Ancient Rome was the home of the gladiators and it’s very moving to see the Coliseum where the slaves battled to the death. It was a time when human life didn’t mean too much, unless you were part of the aristocracy and had some sway. Of course, those people stabbed each other with some regularity, too, in order to fatten the personal treasury or assume the family farm. I believe that is still occurring in all corners of the world.
This also reminds me of the U.S. Olympic Committee which stabbed me several times in the back, but was never able to get rid of me. They always underestimated me. I fought back in the best way I knew how — I kept pounding on the door.
That was all on my mind at the World Games in Rome in 1982 A.D., or as they tag it now, 1982 C.E. That stands for Common Era. Needless to say, there has been nothing common about the era, including me. And that’s why I was in Rome, trying to put on my best gladiator face and demeanor for throwing against a field of large, strong athletes. Good thing we were not allowed to throw at each other.
It crossed my mind that our throwers, namely the Americanos, looked a lot more like the statues of the naked Roman warriors and gladiators arrayed around the Coliseum than the modern Italians themselves. I don’t know how that happened. Maybe when Rome fell for the last time, so did the muscle tone. I kept looking around for a shot-putter and then realized the shot-put started in Scotland in the 12th Century.
It was a world-class event and featured a lot of famous track and field stars, including Carl Lewis, the sprinter and jumper.
Of course, we weren’t competing in the actual Coliseum. Only tourists are allowed in there now, and besides, it’s pretty small, certainly not the size represented in Hollywood films, though it is a magnificent structure.
The 1982 meet was held in a first-rate stadium that seated 60,000 spectators. It was the one that was the scene of the 1960 Olympics. The Italians take track and field much more seriously than we do here in the U.S. It ranks right behind soccer there. Maybe they take it so seriously because they had centuries of throwing spears, running, jumping over piles of bodies and going everywhere on foot. That can lead to tradition.
I had finished throwing and my performance was not up to par, but I wanted to watch the rest of the events. The World Championships are always a spectacle and attract the best, so they’re worth watching.
I didn’t have a place to sit in the stands, so Carl Lewis’ family said I could sit next to them. I was always friendly with his family and when his sister, Carol, saw me and extended the invitation, I said sure. I had gotten chummy with the family over the years, seeing them at meets. They’re great people.
They were in the upper grandstand and I had to squeeze past an Italian family. I took Carl’s seat since he was still on the field competing. Almost immediately a female member of the Italian family began squawking at me because I didn’t have a ticket. She gave me the evil eye, no kidding.
I couldn’t figure it out. Maybe I stepped on her toes. I had a USA jacket on and maybe she didn’t like that. For a minute, I thought they were going to pull out the daggers and start stabbing me, a la Julius Caesar. I hoped her husband’s name wasn’t Brutus.
What to do when you’re getting the evil eye from the Godmother? I played the big, ugly American and didn’t budge, something I’m really good at. It’s a good strategy when you’re in a non-English-speaking country.
The Godmother continued to have fits and fetched the police. When the officer showed up, I was still smiling and nodding and playing dumb. I figured they might leave me alone and I could enjoy the rest of the competition.
That’s when the officer waved at me with a little motion of his hand, like he was waving a little goodbye. I waved goodbye back, a nice little friendly wave, and kept smiling.
He waved again. I waved again. Then he walked over to us. I didn’t know that in Italy a wave like that doesn’t mean goodbye, it means come here. Who knew? Then he asked for our ticket stubs.
I thought, here, you go again, Butch, getting booted out of something for no good reason. It was a problem I had had since childhood. First grade, Cub Scouts, bars, bedrooms, hotels, the Olympics. Butch, my evil twin, had caused a lot of problems over the years, broken a lot of china.
But the Lewis family showed them the stubs for the seats and the officer shrugged and walked away. The Italian family was not happy, but there was nothing they could do. So I stayed and enjoyed myself. I had scored a small victory and fended off the evil eye.
The message in this story? That officer’s little wave of the hand meant much more than I realized at the time. And so it is with throwing. I reiterate for the thousandth time, work on all those little nuanced movements that limit your technique and shorten your throw.
We’ve talked about the feet, the legs, the torso. We’ve even talked about the brain. But it’s in the hands, too. Your hands. A small motion of the hand can mean so much in life and in your throwing life. It’s about throwing with precision and how you hold the shot can mean the difference between victory and defeat.
Is your hand under the shot? Is it too forward? Are the fingers splayed or closed? Have you experimented enough with your grip? Is the thumb pointed up or down? Is the palm facing in, out, or back? Is your hand under your jawline or behind it?
It won’t be the same for everybody, so you need to experiment with your hand position until you find the optimal mechanics for your technique.
I recommend to my students holding the shot behind the ear with the thumb pointed up. That way you get a longer application of power in your throw. But don’t take my word for it. Try it. Now.
By the way, I sat next to Carl’s family the following day and thought, “Mama mia, here we go again with the evil eye.” But the Italians figured out who I was and when I showed up they asked for my autograph, all smiles. I relented, gave it to them and waved goodbye to the evil eye. Then I went to an English pub, played darts and drank a few wee pints.
Post-script: Dec. 4 is the birthday of the Italian track and field meet promoter Sandro Giovannelli. He turned 97. Sandro got me into gobs of meets not only in Italy but in Europe and he treated me first class. He helped me make a living during my comeback years in the 1980s when I became the resident foreign thrower in Italy, shot and discus. He is a great guy and I wish him the very best.
By Brian Oldfield with George Houde