Tennis’ return to Olympics in 1988 faced skeptics, too

Steffi Graf
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Like golf today, tennis’ return to the Olympics in 1988 was met with mixed reactions from top players.

Tennis was eased back into the Games for the first time as a medal sport since 1924. It had been a demonstration sport at the 1968 and 1984 Olympics.

Some top tennis players missed the 1988 Olympics for various reasons one week after the U.S. Open ended.

Start with the men. Eight of the top 10 in the ATP rankings the week of the Olympics did not play in Seoul, but most absences were forced.

Top-ranked Swede Mats Wilander reportedly pulled out due to shin splints two days after winning the longest U.S. Open men’s final in history, a near-five-hour, five-set win over Ivan Lendl.

There was further reason to doubt the seriousness of Wilander’s injury based on comments earlier in 1988.

“An Olympic gold medal wouldn’t be like winning the Davis Cup or a Grand Slam tournament,” Wilander said, according to The Associated Press, conjuring recent comments from Adam Scott, the world No. 7 golfer who is skipping the Rio Games.

Wilander returned from his injury to the ATP Tour during the Olympics, winning an event in Palermo, Italy.

Lendl, then No. 2, didn’t play in Seoul due to reported citizenship issues. He couldn’t get cleared to play for the U.S. in time and wouldn’t play for Czechoslovakia.

The U.S. men’s team was actually chosen in December 1987. It did not include Andre AgassiJimmy Connors or John McEnroe.

“There wasn’t a great deal of enthusiasm in the U.S., and that kind of hurt the Olympic effort in general,” longtime tennis reporter Peter Bodo said. “On the other hand, the Europeans, as usual, were more Olympic conscious. The U.S. was a little more lukewarm. The Americans were a lot like the golfers are today.”

Agassi was ranked No. 4 the week of the Olympics but was outside the top 20 in December 1987, not high enough given nations could enter a maximum of three singles players per gender in Seoul.

Agassi could have been placed on the U.S. team later on in 1988, as Chris Evert was controversially, but that didn’t happen.

Agassi, Connors and McEnroe “all said they were not interested in participating in the Olympics,” according to The New York Times. McEnroe later said he regretted not playing. Agassi later won gold at Atlanta 1996.

Excluding Lendl, Connors and McEnroe were two of the top three U.S. men in December 1987.

The U.S. men’s singles team in Seoul instead included the other top-ranked U.S. men, Tim Mayotte and Brad Gilbert, and doubles star Robert Seguso, who was ranked in the 130s in singles in December 1987.

Two more top 10 players in 1988, Australian Pat Cash and Frenchman Yannick Noah, missed the Olympics with no widespread reports of injury.

Cash cited family and tournament commitments in July 1988 for backing out of the Olympics, according to The Associated Press, conjuring the recent Rio withdrawal of South African golfer Louis Oosthuizen.

Noah was indifferent toward the Olympics and said tennis players don’t belong at the Games, according to the AP.

In all, seven of the ATP top 20 the week of the Olympics played in Seoul. Most of the absences were due to injuries or ineligibilities, such as the three-players-per-nation rule that limited Americans and Swedes.

Fifth-ranked Boris Becker reportedly said after losing at the U.S. Open with a foot injury that he would go to Seoul “with a broken leg” if he had to. Becker later withdrew due to injury but still planned on attending the Games as a non-participant before that idea was reportedly quashed.

Two more top-20 players — Argentina’s Guillermo Pérez Roldán and Austrian Thomas Muster — played other ATP tournaments instead of the Olympics.

No. 3 Stefan Edberg was the only player in the top nine left to compete in Seoul. He was upset by Czechoslovakia’s Miloslav Mečíř in the semifinals. Mečíř went on to beat Mayotte for gold.

“I don’t really know whether we should be here in tennis, but it is worth giving it a chance,” Edberg said in Seoul, according to the book, “Olympic Tennis — An Historical Snapshot.” “It needs some time. … Now here, all the top players aren’t competing so that hurts it a little bit. Plus, we have all the Grand Slam events we play in, and those are the most important right now to us. But this is only played every four years, so there’s nothing wrong with trying it.”

