Thirty Years After: The Triangle's Great Olympic Festival
Posted June 29
Raleigh, N.C. — Cellular. That’s what we called the new telephone technology in 1987. WRAL rented a cellular phone in Colorado Springs for me so that I could report live from Pike’s Peak on the lighting of the torch and the run up to the U.S. Olympic Festival in the Triangle. This early cell phone was pretty large-it came with a handle and would not fit in a large purse let alone a side pocket. But it worked. I’ll never forget the thrill of that live shot. Or for that matter the quick call home to Raleigh-“Kids it’s dad calling from the top of Pike’s Peak!”
We weren’t quite at the top of the Peak-just to the U.S. Olympic Committee’s headquarters where the Olympic flame would blaze 24-7. But we were high enough up (I’m guessing 12,000 feet) that my news photographer had some difficulty breathing. We were told that snow on Pike’s Peak even in June was not unusual-and maybe that’s why the USOC later moved the flame and the HQ down to Colorado Springs, which is a mere 6,000 feet. We did not have snow on June 10, 1987. It was a beautiful day.
We needed much more than the cell phone for our live shot of course. Our affiliate KCNC drove its satellite truck 80 miles from Denver up the narrow winding road to the site of the flame. This was an act of television generosity that is unmatched in all my years in the business. But thanks to them, and that cell phone, our live shot went off without a hitch, and I was able to report on how Hill Carrow, his wife Susan, and their friends the Howards had landed the Olympic Festival for North Carolina after eight years of dreaming, bidding, planning, and gearing up. When Olympian Rowdy Gaines and North Carolinian Sam Jones (at that time the best Team Handball player in the world) lit the torch and started the run down Pike’s Peak, it meant the final countdown had begun for what would be the largest and most amazing event ever staged in the Triangle and North Carolina.
The Torch Run, which preceded the games, proved to be at least as complicated-and spectacular-as the events in the Festival. Under the able direction of Jack Hughes, the torch moved by air from Colorado to Wilmington, in fact it was a Piedmont Airlines flight-this was the 80’s and Piedmont had not yet been absorbed by the future U.S. Airways. The torch moved in and out of Wilmington before I could get back from Colorado. I do remember that former NC State and NFL star Roman Gabriel was among the first to run the torch. And I remember some lifeguards at Carolina Beach took the flame out into the Atlantic. That was a cool photo.
Soon after Wilmington I was reunited with Sports Photographer Jay Jennings and we devoted the next three weeks to following, shooting, documenting, covering the great North Carolina Torch Run. Ultimately the flame would pass through more than 400 towns, moved by bicycle, boat, and wheel chair, in addition to the traditional run and walk. Jay and I covered Torch festivities all over the WRAL viewing area-from Henderson to Gaston to Kinston and everywhere in between. But the most memorable was our trip to Cape Hatteras.
The Torch Run along the Cape
I will never forget the logistical challenges of that late June weekend. My mission was to help Jay cover the all important first day on the island, when the torch would be run past the historic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, then located much closer to the sea than it is today. The torch would then go right down Highway 12, with spectacular vistas everywhere. The photo moments were so alluring we knew that Jay really needed to remain with the Torch Run Crew until Sunday afternoon. I, however, had to get back to Raleigh Saturday by mid-afternoon to anchor the 6 and 11 p.m. sports. My sister-in-law Deidre, then a student at East Carolina, agreed to join us on the Hatteras Island procession of the torch and then drive me to the WRAL studios. We were all so much younger then!
Jay and I had a late night strategy meeting with the Torch Run Crew to insure that we knew when and where the best photo opps would emerge. We set our alarms for 5am, as it was imperative that we be operating full blast by sunrise. The image of the torch passing by the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse at sunrise, is forever recorded on my “DVR of the mind.” What a moment. What a picture. And we were just getting started.
Jay and I both wanted to run the torch and the crew was happy to have our help. Large numbers of people signed up to run and walk with it in cities and towns, but in the less populated areas, the Torch Run Crew usually did the honors. In fact one of the crew, Triathlete Lindsey Linker, who would later gain fame as an extraordinary high school tennis coach, often attached the torch to her bicycle and rode with it. One day Lindsey cycled 60 miles with the Olympic Flame. But on this particular Saturday morning the crew took a break as Jay and I each took four one mile increments.
