Swifter, Higher, Stronger

By Robert L. Backman

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    I Choose Not to be an Ordinary Man. It is my Right to be Uncommon if I Can

    Few scenes inspire more awe than the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games. In a gigantic stadium, thousands of fans cheer as a parade of athletes circles the track. Flags of more than a hundred nations wave. Color and spectacle bedazzle everyone’s eyes. Hundreds of pigeons are released symbolizing peace. Cannons roar. Then a runner, bearing a torch initially ignited by the sun’s rays in Olympia, Greece, trots into the stadium and sets the Olympic flame ablaze.

    Every competitor hopes to win a gold medal. Those who do attain that high honor may notice three Latin words that are inscribed on every Olympic award: “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” That means, “Swifter, Higher, Stronger.” Since the Olympics began, that has been their story. The records broken and the gains in human achievement accomplished can be summarized by those three words—three words that denote man’s eternal quest of improvement—Citius, Altius, Fortius: Swifter, Higher, Stronger.

    How well we are living up to that motto is demonstrated by both Olympic and world sports records. In the 1920s, a man named Johnny Weissmuller was called the greatest swimmer in history. Prior to the Olympics he set world records in 67 different events. In the games of 1924 and 1928, he won five gold medals each time. Today, his world records are being broken by teenage girls.

    For years, it was felt that no man could run 1.6 kilometers in less than four minutes. Again and again, athletes worked hard in the attempt to run it in less than four minutes, until Roger Bannister, an English medical student, amazed the world by clocking a 3.59.4 (1.6 kilometers) at Oxford on May 6, 1954. Since then dozens have shattered the old belief of man’s limited capacity. Among them was a young high school boy, Jim Ryun, who ran the race in 3:59, yet finished eighth in a field of more experienced competitors. Ryun himself has now run 1.6 kilometers in less than 4 minutes almost 20 times, and the new world record, held by Steve Ovett of Great Britain, is an unbelievable 3:48.8!

    The ultimate distance for the shot put was supposed to be 18.2 meters. Parry O‘Brien ended that myth in the 1956 Olympics, and now the world record is 22.471 meters. At the first modern-day Olympics, held in 1896 in Greece, the gold medal winner threw the discus 29.09 meters. The world record today is 70.852 meters.

    When I was young, Bob Richards pole vaulted 4.5 meters, an incredible accomplishment. At the Moscow Olympics last year, six men broke the Olympic record of 5.49 meters before Poland’s Wlydslaw Kozakiewicz cleared 5.692 meters, the first time in 60 years that a world record was set in the Olympic pole vault—and Kozakiewicz’s second of three misses at 5.73 meters would have cleared 5.7 meters!

    The performance of these athletes really makes the words Citius, Altius, Fortius a reality. But what makes a champion? What produces a man who stands on the top step of the victory pedestal after running swifter, soaring higher, or demonstrating more strength than anyone has exhibited before? I believe the same qualities that apply to athletic champions also apply to champions in any endeavor in life.

    After all is said and done, nothing is successful unless we work! Roger Bannister, after breaking the four-minute record, defined desire as “the ability to take more out of yourself than you’ve got.” During the race in which he broke the record, he told himself, “Roger, you’re going to run if you have to run on your knees.” Bob Zuppke, a successful coach at Illinois University, believes there is always a little more to give. “If you ran as far and as fast and as long as you could in utter exhaustion, and you looked up and saw a big lion standing there, you could run some more, couldn’t you?” he asked.

    Athletes train in pain because they are aware that in the actual race they will feel pain and they’ll have to continue in spite of it. Strange as it may seem, those athletes will tell you that when you go through pain, you achieve power. It hurts to stretch your lungs, to stretch your muscles. But when you do it, the next time you have more capacity and more power. It’s the same way in life.

    George T. Johannesen, Sr., of the Kalamazoo Ward, Lansing Michigan Stake, tells about his college classmate, Pete Cavallo, who wanted nothing more than to become an athlete even though he was barely 1.5 meters and weighed scarcely more than 45 kilograms. Cavallo (the name means “Horse”) decided to try cross-country running.