On the women’s side, all but one player ranked in the WTA top 20 the week of the Olympics played in Seoul if they were eligible.

The omission was No. 2 Martina Navratilova, who said it wasn’t essential and that Olympic sponsorship rules made it like the star tennis pros were being treated like children, according to the Chicago Tribune in 1988.

“I don’t think of tennis as a real Olympic sport,” Navratilova said, according to the newspaper. “It has to establish itself.”

Navratilova later did play in the Olympics, falling in the doubles quarterfinals at age 47 at Athens 2004.

Rival Evert wasn’t named to the initial U.S. team in December 1987, even though she was No. 3 in the year-end rankings.

Evert declined then because of a “tense political situation” in South Korea and a scheduled wedding in the fall, according to The New York Times.

Evert, who was engaged to U.S. Olympic Alpine skier Andy Mill, changed her view after watching the Calgary 1988 Winter Games.

”I watched the gold medals being hung over the athletes’ heads in Calgary and tried to relate to that,” Evert said, according to the newspaper. ”I imagined what it would be like for me. I know what it feels like to hold up the Wimbledon plate and the U.S. Open trophy — it’s a great thrill — but no one in tennis knows how it will feel to get a medal in the Olympics.”

Evert was controversially placed on the U.S. team in July 1988, moving up her wedding date and replacing Elise Burgin, who had fallen in ranking from the 60s in December 1987 out of the top 100 due to knee surgery.

Evert joined Pam Shriver and Zina Garrison, all ranked in the top 10, as the U.S. singles players in Seoul. Four more Americans in the top 20 couldn’t play because of the three-per-country rule.

But German Steffi Graf would take gold, completing a calendar Golden Slam after sweeping the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open. No other singles player has accomplished that feat in one year.

“I’ve been trying to think about it, to decide whether I really feel included in this Olympics,” Evert said in Seoul, according to “Olympic Tennis — An Historical Snapshot.” “So many of the other athletes here — well, for four years, their goal is the Olympics. They have other meets, but all their training is essentially for the Olympics. … We just finished the U.S. Open a week or so ago, and that makes me look around at the other athletes in other sports — they are so hungry for this — and wonder just how many of the tennis players are really that hungry.”

Tennis’ place in the Olympics is now secure, even if it is not seen as equal with the Grand Slams.

Roger FedererRafael NadalNovak Djokovic and Andy Murray all played at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, save Nadal’s health problems that kept him out of London. All are expected in Rio.

Serena Williams has said she would save her Olympic medals first if her house caught fireVenus Williams rushed her return from Sjögren’s syndrome, an energy-sapping autoimmune disorder, in 2012 to qualify for her fourth Games.

“It was a brilliant stroke to have tennis at Wimbledon [in 2012],” Bodo said. “It’s become legitimate.”

VIDEO: Nicklaus, Player concerned about stars skipping Rio

Kenenisa Bekele still eyes Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon world record, but a duel must wait

Kenenisa Bekele
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LONDON — Kenenisa Bekele made headlines last week by declaring “of course I am the best” long distance runner ever. But the Ethiopian was fifth-best at Sunday’s London Marathon, finishing 74 seconds behind Kenya’s Amos Kipruto.

Bekele, 40, clocked 2:05:53, the fastest-ever marathon by a runner 40 years or older. He was with the lead pack until being dropped in the 21st mile.

But Bekele estimated he could have run 90 to 120 seconds faster had he not missed parts of six weeks of training with hip and joint injuries.

“I expect better even if the preparation is short,” he said. “I know my talent and I know my capacity, but really I couldn’t achieve what I expect.”

Bekele is the second-fastest marathoner in history behind Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge, who broke his own world record by clocking 2:01:09 at the Berlin Marathon last week.

“I am happy when I see Eliud Kipchoge run that time,” Bekele said. “It motivates all athletes who really expect to do the same thing.”