By now Deidre was riding in the Torch Run vehicle with us. In fact I think Deidre took a stint running the torch, too. I definitely remember telling her my goal was to run seven minute miles-I could do that in 1987, unlike the eleven minute miles I run today. But here’s the thing-the Torch was a bit heavier and more awkward than I expected. I could tell watching the faces of the folks in the Torch Run Vehicle ahead of me that they would like to go a little faster. And then Deidre said it: “What happened to those seven minute miles Bob?” OK, I admit. All I could do carrying that torch was eight minute miles. Or slower! Pedestrian.
One other vivid memory from that spectacular sunny morning: A photographer from a competing television station also made the trip to Hatteras Island to document the torch. This photographer worked very hard to get ahead of the procession by a couple of miles, find a place to park-then drag his camera, tripod, and support gear up onto a sand dune, to get a nice panoramic shot of the torch coming down highway 12. Everything was perfect, until he realized it was WRAL’s Jay Jennings who was carrying the torch!
Somewhere about 9:30, Deidre and I broke away to make the nearly seven hour drive back to Raleigh. We made good time-thanks Deidre! But now, after having gotten up before dawn, moved in hot weather with some urgency to keep up with the Torch Run-which really didn’t stop, and run four mies carrying the torch, it was now time to get ready to anchor the six and eleven pm sportscasts. I remember the early show went great-I was so energized from the events of the day the stories and highlights seemed to produce themselves. But the late show-that was a different story. By about 9:30 pm I hit the wall. I remember taking laps around the station, walking as fast as I could, trying somehow to stay awake. I can’t tell you if that show was any good or not. I know I did not fall asleep. But I did drive home immediately after. And for the only time even in 28 years of anchoring sports on WRAL, I went straight to bed. It normally took me a couple of hours to wind down after a late show. Not that night. But what a day! I’ll never forget it.
Jay and I pushed ourselves very hard during the Torch Run, logging three consecutive 100 hour weeks. I mean, we knew this was only going to happen once. But knowing that we still had three more really challenging weeks ahead once the games began, we took a small break. It would have been awesome to see the Torch in Western North Carolina as it moved from Hickory up toward Grandfather Mountain, over the newly opened Blue Ridge Parkway viaduct. But we still had so much to do back in Raleigh.
The Torch came to Fayetteville-in fact it came to Fort Bragg during reveille-about a week before Opening Ceremonies. My friend Tom Suiter and I hopped about the Torch Run Vehicle to record wraps for WRAL’s Olympic Festival Special “Dreams of Gold.” A friend of mine at WRAL told me recently she can’t believe Tom and I didn’t fall off the back of that truck! I just remember that once we started moving things felt pretty comfortable, and looking at the end result things went smoothly. Tom was flawless as always! Tom said on the program that he was nervous during the time in Raleigh when he ran with the Torch-was afraid he might drop it! Maybe we should have taken Tom to Cape Hatteras? After the first half mile in the unrelenting sunshine of Highway 12, he would have gotten over being nervous!
Let the Games Begin!
Of course, holding major events in the Triangle, even in 1987, was not a completely new thing. The late Dr. Leroy Walker and Al Buehler began collaborating on staging international track meets in the Triangle back in the early 70’s when they were coaches/administrators at NC Central and Duke. Walker and Buehler put on the great USA-USSR meet in 1974, among others. So it was a natural thing for Carrow to include Walker and Buehler in the planning and staging of the Triangle’s Olympic Festival. Carrow and his group North Carolina Amateur Sports, provided the energy in promoting and selling the games. Walker and Buehler brought the experience at putting on these kinds of events. And they had connections-Walker in fact would later become the President of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
In the final days before the opening ceremonies, everyone wanted to touch the torch. UNC basketball star J.R. Reid and former UNC soccer star April Heinrichs were chosen to carry the Olympic Flame on its final leg-the journey to the cauldron at Carter-Finley Stadium. More than 61,000 spectators packed Carter-Finley for this once in a lifetime event that featured not only the athletes, but entertainers like the Charlie Daniels Band plus fireworks.