    The first year, Pete finished the race, but only long after the stadium was empty. The next year he did a little better, and by the third year he had improved enough to finish while spectators were still left in the stands. By the fourth year, people were saying, “we sure do wish those little Cavallo legs could win this year!” But nobody thought they would.

    Still, there was a feeling of expectancy. Everyone was watching the hill leading to the stadium, hoping to see Pete Cavallo at the front of the pack of runners as they made the final dash to the stadium. Then one of those big, long-legged runners charged into view, and a sigh of disappointment was heard. Fans started leaving.

    But suddenly there was little Pete running over the hill. The stadium became very noisy, everyone shouting, “Run, Pete! Run, Little Horse!” The winner was forgotten as if Pete had come in first. And perhaps in a way he did, because people still remember today his example of working to do the best he could.

    Individual Effort

    The most outstanding example of individual effort that I know of is represented in the college career of Jim Thorpe. Of Lamanite ancestry, he attended Carlisle Indian School. There he compiled a record that has never been approached. He was one of the main players on the football team and was such a hard runner that for fun he would tell the other team which way he was coming. When his team had to kick the ball, he could kick it 64 meters.

    One year little Carlisle Indian School defeated mighty Harvard University, with Thorpe kicking and running to score the points that won the game. Another time against Army Academy, he picked up one Army kick and ran 82.2 meters with it to score, but it was called back on a penalty. So Thorpe picked up the next kickoff and ran 86.8 meters to score!

    In track and field, Carlisle Indian School faced a tough dual meet with strong, unbeaten Lafayette College (in Pennsylvania). Jim Thorpe came to the meet accompanied by one other man. Since Lafayette College had a squad of 48 athletes, an official said, “You mean the two of you are the whole Carlisle Indian School team?”

    “No,” said Thorpe. “Only me. The other fellow is the student manager.”

    Against Lafayette College that day, Thorpe won the high jump, broad jump, shotput, discus throw, 109 meter hurdles, 201 meter hurdles, and finished third in the 91.4 meter dash. Carlisle Indian School won the meet 71–41.

    Harold Connolly had broken his left arm several times. It was only two-thirds the size of his right arm. To exercise and build up the smaller arm, he began throwing the hammer back to Boston College’s regular throwers. Soon he was tossing it back farther than they were throwing it, so he entered the event. He later broke the world record and won a gold medal. He made himself the strongest where he was the weakest.

    “Not everyone can be a champion—not everyone can be an athlete,” boxer Joe Frazier said. “But everyone can do his best to try to make something of himself.”

    Faith in Self

    World records are often made before the race is run.

    “Somebody’s going to break the world record in the 200-meter backstroke,” predicted Jed Graef, an American swimmer at the 1964 Olympics. And who might that be? “Me!” said Graef. And he broke the record.

    At the unofficial 1906 games in Athens, Greece, an Austrian weight lifter, Josef Steinbach, was scorned by the partisan crowd because it was alleged he was a professional. The frustrated Austrian left the stadium, allowing the Greek in second place to win the event. The flag was raised and the crowd cheered. Then Steinbach re-entered the stadium, walked up to the weight the winner had lifted with great effort, and with ease hoisted it three times over his head.

    In 1952, super-athlete Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia won both the 10,000 and 5,000-meter races. To celebrate his victory, he announced he would enter the marathon, even though he had never run the 41.8 kilometer event before.

    “Do you really think you can win?” a newsman asked.

    “If I didn’t think I could win, I wouldn’t have entered,” Zatopek replied.

    At the 24.1 kilometer mark, Zatopek was side-by-side with Him Peters of Great Britain, the pre-race favorite.

    “Don’t you think we should be going a bit faster?” Zatopek asked, then ran ahead. He was grinning when he won.

    Football player Floyd Little of the Denver Colorado Professional Football Team summed up self-confidence: “I choose not to be an ordinary man. It is my right to be uncommon if I can.”


    In the ancient Greek games, any participant who broke the rules or tried to bribe a judge was forced to pay a fine and had to build a statue of himself, inscribing on it his name and what his offense was. Such statues were called zanes. Perhaps the most astonishing fact of the ancient games is that only 13 zanes were built during a thousand years. But there are other ways to be honest in sports besides avoiding cheating.

