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"All The Hoopla Is True"

"All The Hoopla Is True"After two trips to the Summer Games, Branwen Smith-King -- the assistant director of Athletics at Tufts -- knows the power of the Olympic experience.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [02.08.02] Do kids still want to be Olympians? Branwen Smith-King hopes so. The assistant director of athletics at Tufts knows how powerful the Olympic dream can be for a kid. As a young athlete in Bermuda, Smith-King dreamed of the day she would represent her country at the Olympic Games. Her dream came true -- twice.

Smith-King has made trips to the Olympic Games as a 15-year-old athlete in 1972 and as a team manager in 1996. Both experiences had a dramatic impact on her life, bringing her face-to-face with the indescribable energy of the international games, while exposing her to the harsh realities of pain, suffering and loss.

"The Olympics is a very special occasion every four years," Smith-King says, as she excitedly recounts her memories from the games. "They are so enlightening, so positive, they give me so much energy."

That energy is still quite visible in Smith-King today."The Olympics are the greatest thing in the world!"

Ask the Tufts coach why the Olympics hold such a special place in her heart, and she'll answer with stories -- stories about courageous athletes; stories about hard-fought victories; stories about what she calls, "Olympism."

"Olympism," says Smith-King, who coached Tufts track and field for over 18-years, "is about sportsmanship. I really believe in this idea. At Tufts, it's a big thing we do."

She says it begins in the Olympic Village and extends to all of the playing fields. "When you all live together, thousands of athletes, you learn great respect for each other. It's a critical part of the experience."

So is the thrill of competition.

Smith-King recalled a men's 10,000 meter race -- some 25 laps around the stadium track, from the 1996 Olympics.

"During the last three miles, the lead runner kept getting faster and faster," she recalls. "People were just hanging over their seats cheering. We all wondered how that man could run like that!"

It's the intense effort and mindset of the Olympians that thrills Smith-King. She said she was amazed to watch a 15-year-old girl run a 1,500 meter race with no shoes on. "That makes you appreciate the extreme effort. That's what the Olympics are about."

But Smith-King is careful to note that the idealism of the games can be overshadowed.

"Sometimes the human stories can get lost in the politics," she said. That was the case in 1972, when Smith-King was 15 years old and in Munich, Germany for the Olympic Games.

With plans to compete in 1976, Smith-King was in Munich as part of the junior Olympic camp to train and to witness the games first-hand. What she saw changed her life. A terrorist attack left 11 Israeli athletes dead and the world in shock.

"It was a very hard experience. I was thrust into it," Smith-King recalls, "I had to grow up really fast." Despite intense security and a lock-down of the Olympic Village, Smith-King and a friend sneaked out and protested the attack.

"We were young and we felt infallible. It had a profound effect on my life." Smith-King said her idealism about the games was lost. "I quickly realized that sports were just another venue for political agendas. It burst my bubble about what sports are about."

It was over two decades before Smith-King returned to the Olympics. While she had opportunities to go, she said she needed to heal. As a team manager for Bermuda's Olympic team, King returned to the Games in 1996 -- this time held in Atlanta.

Tragedy struck again in 1996 -- this time it was a bomb in an Olympic fairground that left one person dead and dozens injured. Smith-King was awakened in the early morning to the news.

"I was having flashbacks. The paranoia was returning," she said. But she fought off her fears. "I got rid of the paranoia. I decided, if I die watching a track meet, then that's ok with me."

And so her spirit was reborn. She was not alone. During the 1996 Olympics, the South African team competed under a unified flag for the first time ever. "None of the South African athletes gave away their running suits [a common practice among fellow athletes] because they were so symbolic," she said.

It was the opening ceremonies that were perhaps most memorable for Smith-King.

Standing among thousands of athletes, officials and fans, she said she was completely overwhelmed as she watched Muhammad Ali light the Olympic flame.

"I've never heard such a roar in my life," she said, recalling the crowd's reaction.

As she looked around, she took note of the athletes around her. "You could see it in the eyes of the athletes. They couldn't say anything. They were so overwhelmed with joy and the spirit of it all."

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