And then, just like in the Olympics, the games began-for 4,000 athletes. 9,000 volunteers played a critical part in this happening, as competition was staged in 34 different sports: Ice skating and hockey in Greensboro; yachting on Kerr Lake; boxing, team handball, roller skating, and all of the equestrian events in Raleigh; gymnastics, swimming, and basketball in Chapel Hill; soccer and athletics in Durham. There were so many more sports-I can’t name them all!
One aspect of the U.S. Olympic Festival differed markedly from the Olympics. It was left to the NGB’s-the National Governing Bodies of each sport-to determine which athletes would be funneled to the Olympic Festival. In some sports, like diving, the very best athletes came to the Games. But some sports used the Olympic Festival for athlete development and sent promising newcomers to the Triangle. All of the athletes that competed here 30 years ago were top notch. But some were better known than others. For example, in track, the great Carl Lewis chose not to compete at the Olympic Festival. But look at some of the names of those who did:
Valerie Briscoe-Hooks, Harvey McSwain, Lynn Jennings, Al Joyner, Willie Banks, Greg Foster, Gail Devers, Larry Myricks, and former ECU star Lee McNeill.
A promising young hurdler/sprinter from Purdue won a couple of medals. His name was Rod Woodson. Yes-Steeler fans. That Rod Woodson.
Boxing at the Civic Center featured heavyweights Riddick Bowe and Nathaniel Fitch. Anthony Maynard competed, as did Fort Bragg’s own Anthony Hembrick. Hembrick would make the 1988 U.S. Olympic Team.
And my research indicates that the gold medalist in tennis was a guy folks might have heard of. Pete Sampras dominated the USOF competition at Duke University. It was his first really big win. He would have more.
How to Cover the Games?
The USOF made its media headquarters in Durham. So WRAL set up a makeshift bureau at Wallace Wade Stadium, and our crew stayed largely in the media hotel for two weeks. I-40’s final link from the Research Triangle to Orange County had just opened a month or so ahead of the games. Still, with all of the big events on the west side of the Triangle, it didn’t make sense to battle traffic every day. I would note here that the 1987 U.S. Olympic Festival was the first to be fully computerized. That helped enormously. I remember using the “high tech” equipment many nights to check results or confirm the next day’s events. The computer set up was nothing like we have today, but for 1987 it was state of the art!
Those two weeks on the west side are something of a blur-especially 30 years later. But a few memories stand out:
*More than 20,000 spectators packed the Dean Smith Center to watch gymnastics. This was the largest crowd ever to watch gymnastics in America. Folks got to see a virtuoso performance from a young woman named Joyce Kilborn, who dominated the event.
*Raleigh’s William Keever won two medals in swimming at UNC’s Koury Natatorium. That facility, like the Smith Center, had just opened one year earlier. It provided some nice amenities, including a window where photographers could video tape swimmers under water. Keever’s coach, Paul Silver, agreed to wear a wireless microphone during his swimmer’s events. So when William won bronze in the 100 meter fly, and silver in a relay event-with Coach Silver cheering him on-that was a proud moment for WRAL.
*There were some 1500 media at the USOF-more than at the 1987 Pan American Games. I remember one tense moment in the press box at Wade Stadium. Some Pittsburgh media wanted to interview Rod Woodson, the Steelers’ #1 draft choice, about his upcoming rookie season in the NFL. Mike Moran, who adroitly managed the media operations for the United State Olympic Committee, mindful that this was an “Amateur Sports Event,” wanted to focus the q&a on Woodson’s performance on the track-which was stout! He won a couple of medals. I don’t remember exactly how this played out but am betting the Pittsburgh media eventually got to ask their Steelers’ questions.
*I remember covering roller skating in Raleigh, dominated by an athlete named Dante Mews. Speed skating on the oval at Dorton Arena, like speed skating on ice at the Greensboro Coliseum could occasionally be treacherous. I remember a mishap where one competitor fell and another got tangled up in the accident. I felt badly for those athletes who had invested so much time getting ready to compete, only to have their time in Raleigh end up with a DQ.
*My final live shot at Wade Stadium is something I’ll always remember. I previewed the final day of track competition, and then, having missed so many of my own running days during the six hard weeks of work covering the Torch Run and the Games, announced that I was going to run stairs. Adele Arakawa sounded a bit skeptical-and I don’t remember whether Charlie Gaddy said anything. But my friend Tom Suiter came to my rescue: “I have faith in Bob,” Tom said on the air. “He can do this.” In the mid 80’s I used to run stairs frequently-had actually run 40 flights once in 1986. Anyway, I put down the microphone and IFB and jogged from the first row to the top row of Wade Stadium and back down again. Had to get some exercise in!