    In tournament golf competition, there is a rule that a contestant must be disqualified if he signs an incorrect scorecard or turns his card in without signing it. A famous golfer named Gary Player did that once and was eliminated from a prestigious tournament. He was asked if someone in the scoring tent couldn’t have reminded him to sign his name on the score card.

    “My friend,” Player replied, “there are responsibilities in life. You cannot shove your responsibilities onto the shoulders of someone else. This was my responsibility. I failed to do it, so I must suffer the consequences.”

    At the Berlin Olympics in 1936, Hitler declared that Caucasians were a superior race. North America had 10 black athletes, who, much to Hitler’s chagrin, scored more points than any national team. Chief among them was Jesse Owens. At the opening ceremonies, Hitler refused to greet Owens and deliberately snubbed the black athletes. Owens simply shrugged and said, “I didn’t come over to shake hands with Hitler, anyway.” Owens then battled to win four gold medals. As he broke the world’s record for the running broad jump, the first to greet him was not a fellow team member but an exuberant German competing in the same event, Luz Long.

    “I have never seen anything like this. You are the greatest of all!” Long exclaimed.

    As Owens took Long’s hand in both of his and squeezed it, the crowd thundered approval. Then the two competitors wrapped their arms about one another and began to walk toward the track. The crowd—in spite of Hitler’s presence—went wild with joy and shouted for many minutes.

    In 1932, Lauri Lehtinen of Finland was favored to win the 5,000-meter run. An American named Hill challenged Lehtinen on the last part of the course, bringing the crowd to its feet. As Hill moved to pass, Lehtinen swerved into his path. Hill tried to pass on the other side, and Lehtinen blocked his path again and forced the American to run slower. Hill barely missed catching Lehtinen at the wire.

    The fans showed their disappointment so long and loud that officials held up naming the winner for more than an hour. But since there was nothing illegal about the blocking, they declared the Finn the winner.

    As Lehtinen mounted the victory stand’s top step, an enormous chorus of boos erupted. When the olive wreath was placed on his head, Lehtinen removed it, stepped down, and placed the wreath on Hill’s head.


    “Remove from your lives the things which keep you from doing your best,” said Dean Cromwell, an Olympic track coach.

    Bill Bradley, an outstanding athlete from Princeton University in New Jersey and former professional basketball player who is now a U.S. senator, said, “You just have to develop self-discipline, a self-discipline that makes you practice in one spot until you get the ball in the basket 25 times in a row from that spot, a self-discipline that makes you get up on Sunday morning and go to church instead of sleeping in.”

    Wade Bell, a Mormon 0.8 kilometer runner who ran in the Olympics, said, “Track is a proving ground. It’s a place where my mind can make my body do something it doesn’t want to do; where I can say I ran ten 402 meter runs today in 60 seconds each; that the last four runs were so hard I thought my legs would drop off, but that my mind kept me going.”

    Too few are willing to pay the price to achieve greatness—in anything.

    Expect Some Failure

    After winning a silver medal in the 1960 Olympic 400-meter hurdles in Rome, Cliff Sushman fell in the 1964 Olympic trials and missed a chance to go to Tokyo. Several fans in his hometown wrote to Cliff expressing sympathy. His reply:

    “Don’t feel sorry for me. I feel sorry for some of you.

    “In a split second all the many years of training, pain, sweat, blisters, and agony of running were simply and irrevocably wiped out. But I tried. I would much rather fall knowing I had put forth an honest effort than never to have tried at all … Each of you is capable of trying to make your own personal Olympic team, whether it be a school football team, the singing club, the List of students who receive high grades in school, or whatever your role may be. Unless you strive to achieve more than is readily available to you, how can you be sure what you can attain?

    “… Certainly I was disappointed in falling flat on my face. However, there is nothing I can do about it now but get up, pick the cinders from my wounds, and take one more step, followed by one more and one more, until the steps turn into kilometers and the kilometers turn into success.

    “I know that I may never reach my goal. The odds are against me, but I have something in my favor—desire and faith.

