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Friday, April 30, 2021

From the Olympics to the Oort Cloud: An 100 Meter Sprint that Became Part of an Interstellar Space Marathon

The NeverEnding Story 

The bedtime stories we are told in our childhood years generally start with the phrase, “once upon a time”. To prevent these stories from exhausting the attention span of their young listeners, these stories normally come to a swift conclusion. A happy ending, in which good prevails over evil forces, normally ensures a peaceful nights’ sleep and keeps away disturbing, scary nightmares.

The German author, Michael Ende, was a little unconventional when he published a fantasy novel in 1979 which covers the adventures of a boy, Bastian Balthazar Bux. In this novel, Bastian, discovers and reads a book entitled, “The NeverEnding Story”.  This fictional story that Bastian reads is set in the magical land of “Fantastica” and this novel was later adapted into several films. The first film in the series adapted only the first half of the book and consequently did not convey the message of the title as it was portrayed in the novel. The second half of the book was subsequently used as a rough basis for the sequel. The third film, “The NeverEnding Story III: Escape from Fantasia”, first screened in 1994, has an original plot which was not based on the book.

But what if there was another “never-ending” story? What if the alternative was a non-fictional account of a sequence of events that have unfolded over the past fifty years and which will continue to unravel for many eons to come?  

Surprisingly, there is such a story, and unlike the creation of the Multiverse, which, according to some, may have originated through divine intervention, this story has been solely created and produced by humankind.  To get us started, we need to turn the clocks back to the summer of 1972.

Then starts a part of this story. A story that may continue for more than a billion years. A NeverEnding Story that is not fantasy.

The Munich Summer Olympics (1972)

No Malaysian soccer fan will ever forget the 1972 Olympics. Our soccer team had successfully qualified for the Munich Games as one of the representatives from the Asian continent. This was the first time our soccer team had made the grade and it would be the only time to-date that a Malaysian soccer team would actually participate as Olympians at a game that is domestically extremely popular (the team also qualified for the event in 1980 but chose not to participate in the Moscow Games as a reaction to the military invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR).

At the games in Munich in 1972, Malaysia was placed in a preliminary group comprising Germany, Morocco and the United States of America. 

A series of stamps issued in 1972 celebrating the XXth Olympics held in Munich

On the 27th August 1972, Malaysia played the host country, West Germany, in front of 60,000 partisan home fans. There was to be no giant killing act that day and a 3-0 score-line, in favour of home nation, rightly recorded the overall difference between the two teams on the pitch.

Two days later, the Malaysians faced the United States of America (USA). This time, the Malaysians returned a 3-0 victory and for a few days, Malaysian heads were held high.

Then followed the crunch game. Played on the 31st of August, the Malaysian team succumbed to a 6-0 defeat against Morocco. The dream may have been quickly over for the followers of Malaysian soccer, but the memory has never faded.

The Malaysian victory over the USA at soccer did not raise many eyebrows in American homes, schools, colleges, workplaces, restaurants and bars. This was only an emerging sport in the USA at the time, but when basketball is the topic and the USSR is the opponent, American interest and conversation assume a different level of intensity altogether.

The 1972 Olympics men’s basketball final has been categorised as one of the most dramatic events in the history of the Olympics. This match recorded the first ever loss for the USA team since the game became an Olympic sport at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Until that memorable final, the USA team had chalked up sixty-three straight wins building an Olympic pedigree, on the basketball court, that was second to none.

Then came the Munich final between two teams, the USA and the USSR, that had each won their first eight games of the tournament. The rivalry between these two nations spanned many battlefronts over several of the past decades. I have recorded some of this rivalry of the “Cold War” in previous posts but suffice to say that political confrontation and military tensions between the Soviet Union and United States extended from space to the sports arena. The Soviet Union had achieved many space-related firsts before Munich, but the Americans had beaten the Soviet Union to a prestigious, crewed landing on the Moon.

Indeed, by the onset of the Munich Olympics, the United States had already made five successful crewed Moon landings, with the latter Apollo missions (from Apollo 15, in July 1971) delivering motorized vehicles to the surface of the Moon, thus allowing the visiting lunar explorers the flexibility of making even longer excursions away from their landing site.


