MIKE MORAN: John Lucas Is Gone - But We Have His Writings And Olympic Writings Forever
November 16 - John Apostal Lucas passed away without fanfare last Friday in Columbia, Missouri, and his death stills yet another of the few great voices of the Olympic family and the worldwide Olympic movement that had lived to chronicle the stories and the individuals who were giants in the evolution of both the United States Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee.
This gentle scholar attended every Olympics since 1960, and ran on the great stadium ovals in every Summer Games city through Athens in 2004 as part of his ritual, created over five decades of attending the Games, observing its comings and goings, and writing scores of books and papers about the history of the world’s greatest sporting event.
John Lucas was 84 when he died last week, but he will be recalled as one of the foremost Olympic historians on the face of the earth, but his writings were not those of an academic, hidden away in some untidy, cramped office on the Penn State campus, where he taught Kinesiology.
Dr. Lucas lived as he wrote, as the track and field coach at Penn State from 1962-1968 and at Maryland from 1958-1962 as a track assistant.
He was a runner of some ability as a youth, finishing seventh in the 10,000 meters at the 1952 Olympic Trials, just shy of becoming an Olympian. He attended Boston University as an undergraduate student before earning his Master’s Degree from Southern Cal, and later his Ph.D. from Penn State in 1970.
Though he taught Kinesiology at Penn State for decades, it was the Olympic Games that he came to love and put his agile mind to in terms of the intrigue of the Modern Games, the giants who presided over the Games, and the athletes who struggled for their dreams and the podium.
I came to know him in the 1980s as a regular participant in the USOC’s now extinct Olympic Academy, a gathering of scholars, youth and experts who would come together in the summers to study the quadrennial phenomenon, the Games, and the trends and movements of a sporting event that grew in dramatic proportion following the star-crossed 1984 Los Angeles Games, the boycotts and the explosion of corporate involvement, television and ultimately, the entrance of professional athletes into the Games.
He brought me to Penn State in the late 1990s to lecture to his beloved class, “History, Philosophy and Politics of the Modern Olympic Games,” along with his colleague, Professor Elizabeth Hanley, one of the pillars of the foundation of the U.S. Olympic Academy. I spoke of the horrendous boycotts of 1980 and 1984 that almost killed the Games, and the damage it had inflicted on the athletes who would never again compete in the Games, thanks to the blunders of the Carter Administration.
But John Lucas, unlike over 500 American athletes, did indeed get to Moscow and those stained Games.
Mr. Jimmy Carter,” he told the class, “did not tell me that I could not go to Moscow. So, I went to Moscow, because Mr. Jimmy Carter could not stop me.”
As I write today, I am staring at the last of scores of hand-written letters (typewriters and computers be damned) that he sent me, dated June 12, 2011, scribbled on yellow legal-sized, lined papers in his own, distinctive fashion, exceeding the borders on the sides of each page, without indentation or breaks.
“Dear Mike, we are no longer young men,” he penned. “There are good persons to take our place, but possibly not right away. My wife of 58 years, Joyce, passed away and so I am now living in Brookline, a comfortable retirement home. I want to go to London, but I’m not stubborn. I’ll be over 85 when the Games in London begin.”
“I think about the IOC, Pierre de Coubertin (founder of the Modern Games and the subject of a Lucas book), Avery Brundage, Juan Antonio Samaranch, Peter Ueberroth, et al, constantly.”
Lucas included a note he received from IOC President Jacques Rogge some months before, extending his condolences on the loss of his wife and thanking him for his support and efforts on behalf of the Olympic Movement. The envelope also contains a clipping alerting scholars and others to what was to be one of his final lectures, an April 6 session at the Paterno Library titled “Athens 1896 to London 2012, A Perspective on the Olympic Games.”
It was to be one of over 500 such lectures delivered on three continents by Lucas, author of multiple books and essays.
“The Olympic Games of the future can become much better only if the IOC is made up of better men and women,” he was inclined to tell me. “and if the National Olympic Committees have international and humane agendas that balance their admirable desire to send honest athletes in search of gold, silver and bronze.”
Samaranch bestowed the title of “Official Olympic Lecturer” on Lucas in 1984, and we became accustomed to seeing him at the door of my office at the Games as they opened. He would be clad in shorts, what looked like a cargo vest, rumpled Penn State hat, and running shoes, ready for a day’s work at any of a score of venues. I never knew where he went or what he did. He eschewed our invitations to USOC social functions and would never accept a ticket to a major event from me. He knew why he was there and what he wanted to see and do.
This was no ordinary Olympic Geek, this man whose parents came to America from Albania in 1909. He spent 13 months as a US Army private in Korea during that conflict in bitter cold at a former Japanese air and sea base on the Yellow Sea.
To help finance his studies at Southern Cal, he worked half-days at Metro-Goldwyn Mayer studios as a stunt man and extra. He performed modest roles in four films, “Because You’re Mine” with Mario Lanza, “Jim Thorpe-All-American” with Burt Lancaster, “Quo Vadis” with Robert Taylor, and “Pat and Mike” with Spencer Tracy and Kate Hepburn.
In 1996, the IOA honored him in Atlanta with the Olympic Order, the Golden version in fact, one of the highest ever bestowed on an American.
It’s doubtful that any of the current USOC leaders or staff ever had the chance to meet John Lucas, and they missed something special.
Now he joins others who the U.S. Olympic movement has lost, and with him, a treasure of memories, stories and institutional memory beyond value- Bud Greenspan, Dr. LeRoy Walker, Bob Paul, and American Olympic greats like Bob Mathias, Al Oerter and most recently, Jeff Blatnick.
Few who know USOC history in depth remain now- Herb Weinberg, Baaron Pittenger, Mike Harrigan, Ollan Cassell, Donna De Varona, George Killian, Bill Mallon, Herb Douglas, Anita DeFrantz and a handful of others.
But nobody quite cut from the same cloth like Dr. John Lucas.
*** Mike Moran was the chief spokesman for the United States Olympic Committee for a quarter century, through thirteen Games, from Lake Placid to Salt Lake City. He joined the USOC in 1978 as it left New York City for Colorado Springs. He was the Senior Communications Counselor for NYC2012, New York City’s Olympic bid group from 2003-2005 and is now a media consultant and works with the Colorado Springs Sports Corporation. www.coloradospringssports.org. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org
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