    “Some of you have never known the satisfaction of doing your best in sports, the joy of excelling in class, the wonderful feeling of completing the job and looking back on it knowing you have done your best.

    “… There is plenty of room at the top, but no room for anyone to sit down.”

    Bounce Back

    Karoly Takacs, a Hungarian, was recognized as the best pistol shot in the world. More than anything he wanted to win in the Olympics. But one day driving home, Takacs was in a car crash, and doctors had to amputate his right arm—his shooting arm.

    Takacs’ recovery was slow. It wasn’t a physical challenge, but an emotional one. He had reached the lowest feeling of despair. People wanted to help but there was little they could do. Takacs began to avoid his friends; even his family didn’t know where he spent his time. But Karoly Takacs was preparing. In solitude he had trained his left arm and his aiming eye, a training that’s far more of an intellectual mastery than most people realize. By the next Olympics, Takacs was ready.

    When the pistol event was over, this one-armed Hungarian stood, the cheers rising about him, on the topmost step of the winner’s platform with a gold medal around his neck.

    Takacs showed us something more than his ability to shoot. He proved that human beings have a largely untapped recovery capacity. He discovered for himself the exciting fact that experiencing the deepest feeling of despair does not mean defeat, but that it just signals the end of downward movement. As one friend told me, “The bottom can be something to bounce on.”


    “You can’t clap with one hand,” the Chinese proverb says. When you consider people, two individuals working together can accomplish as much as many individuals working separately. There is strength in unity.

    At the National Collegiate Athletic Association track meet held at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah in June 1967, four men from the University of Southern California lowered the world record for the 402 meter relay by one full second. The time of 38.6 seconds for 402 meters becomes remarkable compared to 9.1 seconds, the world’s fastest time for the 91.4 meter. Each member of the University of Southern California’s winning team averaged 8.7 seconds per 91.4 meters!

    The joint actions of individuals working together can increase effectiveness. Life is a cooperative venture. It requires leaders and followers. It requires compromise with one another to get along. And it requires unselfish charity for our fellowman.

    Faith in God

    A true champion, after giving everything he can, calls on God for extra help.

    Cathy Ferguson, age 17, was struggling in the backstroke swimming event, 15 centimeters behind the leader. She could hardly feel her arms and legs, but kept battling—8 meters, 7 meters, 6 meters, 5 meters. She kept swimming harder, until she pushed through to win. In that moment of glory, she could hardly control her tears, but she said, “I just kept praying, ‘Please God, help me keep going.’”

    Fred Hansen, nervous and worried because he was behind in the pole vault, stopped during the heat of competition to read a letter from his father, reminding him that “they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (Isa. 40:31). The next jump Fred soared over the crossbar to set a new Olympic record.

    Gil Dodds, a U.S. runner, felt that moment of absolute fatigue, pain, and agony when his legs felt like lead in a crucial race. As he fought off the desire to quit, he prayed earnestly, “Lord, you lift my legs and I’ll put them down.” He won the race.

    Championship Material

    Although most of us will never participate in the Olympic games, the Olympic motto and the Olympic spirit should have deep significance for Latter-day Saints, a people who believe in eternal progression. These ideals should provide us with a motivation to strive constantly to improve our performance in all aspects of our lives—to do our best, lengthen our stride, to truly become champions.

    You, my young friends, are sons and daughters of God. If you’ll have sufficient faith in yourselves as children of God, and live so that he can bless you and help you grow he will do anything you ask him to do in righteousness. If you will dedicate yourself to making a useful life of yourself and rendering service to your fellowman, the Lord will help you. He knows your potential and can help you develop it until you can race swifter, higher, and stronger than you ever dreamed possible.

    1954—Roger Bannister, racing in Oxford, England, became the first man to break the four-minute mile.

    1912—Jim Thorpe won both the pentathlon and the decathlon at the Fifth Olympiad in Stockholm, Sweden.

    1971—Joe Frazier defeated Muhammad Ali in a unanimous 15-round bout in New York.

    1936—Jesse Owens raced to a 400-yard relay victory in a dual U.S.–Great Britain track meet in London, England.