The Lunar Rover had already made several excursions to the Moon by the time the Munich Olympics were held

The Olympics represents the most premier of international sporting events. For the Soviets to use the stage of Munich to beat a nemesis in a sport that they had dominated since its introduction as an Olympic event, i.e. basketball, for the ultimate prize of an Olympic gold medal, would be a major coup. 

It should be noted that at the time, the Olympics strictly prohibited any involvement of professional athletes. The Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries used this rule to their advantage, listing all their top sportsmen as soldiers or state employees, thus circumventing the rules permitting only amateur participation at the Olympics. On the other hand, leading American players were unable to play in the Olympics as they were officially professional and played in National Basketball Association (NBA) matches. That disadvantage had not prevented the Americans from winning the first seven Olympic basketball tournaments without a single defeat.

The Munich Olympics: A Controversial Basketball Final

A game of basketball, at the Olympics, normally comprises four quarters, each of ten minutes duration. It was around midnight, local time, on the 10th of September 1972 and on the basketball court in Munich, the Soviet team donned red and the US team wore box-fresh white. With six minutes of a forty-minute game left on the clock, the Soviets held a ten-point lead.  But then the Americans, led by Kevin Joyce, began, finally, to fast-press and hustle and so commenced a Hollywood style comeback.  Slowly but surely, the gap reduced, until, with less than 10 seconds remaining, the Soviets led by just one point, 49-48, although they had possession.

With seven seconds to play, American player, Doug Collins, stole Alexander Belov’s cross-court pass at half court and was subsequently fouled by another Soviet player as he drove towards his red-shirted opponent’s basket. As a result, with three seconds remaining on the game clock, the match was halted by the lead referee. Collins was awarded two free throws.  He sank the first to tie the score at 49 all. Just as Collins lifted the ball to begin his shooting motion in attempting the second free throw, the horn from the scorer's table sounded, triggering a chain of events that left the game's final three seconds mired in controversy. Whilst lead referee, Renato Righetto,  turned away from the free throw attempt upon hearing the horn, he  failed to stop play and Collins continued with his shooting motion, converting his second free throw to put the U.S. ahead by a score of 50–49. Gold medal to Team USA or was this to be the case?

There has been much analysis of what happened next but suffice to say that the reason for the horn sounding at that juncture was unclear. Amidst much debate, repeated interruption and controversy, the final three seconds were replayed no less than three times!

At the end of the third replay, the Soviets scored with the ball going through the American basket just as the horn blew, this time signifying the end of the match. Wild scenes of celebrations erupted amongst Soviet players and supporters from Munich to Moscow. On the other hand, American emotions run high, till this day.

At the Munich basketball arena, the Americans quickly appealed. Their key point:  the game had lasted forty minutes and three seconds. And in those additional three seconds, a gold medal award was snatched and redirected from North America to the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the jury was loaded: of the five judges on it, three were from countries aligned to the Soviet Communist regime. The representatives from Cuba, Poland and the Soviet Union all voted in favour of the Soviet Union, and the USA appeal was rejected by three votes to two.

Team USA competing in basketball. Stamps issued by Ajman, one of the Emirates of the United Arab Emirates.

Team USA had two alternatives: accept the decision by receiving the silver or boycott the medal ceremony.  They chose the latter, and for the first time in Olympic history, a spot on the podium was left vacant with a set of medals unclaimed.

Nearly fifty years on, those medals remain in a Swiss vault. In-fact, Ken Davis, the captain of Team USA, has taken steps to ensure they will stay in Switzerland in perpetuity. Article IX of his last will and testament states, “I devise and bequeath at my death that my wife, Rita, and children Jill and Bryan never accept a silver medal from the 1972 Games in West Germany”.

As had ended the Malaysian Munich Olympic soccer dream, so had concluded American basketball hopes - an incomprehensible nightmare that had taken place in waking hours.

But these were not the worst of the nightmares of Munich.

