Thinking of John Lucas During the Olympics
I loved the Olympics well before I showed up at Penn State and wandered into a minor in sport history. But I didn’t fully appreciate the power of the Games until I met John Lucas.
Lucas ’70g, a professor in what was way-back-when called “exercise and sport science,” spent decades at Penn State combining his two loves—scholarship and the Olympics. He also told terrific stories, and he reeled off hilarious one-liners, made all the more funny because he was so serious as he uttered them.
Few things made him madder than the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympics; Lucas truly believed that Olympism is a force for good, and he didn’t think politicians and heads of state should interfere with it. He was proud to have been one of a handful of Americans in Moscow that year. “Mr. Jimmy Carter,” he intoned one day in class, “he did not tell me that I could not go to Moscow.” He paused, injecting a little drama. Lucas loved a little extra drama. “So I went to Moscow.” Another pause. “Mr. Jimmy Carter, he could not stop me.”
Somehow, in his formal lecture voice, he made it sound like he and Mr. Jimmy Carter had settled the matter in a physical confrontation. I had no doubt that had it come to blows, Lucas would have prevailed. So what if he had the slight frame of a distance runner? I couldn’t imagine what could keep Lucas from the Olympics.
That’s why I was so sad to learn, via this story, that Lucas isn’t in London; these are the first Summer Games he’s missed since 1956. He’s 83 now, and he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in February. He’s living in Missouri with his son, Mark, who isn’t even sure his dad knows the Olympics are going on.
Lucas is a serious historian, publishing more than 200 articles and books about the Olympics. I respect that—and learned a ton from him; I still refer to the sport history textbook that he and fellow Penn State prof Ron Smith wrote—but what I really remember is his quirkiness and his genuine delight in the Games.
One day he brought in a 1988 newspaper from Seoul, Korea, that had two English words: John Lucas. They were part of a caption under a photo of Lucas in full stride, running around the Olympic track and fulfilling a vow he’d made after failing to make the U.S. Olympic track team in the 1952. He swore he would run on each Olympic track, and starting with the 1960 Rome Games, he found a way to get permission from officials (or past them) every four years until now. He also told a nearly unbelievable tale about going for a run in Munich in 1972, crossing the border into Austria, and being blocked from returning because he hadn’t stashed his passport in his running clothes. Eventually, of course, the armed guards backed down and let him in.
Juan Antonio Samaranch, longtime head of the International Olympic Committee, appointed Lucas to the new post of “Official Olympic Lecturer,” and Lucas milked that title for all it was worth. Explaining his role at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, he told my class, “There was a party every night.” Pause. “And as the official Olympic historian, I had to be there.” Pause. “It was my duty.”
I’d caught glimpses of Lucas from time to time since returning to campus three years ago—usually around the library. I wish so much I had re-introduced myself.
But I’ve got one more memory to treasure. I covered the 1996 Atlanta Games for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and I went straight from filing my Closing Ceremonies story to the airport for an early morning flight. I was bleary-eyed in a line at the USAir counter at 3:30 a.m. when Lucas showed up. He was wearing a straw hat (I know, that seems almost too perfect) and a sports jacket, and he was carrying one of those little nylon bags you get at a conference. The bag had seen better days, and it was an ugly shade of green. Practically chartreuse.
Everyone started chatting, and at some point Lucas reached into the bag and pulled out the Olympic Order—the highest award the International Olympic Committee can bestow. It’s given for “distinguished contributions” to the Olympic movement.
Why he was carrying something so prestigious in that ratty bag, I’ll never know. I’m pretty sure most of the people in line had no idea what the award was. But Lucas displayed it with pride, and he was glorying in what he repeatedly said was one of the best parts of the Olympics—forming a bond with others who loved sport, competition, the Games.
Lori Shontz, senior editor