Of all the words spoken during the 1984 Summer Olympics, including Zola Budd’s “oops,” Carl Lewis’ “pass” and Mary Lou Retton’s “Matt Dillon, oh, wow,” none measured up to those uttered by a wrestling deputy sheriff from Ann Arbor, Mich., name of Steven Fraser, who was asked what he intended to do with the gold medal he had won.
“Knowing me,” Fraser said, “I’ll probably have it bronzed.”
Not a bad ad-lib for a guy who was suffering from an advanced state of excitement. Minutes before, Fraser had become the first American ever to win an Olympic medal in Greco-Roman wrestling. Better still, it was a gold. An unexpected gold. The medal was draped around his neck, the television cameras were zeroing in on him, his wife was expecting a baby and the moment was bronzed and beautiful.
“Or maybe I’ll just give it to my kid,” Fraser said, fingering the medallion, “so he’ll have something to play with.”
Steve Fraser represented, as they say, the true spirit of the Games. He was a serious competitor, but not too serious to be unable to have some fun.
“Come on over to the hotel,” he invited a newspaperman after winning the gold. “We’ll be partying all night.”
The newspaperman passed. But he was glad for Fraser, glad that he had overcome the Swedish golden boy Frank Andersson in the semifinals, glad that he had wrested the wrestling gold from Romania’s Ilie Matei in the final seconds, glad that he had gone where no Greco-Roman wrestler from the U.S. had ever gone before--to the highest pedestal of the victory stand, for the raising of the flag.
He was king of the mat. When the Olympics were over, Steve Fraser’s name figured to be mentioned as one of the heroic figures of the Games--maybe not as often or as loudly as Lewis’ or Retton’s or Greg Louganis’ or Michael Jordan’s, but at least mentioned.
Trouble was, another American wrestler won a gold medal the very next day. His name was Jeff Blatnick. He was a super-heavyweight. He was a nice fellow. And he had successfully undergone radiation treatment and surgery for Hodgkin’s disease.
Before long, Blatnick’s face was everywhere. There were films of him tearfully dedicating his triumph to his friends and loved ones, including the brother who had been killed in a motorcycle crash. Kathleen Sullivan of ABC interviewed Blatnick on television and, as he spoke, tears welled up in her Frisbee-sized eyes.
This was truly a hero of Olympic proportion. He, too, had upset the favorites in his weight class and had done so dramatically, in the final minutes of the matches. He even defeated a man 27 pounds heavier than himself in the finals.
Jeff Blatnick was a classic story and a classy champion. Whatever attention he received, he deserved.
But Steve Fraser should not be forgotten.
Consider that the purpose of this A Year Later edition--to commemorate the achievement of an athlete who is not likely to appear on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” or in burger-joint TV commercials or on the covers of Newsweek, Rolling Stone or Esquire at any time soon. While Budd races Mary Decker again, and Lewis mouths the words to national anthems in front of major league baseball crowds, and Retton drools milk onto her chin in cereal ads, Fraser just gets on with his life. He has quit the sheriff’s office to go to work for a pizza company. Otherwise, he is pretty much the same.
He does have a new son, Kellen Christopher, and he did flip the medal into the baby’s crib at least once, Steve’s wife said. Mostly, though, the medal (still gold) stays in a display case in the family living room.
For those who cannot remember him, or for those who never heard of him even when the Olympics were taking place, return with us now for Fraser’s final two matches in the 198-pound weight class.
The first one came against Andersson, who was to wrestling in Sweden what Bjorn Borg was to tennis. First and foremost, he was a champion: A three-time world champion, in fact. He had style, in and out of his togs. Posed for magazine spreads. Partied with exotic ladies. Owned race horses. Drove a Jag. Oozed arrogance.
After Fraser defeated him in the semifinals, 4-1, Andersson reacted by saying: “I still think I’m a better wrestler than the American.”
The second one came against Matei, the mustachioed Romanian who was taller than Fraser and who did not expect to be cut down to size.
The final minute of the match was wild. With 41 seconds remaining, Fraser scored a takedown. It tied the match at a point apiece.
What the crowd at the Anaheim Convention Center did not understand--but the wrestlers did--was that if the match ended in a tie, the last man to score would be declared the winner. In this case, the winner of the Olympic gold medal.
Fraser hung on for dear life. The final half-minute took forever. Matei struggled with all his might to score another point. He and Fraser grappled furiously, sort of like Godzilla vs. Rodan.
When time ran out, most of the close to 5,000 spectators let out a breath, applauded politely and wondered what the tie-breaker procedure would be. An official suddenly raised Fraser’s arm as the victor. To use an old sports page phrase, bedlam broke out.
Fraser hugged his coach, Dean Rockwell, and then hugged his friends, his relatives and half the population of Anaheim. He spoke of all the hard work and all the time and money invested in what he had done, and said: “I always wondered if it would be worth it. Now that I’m here, I’ll always wonder what the rest of my life would have been like if I hadn’t gone through with it.”
If he hadn’t gone through with it, Steve Fraser would not have been an Olympian worth remembering. If he hadn’t gone through with it, Jeff Blatnick not only would have been the Olympic wrestler everyone remembered, but would have been the first American ever to win a Greco-Roman medal.
Then again, if Jeff Blatnick hadn’t gone through with it, Steve Fraser might be the wrestler everyone is still talking about, a year after the fact.
This seems like a good time to remember some other famous last words from the 1984 Summer Olympics--the words of American boxer Henry Tillman, who fought his way through hard times to become one of his country’s gold medalists. Somebody asked Tillman what his life would have been like if he never would have made it to the Olympics.
“All I can say,” Tillman said, “is if ifs was fifths, we’d all be drunk.”