The Munich Massacre

The Munich Games marked the first return of the Olympics to a German city since the 1936 Berlin edition. In Berlin, in 1936, Adolf Hitler had used the Olympics as a platform to propagate Nazi ideology. Thus, the Munich Games were characterized, by the hosts, as something significantly different to that of the 10th Olympiad of Berlin. Indeed, when the 20th Olympiad commenced thirty-six years later, on 26 August 1972 and thousands of athletes from more than 120 countries celebrated the opening ceremonies, they were met with an event that the organizers dubbed “Die Heiteren Spiele” which translates to “The Cheerful Games”.

Sadly, what was to follow would only cloud Munich under a pall of grief and sadness, spiked with sentiments of anger and outrage, hitherto unseen at an international sporting event.

For more than a week, the Games unfolded without incident. Then, at 4:30 am on the 5th of September 1972, eight Palestinian militants, affiliated with the Black September terrorist group, scaled a fence surrounding the Olympic Village. Disguised as athletes and using stolen keys, they forced their way into the quarters of the Israeli Olympic Team. There, they killed an Israeli wrestling coach and a weightlifter. Another nine Israeli athletes and coaches were taken hostage.

The terrorists group demanded the liberation of more than 200 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons and the release of other notorious radicals from German incarceration in exchange for the release of the Israeli hostages. They also asked for an aircraft to fly them to a safe destination in the Middle East.

At about 10:00 pm the same day, believing they had reached an agreement, the terrorists led their bound and blindfolded hostages from their quarters into buses that transported them to waiting helicopters. The helicopters carried them to F├╝rstenfeldbruck Air Base, 25 kilometres west of the Olympic Village. At the Air Base, police were lying in ambush with a rescue plan apparently in place.

Suffice to say that the entire rescue operation was a catastrophic failure in both planning and execution. Every one of the Israeli hostages and one police officer were killed. Five terrorists also lost their lives. Three of the Palestinian gunmen were captured.

Guyana honoured all the Israeli representatives killed at Munich  the Munich Olympics with this series of the stamps

For the first time in history, the Olympic Games were suspended for 24 hours as a tribute to the murdered athletes. The site of the Cheerful Games had become a terrorist target. Once again, dreams were shattered, this time with the cost of many human lives.

 The Munich Olympics: The Missing American 100 Meter Sprinters

To be hailed as the fastest human in the world is the accolade given to the winner of the men’s 100 metres sprint event at the Olympics. At the 1972 Munich Olympics, the heats and finals of this prestigious athletics event were held on 31 August and 1 September. Eighty-five athletes from fifty-five nations competed in this event and each nation was limited to three athletes per the rules in force since the 1930 Olympic Congress.

This event is memorable for the absence of favourites and then world record holders Eddie Hart and Rey Robinson from their quarterfinal heats.  American sprint coach, Stan Wright, was (somehow) provided with an outdated schedule which stated incorrect starting times for the heats involving his athletes. Instead of being at the stadium securing their places in the semi-finals, the  three qualified American athletes, Robinson, Hart and Robert Taylor, were instead at the American Broadcasting Company’s television station in Munich watching what they believed were replays of their morning, preliminary races.

At the eleventh hour, they were informed that they were watching live coverage of the races they were scheduled to run in. The athletes rushed to the stadium, but Hart and Robinson, scheduled in the first two races, missed their heats.  Taylor had to hurriedly take off his warm-up attire before running his heat. Once again, an appeal by American officials to have Robinson and Hart run in another heat, was rejected.

The event was won by Valeriy Borzov of the Soviet Union, the first medal in the men's 100 metres Olympic event for that nation. The silver was won by Robert Taylor, the American who had just made it to the starting block on time for his heat.


Valeriy Borzov featured on this stamp from the Republic of Equatorial Guinea

In the years that followed, this turn of events would have almost eternal consequences but once again, the hopes and dreams of a potential American champion were devasted by an unusual set of circumstances.

