This was not a blog post I intended to write … it just happened. Sitting at my desk, preparing to write a post about Kay Yow, for some reason I pulled out a book from a pile on a nearby shelf.
I don’t know why. I wasn’t looking up anything. I not only had no reason to get this book … I didn’t even know for sure what book it was until I pulled it out. My office is not the tidiest of places, and well … suffice to say, I could only see an edge of the book when I reached for it. I knew it was one of my “history” books, but that was it. I could have been about baseball, basketball, tennis, golf, the Oscars, famous disasters … I’ve got all kinds of these books and love them.
At any rate, as soon as I pulled it out, I recognized it right away. It was, “The Olympic Games: Athens 1896-Athens 2004.”
It is mostly a book of photographs of the Summer and Winter Games, and I started idly flipping through. At this point, I guess you could say I was just dilly-dallying, which should have been my major in college (except, inexplicably, they didn’t offer it.)
I opened it randomly, which happened to be right on the section about the Sarajevo Games, with a full-page picture of ice dancers Torvill and Dean at the beginning of their beyond-famous “Bolero” routine. Just seeing that photo made so many memories of those Winter Games race through my mind … but also made me think how the very name “Sarajevo” now both looks and sounds tragic the same way “Munich” does in the context of the Olympics. In 1984, the world didn’t know that Yugoslavia was soon to break apart, that thousands of people would be killed and former Olympic venues would be riddled by bombs and bullets.
Then I flipped through some more pages, landing on a photo from the 1976 Summer Olympics. It’s of the Soviet Union-USA women’s basketball game. That was the first year for women’s hoops in the Olympics, and back then the Soviets had been the reigning power in the sport for nearly two decades. They would crush the Americans in Montreal, 112-77, on the way to a 5-0 mark and a gold medal in the six-team tournament. The Americans went 3-2 (they also lost to Japan) and took the silver.
I had to laugh a little, as we all do with old sports pics, about the high-top Chuck Taylors, low-top adidas sneakers, knee socks and sleeved Soviet jerseys. Plus the Soviets’ volleyball-style bottoms … you know, the things called, um, bun-huggers.
I thought about how different women’s basketball is now, 33 years later, and how we’ve had the great fortune of watching it grow up.
And then I was just about to close the book and get to work … but flipped back a few more pages … and my eye was caught by a picture of three women on the medal stand in the 1968 Summer Olympics. They were track athletes, and the one on top – the gold-winner – was crying.
I didn’t recognize any of them. I went to the caption:
The hugely talented Lillian Board (left) won the 400-meter silver, behind Colette Besson (FRA, middle). Tragically, the “golden girl” of British athletics died of cancer in 1970.
I was stunned. The “story” of that photo was not what I would have thought on first glance. It was not about the woman crying while hearing her anthem. It was really about the woman standing beside her, who would be dead in two years. I gasped reading the caption again, then looking at the photo once more. Oh, no, I thought, she must have been so young when she died.
I was 3 in 1968, so I have no memory of the Mexico City Olympics. But I’ve covered a lot of track and field, and have been devoted to reading/learning about the the history of all women’s sports, especially the Olympics. How could I not have heard of Lillian Board?
So I did what we all do now: immediately searched for her on the Internet. Great Britain’s Lillian Board, as the caption stated, took silver in the ’68 Olympics when she was edged by France’s Colette Besson at the finish line of the 400. Board was just 19 then. The following year, 1969, she took first in the 800 at the European Championships, while helping Great Britain win the 4×400 gold.
She became extremely popular in Great Britain, and started 1970 very well by expanding her range to the mile. But in May, she began to feel ill. In June, she ran her final race, which was in the 800 meters. In September, after an initial misdiagnosis, she was given the heart-stopping news that she had colorectal cancer. In October, she underwent surgery and was told she had two months to live. In December, the day after Christmas, she died.
She had turned 22 years old just 13 days before her death.
Wikipedia lists all of this information, and it links to a story in the UK Telegraph from 2006 in which reporter Brendan Gallagher wrote of Board’s death:
Sport has a special capacity to mourn. To miss dreadfully, and in perpetuity, outstanding talents that were never allowed to blossom fully. A gaping hole may be left in the record books, but over the years the memory of admirers and supporters gradually fills the vacuum.
Lillian Board is one such individual, struck down at the age of 22 by bowel cancer, with athletics and the world at her feet. It is difficult to think of a more glamorous figure in British sport, nor a more hard-core dedicated athletics talent. A golden girl not so much touched by stardust as smothered in the stuff, but also a sensationally talented athlete who had barely scratched the surface.
It is nearly 36 years now since she died in a Munich hospital one snowy Boxing Day evening, having travelled to Germany to receive intensive treatment with Dr. Josef Issels at the Ringberg Cancer clinic. The BBC interrupted the evening festivities with a sombre newsflash. I remember it to this day. Just about every sports fan of a certain age does.
Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart died at 22 earlier this month when the car he was riding in was hit by a drunken driver. I thought of him, having learned that Lillian Board had died at the same age as Adenhart and also with so much promise never realized. I have to admit I even thought of “Love Story” – cornball fiction as it is – the film/book about a woman who dies at 25 of leukemia. The movie, one of the most popular of the ’70s, was released 10 days before Lillian Board’s death.
And I thought, obviously, of the person whom I’d sat down to write about before becoming distracted by the Olympic book. We all know that N.C. State women’s hoops coach Kay Yow died in January after a very long battle with cancer that had made her an inspiration. I have a story to tell about a tribute to her, and that will be my next blog post.
But I felt compelled to share this story that I just found out about – even though it’s four decades old. You might already have known about it. If not, likely it touches you just as much as it does me. I never watched Lillian Board run nor knew previously of her death. Yet just from seeing a couple of photographs and reading for only a few minutes about her life and career, I could envision it all: the terror, the pain, the sadness, the loss. I imagined grief-stricken family members and friends wondering how anyone so vibrant and healthy-looking in the summer could be dead by early winter.
However, I also thought that for all the “future” that cancer robs from people, it can’t take their past. In that way, cancer NEVER wins.
Lillian Board at least had 22 years, and her life story will always be there for people to find out about and be moved by. Kay Yow had 66 years – nearly 67 – and her life story will always be told, too.