Hearing the “Star-Spangled Banner” played while standing on foreign soil was unexpectedly emotional. I had heard the national anthem at sporting events countless times, but for me, it was different at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
That anthem was played 34 times, once for each gold medal. At the 21st modern Olympiad, the United States won the third-most gold medals and second-most overall medals behind the Soviet Union. Americans won 12 of the 13 medals in men’s swimming.
Fourteen-year-old Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci was the star of the games. She was awarded seven perfect 10s while dominating the competition. Three of her five medals were gold.
There were 23 different sports (some with both men’s and women’s divisions), each with its own French/English souvenir program. I have programs from nine sports. Tickets had to be purchased months in advance. It took careful planning with several events taking place at the same time in sometimes far-flung locations. It was possible to attend two, maybe three events each day. Public transportation was superb, and late July weather was magnificent for outdoor events. Also enjoyable was seeing flag-bearing fans from all over the world, all in one city at the same time.
Tickets most in demand were gymnastics and swimming plus track and field. Track tickets were not a problem due to being outside in a large stadium. We did not see any gymnastics in person, but like diving, it may be better viewed on television with replays.
My playing and coaching days had included basketball, soccer, volleyball, track and some self-taught springboard diving. I wanted to see some of those events. I had played some competitive volleyball but had never witnessed anything close to the high-level Olympic competition. Gold medals were won by the Japanese women and the Polish men.
However, I found the greatest takeaway from the Olympics was watching some sports for the first time — field hockey, water polo, rowing, cycling and team handball. Tickets were easily available for those. No ticket was required for cycling as it took place on public roadways. Much of the action in water polo took place underwater. Fouls appeared to be intentional when an opponent worked into scoring position. Hungary won gold.
Team handball, a relatively new seven-man game, was making its Olympic debut. Nothing like singles handball I had seen at home, this team sport combines elements of basketball and indoor soccer — played on a large indoor court with the goal on the floor. Like soccer and water polo, there was a goalkeeper. European communists dominated; the Soviet Union men and women both took gold.
Long before NBA players were eligible, the U.S. men’s basketball team won all seven games (including one forfeit) and took the gold-medal game over Yugoslavia by 21 points (95-74) after a 19-point win over the same team in earlier rounds. But there were early close calls, including a 95-94 escape against the American territory Puerto Rico and a five-point decision over Czechoslovakia (81-76). Mentored in Montreal by future Hall of Fame coach Dean Smith, all 12 Olympians would later play in the NBA. It was the debut year for women’s basketball. The USA took home silver medals, falling to the Soviet Union in the finals.
Before leaving home, we had contracted accommodations and breakfast in a private suburban home. Only one family member spoke English. After a couple of college French classes, I was far from fluent. School students in Montreal could choose either a French-speaking school or an English-speaking school. One son of this French Canadian family had chosen an English-speaking education.
Two of us drove from home in Dallas, Tex.; another flew to join us in Quebec City. Before the games, the driving tour took us through New England and into the Canadian Maritime Provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island before the picturesque Gaspe Peninsula of Quebec. The ferry ride to P.E.I. was my only lifetime experience with seasickness. The historic old town of the city of Quebec was the most romantic site I can recall.
Some youngsters pointed to my moving car in New Brunswick, I concluded they had never before seen a Texas license plate.