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  • Writer's pictureMelody Alexander

The ’84 Olympics and the importance of sport as a woman

I believed I grew up in the heyday of women’s sports.

 

I turned 7 in 1984 — the same year Los Angeles hosted the Summer Olympics. I couldn’t have known back then just how significant it was that I was watching such powerful female athletes on my TV. What I now understand is just how important the ’84 Olympics was.



 

The years leading up to this specific event had distinct turmoil associated with the games, including the ’68 Olympics, where hundreds of student protesters were killed in Mexico and the ’72 Olympics, when Palestinian militants killed Israeli athletes and coaches and a West German Police officer. The United States and other countries boycotted both the ’76 and ’80 Olympics as a political statement against Apartheid in ’76 and because of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan in ’80.

 

At 7, I couldn’t have understood how the ’84 Olympics would be one of the first in years that didn’t have a form of political unrest tied to it. What’s more, according to Glory Days: The Summer of 1984 and the 90 Days That Changed Sports and Culture Forever by L. Jon Wertheim, the ’84 Olympics would see the highest ratio of women in the history of the Olympics, at just 23.1 percent. Things were beginning to change for women.

 

What I did know, and still remember, is that the women representing the United States stood out in my young mind. I adored them and what they accomplished, and it showed me at a young age that I was capable of doing anything boys could do, and sometimes, even better.

 

I’ve been feeling like it’s 1984 all over again living in the Kansas City area. We’re just days away from the opening of the world’s first women’s arena. We’re watching Caitlin Clark shatter records and sell out tournaments. And I hope 7-year-old girls across the globe are seeing what’s possible.

 

As we begin Women’s History Month, I wanted to touch on the Olympic athletes that helped me fall in love with athletics and why they’ve stuck with me through the years. They are worthy of celebrating, even so many years after they performed in the Olympics. Here are the athletes I adored back then.


Mary Decker and Zola Budd


Mary Decker fell after clipping Zola Budd's heel during the 3000-meter run in the '84 Olympics.

I have to start with a story of heartache to end with stories of triumph. And unfortunately, you can’t talk about Mary Decker in the ’84 Olympics without talking about Zola Budd. For my young brain, their stories were intertwined, but it was one of those stories that stuck in my mind as a child. I think part of it was because Zola Budd ran barefoot and it blew me away. Budd was from South Africa, where running barefoot was just what people did. Overall, her story is pretty heartbreaking. She ran as a way to cope with losing her sister of melanoma at the age of 25, and growing up in a segregated nation, it took moving to England to be able to compete at all. So as I remember it, she came out of nowhere because most people didn’t know she existed until she suddenly showed up to compete for England. What’s even crazier is Budd didn’t know anything about the runners she’d be competing against in the 3,000-meter run, except for Mary Decker, who she idolized.

 

Mary Decker, on the other hand, was, like Mary Lou Retton, expected to be an Olympic sweetheart. The media predicted her to be a gold medalist in ‘84, but they also expected a tight race between Budd and Decker. The reality was much worse. After about a mile in, Mary Decker clipped Zola Budd’s heel and fell. For each lap, the runners continued to fly by Decker as she laid on the ground in severe pain, and Budd was booed and blamed for Decker’s fall, which drained her emotionally as she finished the race. Decker didn’t finish, and Budd ended with a 7th place, and was almost disqualified because of the incident. Both women left the race devastated.

 

I remember it well, even though I didn’t fully understand what exactly happened. I certainly couldn’t have fully comprehended what came afterwards, which was that Budd was demonized for the incident that made her a villain in a story involving someone she looked up to. As a child, it was a reminder that you can be at the top of the world and that circumstances out of your control can change everything. And today, it continues to be a reminder that no matter how much you prepare, things can change in an instant. I will continue to be grateful of where I’ve been and what I’ve been capable of doing. And despite what happened to them, they both are forever seared in my brain as women who overcame great odds.


Jackie Joyner-Kersee


Jackie Joyner-Kersee performs the long jump.

Like me, Jackie Joyner-Kersee was born in Illinois, though she grew up in East St. Louis and is still active in the St. Louis area today. She set a long jump record in Illinois in high school and earned a scholarship to UCLA to play basketball and continue in the long jump. Yet it was the Heptathlon that put her on the map in the ‘80s, especially for this little Illinois girl.

 

I’ll never forget watching Jackie Joyner-Kersee perform in the Olympics. It was only the second time in Olympics history a women’s heptathlon was an option. It’s a two-day event where athletes compete in seven track and field events: the 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200-meter run, long jump, javelin throw, and 800-meter run. To be great at any one of these events is incredible. To be great at all of them is a completely different story. She earned a bronze, but barely missed the gold in the event. And then she went on in 1988 to set a world record in the Heptathlon, which she still holds. She was a legend in my mind back then, and still to this day.


Florence Griffith Joyner


Florence Griffith Joyner prepares for race day in 1984.

Florence Griffith Joyner was Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s sister-in-law, but in my mind, she stood alone as a phenomenal athlete with a distinct style. Known as Flo-Jo, it was hard to miss her on the track. Like Sha’Carri Richardson today, Flo-Jo was known for her decorated finger nails and one-legged track suits. She was gorgeous, and she was insanely fast.

 

Flo-Jo earned a silver in the 200-meter run in 1984, which she had the distinct honor of running in her hometown of Los Angeles. She went on to win world records in the 1988 Olympics for the 100- and 200-meter runs. She still holds those records today. I was devastated when Flo-Jo died of an epileptic seizure when I was in college. But to this day, I think about her and how well she embodied style and grace while owning her speed and athleticism. She was incredible, and I’m grateful I got to grow up with her as a role model.


Mary Lou Retton


Mary Lou Retton performs in the 1984 Olympics.

I tend to believe Mary Lou Retton was the darling of the 1984 Olympics, but that’s potentially because she was my darling. I recently read that Mary Lou Retton great up watching Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci win gold medals in the Olympics and would sleep in leotards, hoping to compete like that some day. That was how many of us kids were back in ’84. She earned a place on a Wheaties box and the status as “America’s Sweetheart” after — just six weeks after she had knee surgery, might I add — she took home five medals in the 1984 Olympics, including one gold that had me dreaming of scoring perfect 10s in gymnastics.

 

However, my home community isn’t exactly a mecca for gymnastics, and if you saw how inflexible I am today, you’d instantly know I never had more than cartwheels in my arsenal of gymnastics capabilities. It doesn’t mean I didn’t become my own version of Mary Lou Retton when I took her name for my roller derby persona, becoming Mary Lou Wretched for my derby career. I had so many dreams as a 30-something wearing a Mary Lou Retton leotard at practices. And the way my face would light up when I skated was apparently pretty reminiscent of how happy Retton was on the mats. All I knew was I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. But instead, I got to be me with a pretty killer alter-ego.


What I’ve learned


As I’ve been thinking about how much I looked up to these women, I’m reminded that if the 1984 version of myself knew what all I would accomplish as an athlete, I’d be blown away. And it’s exactly why I’m proud this Women’s History Month to celebrate the women that are showing this generation’s girls that there is a place for them in athletics.

 

I believed I grew up in the heyday of women's sports, and I was wrong. There is a place for all of us.



 


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