 Voyager 1 & 2

In 1964, long before the flame signifying the start of the Munich Olympics was lit, Gary Flandro, an aerospace engineer working at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the leading American centre for the robotic exploration of the Solar System, was assigned the task of studying techniques for exploring the outer planets of the Solar System. Through his investigations he discovered that a rare alignment of the outer planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune), was scheduled to occur in the late 1970s.  This type of alignment occurs only once every 175 years and this was clearly an opportunity too great to be missed. Thus, was conceived the concept of the “Planetary Grand Tour”, a multi-planet mission utilizing the “gravity-assist” technique, in which gravitational forces of one planet would be used to slingshot an orbiting spacecraft into a new trajectory towards another object. The specific alignment that was projected to occur in the late 1970s could reduce the overall journey duration of the Planetary Grand Tour from forty years to less than ten years.

Gary Flandro’s work on the Planetary Grand Tour was exploited by NASA and became the core of the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 missions which were launched in 1977.

Voyager 2 was the first to be launched in August, 1977. Its trajectory was designed to allow flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Voyager 1 was launched a few weeks after Voyager 2, but along a shorter and faster trajectory that was designed to provide an optimal flyby of Saturn's moon. Titan.

The accomplishments of the Voyager missions over the decades are almost legendary. Between 1977 and 1990, these twin spacecraft made many discoveries and achieved many firsts. Some of the distinctions achieved:

  • ·       First spacecraft to fly by all four planets of the outer solar system (Voyager 2)
  • ·       First mission to discover 24 new moons of the four outer planets (both spacecraft)
  • ·       First spacecraft to fly by four different target planets (Voyager 2)
  • ·       First spacecraft to visit Uranus and Neptune (Voyager 2)
  • ·       First spacecraft to image the rings of Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune (Voyager 2)
  • ·       First spacecraft to discover active volcanoes beyond Earth (on Jupiter’s moon Io — Voyager 1)
  • ·       First spacecraft to detect lightning on a planet other than Earth (at Jupiter — Voyager 1)


  Voyager 1: A series of stamps from the Republic of Central Africa celebrating the many achievements.


After Voyager 1 departed from Saturn in November 1980, it began a journey into an area where no human-made object had ever gone before: the space between the stars. On August 25, 2012, it crossed over into interstellar space, leaving behind the heliosphere — the enormous magnetic bubble encompassing our Sun, the planets of the Solar System and the solar wind.

A series of stamps from the Caribbean island of Nevis commemorating the many achievements of Voyager 1

Voyager 2 set course for interstellar space after departing from Neptune in August 1989, and followed Voyager 1 into the interstellar medium on November 5, 2018,

Today (30 April 2021), after a journey of more than 43 years, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are at a distance of 14.19 billion miles and 11.79 billion miles from the Sun respectively. Each is travelling away from Earth at approximately thirty-five thousand miles per hour. If a torchlight was switched on at  Voyager 1, the electromagnetic waves from that light source of the torch would take about 21 hours to reach us (One-way Light Time: contrast that to the time of eight minutes being the duration it takes for the light of our Sun to travel 93 million miles and reach Earth). Even more amazingly, NASA keeps in communication with the two interstellar robotic explorers through its Deep Space Network.

The Adventures of Earth's Robotic Interstellar Ambassadors

Even when traveling at 35,000 mph, the Voyager probes will need another 300 years just to reach the inner edge of the Oort Cloud (first described in 1950 by Dutch astronomer Jan Oort as a theoretical cloud of predominantly icy planetesimals proposed to surround the Sun and the Solar System). The Oort Cloud is thought to be the birthplace of the long period comets that sometimes make forays into the orbits of the inner planets. The outer edge of the Oort Cloud could be so distant from its inner edge that is estimated that it would take the Voyager probes about 20,000 - 30,000 years or even more, to completely traverse it.

About 10,000 years after it exits the outer edge of the Oort Cloud (about 40,000 years from now), Voyager 1 could finally approach an alien star, specifically a red dwarf, called Ross 248.

Its twin, Voyager 2, however, will need about 300,000 years before it comes close to bathing in the light of another star.

Cometh The Hour, Cometh The Man!

During the Munich Olympics, the morale of global sport participants and followers was oscillating like a pendulum clock invented by Christiaan Huygens himself. The Americans had finally been dethroned in basketball. The world record holders were “no-shows” in the 100 meters sprint glamour event for men. Then, there was the massacre of the Israeli athletes and coaches.

