rules did not yet allow close-cockpit C-2’s thus preserving the traditional canoe shape and design.

At the Olympic competition the pair made their first run in 7 minutes and 7.4 seconds (with penalties included). The pair was tenth out of twenty teams after the first run—six teams were unable to complete the first run in their boats. The team's second run was an improvement, shaving twenty seconds off the first time, and John and Tom ended up finishing in 12th place, ahead of the other American team. An American teammate, Jamie McEwan did win the bronze in the one-person canoe event (the event John also qualified for). John's diary from the event reads:

"My C-2 partner Tom Southworth and I just finished 12th in our race, rolling twice on our counting run!  Our time was over 6 minutes on the wild Augsburg artificial course, but we finished, and we were the top American boat, so we were very happy.  'You can lose the Olympics with honor' was certainly true for us, who were totally delighted just to make the team.  The Olympic Trials were really the gut-check, you-have-to-be -your-best moment for us, and we won it.  So, flying to Munich, experiencing the opening ceremonies, eating fabulous food we didn’t have to prepare or pay for ourselves in the Village, having a coach and team manager taking care of our every need, being outfitted by Sears in our flashy polyester red, white and blue uniforms, rubbing shoulders with the U.S. basketball team, watching Jamie  McEwan win the bronze in C-1—it has been an exhilarating, once-in-a-lifetime experience."

[End of Part One: Click here to Read the Rest]

1 comment:

  1. Great article. Love the sports writer's description of our sport. Thanks to John Burton and all those great Mondamin paddlers who propelled the sport!