LONDON MARATHON: Results

Bekele’s best time was within two seconds of Kipchoge’s previous world record (2:01:39). He described breaking Kipchoge’s new mark as the “main goal” for the rest of his career.

“Yes, I hope, one day it will happen, of course,” Bekele said. “With good preparation, I don’t know when, but we will see one more time.”

Nobody has won more London Marathons than Kipchoge, a four-time champion who set the course record (2:02:37) in 2019. But the two-time Olympic marathon champion did not run this year in London, as elite marathoners typically choose to enter one race each spring and fall.

Bekele does not know which race he will enter in the spring. But it will not be against Kipchoge.

“I need to show something first,” Bekele said. “I need to run a fast time. I have to check myself. This is not enough.”

Kipchoge will try to become the first runner to win three Olympic marathon titles at the Paris Games. Bekele, who will be 42 in 2024, has not committed to trying to qualify for the Ethiopian team.

“There’s a long time to go before Paris,” Bekele said. “At this moment I am not decided. I have to show something.”

So who is the greatest long distance runner ever?

Bekele can make a strong case on the track:

Bekele
Four Olympic medals (three gold)
Six World Championship medals (five gold)
Former 5000m and 10,000m world-record holder

Kipchoge
Two Olympic medals
Two World Championship medals (one gold)

But Kipchoge can make a strong case on the pavement:

Bekele
Second-fastest marathoner in history
Two World Marathon Major victories

Kipchoge
Four of the five best marathon times in history
Two-time Olympic marathon champion
12 World Marathon Major victories

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Yalemzerf Yehualaw, Amos Kipruto win London Marathon

Yalemzerf Yehualaw
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Ethiopian Yalemzerf Yehualaw became the youngest female runner to win the London Marathon, while Kenyan Amos Kipruto earned the biggest victory of his career in the men’s race.

Yehualaw, 23, clocked 2:17:26, prevailing by 41 seconds over 2021 London champ Joyciline Jepkosgei of Kenya.

Yehualaw tripped and fell over a speed bump around the 20-mile mark. She quickly rejoined the lead pack, then pulled away from Jepkosgei by running the 24th mile in a reported 4:43, which converts to 2:03:30 marathon pace; the women’s world record is 2:14:04.

Yehualaw and Jepkosgei were pre-race favorites after world record holder Brigid Kosgei of Kenya withdrew Monday with a right hamstring injury.

On April 24, Yehualaw ran the fastest women’s debut marathon in history, a 2:17:23 to win in Hamburg, Germany.

She has joined the elite tier of female marathoners, a group led by Kenyan Peres Jepchirchir, the reigning Olympic, New York City and Boston champion. Another Ethiopian staked a claim last week when Tigist Assefa won Berlin in 2:15:37, shattering Yehualaw’s national record.

Joan Benoit Samuelson, the first Olympic women’s marathon champion in 1984, finished Sunday’s race in 3:20:20 at age 65.

LONDON MARATHON: Results

Kipruto, 30, won the men’s race in 2:04:39. He broke free from the leading group in the 25th mile and crossed the finish line 33 seconds ahead of Ethiopian Leul Gebresilase, who said he had hamstring problems.

Kipruto, one of the pre-race favorites, had never won a major marathon but did finish second behind world record holder Eliud Kipchoge in Tokyo (2022) and Berlin (2018) and third at the world championships (2019) and Tokyo (2018).

Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele, the second-fastest marathoner in history, was fifth after being dropped in the 21st mile. His 2:05:53 was the fastest-ever marathon by a runner 40 years or older. Bekele ran his personal best at the 2019 Berlin Marathon — 2:01:41 — and has not run within four minutes of that time since.

The major marathon season continues next Sunday with the Chicago Marathon, headlined by a women’s field that includes Kenyan Ruth Chepngetich and American Emily Sisson.

London returns next year to its traditional April place after being pushed to October the last three years due to the pandemic.

MORE: Bekele looks ahead to Kipchoge chase after London Marathon

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