The world needed a boost. The Olympics needed a hero. Someone who would restore American pride and help anesthetize Jewish pain, rage and hurt.

And cometh the hour, indeed, did cometh the man!

Mark Spitz

American swimmer, Mark Andrew Spitz, arrived in Munich after having failed to deliver in the previous Olympics, held in Mexico. He had gone to Mexico promising to deliver six gold medals. He returned with two, both won in team, relay events.

The American Jew came to Munich with the same goal. Six gold medals.

A stamp from the Republic of Guinea honouring American swimming icon, Mark Spitz

Mark Spitz did not win six golds. He won seven! And Spitz won each of those gold medals with a new world record. His record of winning seven gold medals at a single Olympics stood for thirty-six years, until 2008, when it was surpassed by fellow American Michael Phelps, who won eight golds at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

All of America cheered his victories. And the sobs of sadness heard in some Jewish homes were slowly replaced by tears of joy.

The Golden Records

Mark Spitz broke records in the swimming pool and in the years to come, Voyager 1 and 2 would break many more records. So why do I blend the stories of the transformative scientific and engineering achievements of the Voyager Twins amongst some of the most unforgettable memories of the Munich Olympics.

I link these stories because there is a connection. A connection of eternal romance.  Each of the Voyager Twins carries a time capsule – a “Golden Record”. The contents of the Golden Record were selected for NASA by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan of Cornell University, et. al. Dr. Sagan and his associates assembled 115 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind and thunder, birds, whales, and other animals. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, together with the spoken greetings from the inhabitants of Earth in fifty-five languages. They also included printed messages from American President, Jimmy Carter, and United Nations Secretary General, Kurt Waldheim. 

A series of stamps from Ghana commemorating the 30th anniversary of the launch of Voyager 2. On the second row on the left, a photograph of one of the Golden Records can be seen. It should be remembered that in the mid 1970s, CDs and DVDs had not been invented yet and this phonograph records were used for information storage.

The Voyager’s phonograph records, built to last at least a billion years in space are intended to provide a snapshot of life and culture on Earth, should the spacecraft ever come into contact in the future with other alien space travelers.  

Which alien race will encounter Voyager 1 and 2? What will they see when they decipher the code of the Golden Records? 

In all, the content of the Golden Record comprise 115 analog-encoded photographs, greetings in 55 languages, a 12-minute montage of sounds on Earth and 90 minutes of music. Amongst the 115 images on each of the Golden Records is an iconic photograph from the 1972 Munich Olympics. Surprisingly, this photograph does not feature Mark Spitz. Instead, it presents the finish line of the 100 meter men's sprint final and shows:

  • ·       Valeriy Borzov (USSR – 1st)
  • ·       Robert Taylor (USA (who just made it to the starting block in time for his heat) – 2nd)
  • ·       Lennox Miller (Jamaica – 3rd)
  • ·       Aleksandr Kornelyuk (USSR – 4th).

What started out as an Olympic sprint event for these sportsmen of the Munich Olympics has become a part of an interstellar space marathon to the stars.

The Munich Olympics was not the Cheerful Games that was intended but like all happy endings to bedtime stories, we recall the strength of spirit of Mark Spitz.

As for Eddie Hart, the world record holder in the men’s 100 meters who had not get to his heat on time, he ran the final leg for Team USA in the 4 X 100 meters relay. His team won the gold medal in a world record time of 38.19 seconds.  As Eddie Hart approached the race finish line, he sneaked a peep to his right, to see Valeriy Borzov, just behind him. He knew then that he would return to America with at least one gold medal to his name.


Good night!

The photograph, captured at the finish line of the 100 meter sprint of the 1972 Munich Olympics that became part of an interstellar space marathon as part of a dataset stored on the Golden Records of the Voyagers

PS: In the 90 minutes of music on the Golden Records is the 1958 hit "Johnny B. Goode". I wonder, what our extraterrestrial listeners will think of that when the music of Chuck Berry resonates on a far off planet in another galaxy.

And if you wish to know more about this subject, watch this two minute video from CNN.

All stamps displayed above are from my personal collection.