The Great Louganis
By far the most memorable event at the “Games of ‘87” was diving. The presence of America’s top divers, led by the great Greg Louganis, arguably the best diver in the history of the sport, brought enormous interest. The competition was staged at the Candler Swim Club, which decked out in USOF signage and banners, proved wondrously photogenic amid the tall pines of Cary. Candler was about the size of most any neighborhood club pool, other than it had an extra large diving area, replete with several springboards and an Olympic platform. In other words-this was a cozy venue. Hill Carrow himself was quite visible as we arrived, helping direct traffic, and encouraging spectators to drink plenty of water because it was going to be crowded. This was an afternoon event-bright sunshine definitely pushed the temperature to at least 90. All these years later, I am still amazed by how many people packed the Candler Swim Club that day.
But talk about a once in a lifetime opportunity-here you had Greg Louganis trading handstands, somersaults, pikes, and perfect no splash entries with Bruce Kimball, the second best diver in the world at that point. There were also outstanding divers in the women’s competition: Michelle Mitchell and Wendy Lucero to name two. All those acrobatic performers competed in one of the most visually pleasing settings I’ve ever seen. My partner Jay Jennings found a spot in the photo area that made it appear as if WRAL was the only media outlet covering the event, even though ESPN carried it all live. In fact-ESPN aired 44 hours of the Triangle’s Olympic Festival. I will always believe that coverage ultimately brought unprecedented visibility to our region of North Carolina. It has been growing ever since!
But back to Jay-his video of that day’s competition was truly magical-especially the Louganis dives. I was so taken by this that I made a dub of Jay’s raw footage. In the recording which I still have on VHS, you can clearly hear the Meet Director giving names and scores, announcing the next diver etc. You can see the facial expressions of the competitors. And of course you can hear the enormously supportive crowds. Every now and then I pop the tape in and watch. I am immediately transported back to 1987 and one of the greatest events I have ever had the privilege to cover.
Diving at Candler went so well, U.S. Diving brought its National Championship back to Cary in 1989. I got to cover the greatest all over again. Michelle Mitchell remembered me and WRAL. That made my year!
The Last Hurrah
During the Closing Ceremonies I heard several media colleagues say “Let the Games be Gone.” I couldn’t think that way. I had just spent an entire year (the company actually sent Jay and me to Houston to cover the 1986 USOF to prepare for the Triangle Games) focused on this one time event. I had seen incredible athletes and performances, dedicated volunteers, and great leadership from North Carolina Amateur Sports in coordinating with the participating cities and universities.
Capitol Broadcasting Company signed on early in the process to become the Grand Patron of the 1987 Olympic Festival. After the games ended, I remember talking with CBC President Jim Goodmon about the way in which the USOF really brought the Triangle together. I believe the energy from that civic cooperation may have played a part in Mr. Goodmon’s decision to buy the Durham Bulls-but that’s a story for another day.
In the end, the Triangle set attendance records in 30 of the 34 sports. Our games completely obliterated the overall attendance record set the previous year in Houston. There were 183 ticketed events at the Triangle’s Olympic Festival. Those events drew almost 500,000 spectators. Without question, the Triangle Olympic Fest was the greatest in the proud though brief history of the event, which was phased out in the early 90’s. The odds are, we will never see anything quite like it again.
My friend Dr. Walker said in 1987: “This is the best we’ll ever do. We’re never going to have the Olympic Games.” But nine years later, when Walker had become President of the U.S. Olympic Committee, he directed the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996. Who could have seen that coming? Billy Payne and the Atlanta Organizing Committee had a dream to do something really grand on the stage of International Sport. They found/developed/built facilities after winning the Olympic bid. Hill Carrow and North Carolina Amateur Sports did the same thing, albeit on a much smaller scale. Carrow first began dreaming and scheming to bring the Olympic Festival to the Triangle way back in 1979 when he saw a newspaper article about the first National Sports Festival as it was called then being staged in Colorado Springs. Carrow and the team he put together made the 1987 Olympic Festival for the Triangle happen-against pretty long odds. So back to Dr. Walker’s point: Never say never!