George and Dan Saunders are a rare combination in the Olympic world.
George, a wrestler, competed in the infamous Munich Games of 1972. Four years later his father, Dan, completed his own Olympic dream, officiating the wrestling competition at the Montreal Games.
“It’s really a phenomenal experience,” said Dan earlier this week, as excitement ramped up for the opening of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
“It’s like a euphoria being there.”
George, who bowed out after his second match, a wonky knee getting the better of his athletic prowess, called it one of the most unique experiences in the world.
“There is nothing you can do to describe the thrill one has to represent your country,” said Saunders, who retired after the ’72 Games and went on to become a teacher in his adopted hometown of Thunder Bay, spending more than two decades at Westgate Collegiate before finishing his career at Hammarskjold High School.
“I have to admit, it wasn’t a lifelong dream. It was something that was planted in my head by my university coach. He said, ‘You could be Canadian champion if you wanted.’ To be perfectly honest everything fell together in perfect sequence.”
The younger Saunders became the Canadian champ in the open category, automatically qualifying himself for Munich.
But the knee injury struck weeks before the Games, and it was a simple twist of fate that allowed him to maintain his spot on the team.
The No. 2 wrestler, believing his Olympic dream was over, disappeared, as Canadian officials desperately sought him out as an injury replacement for George Saunders.
“They didn’t know where he was, or anything. So (the Canadian Olympic Committee) said, ‘Well, OK, you can go.’ Fortunately for me, I won one match. I got a relatively good draw. I drew a fellow from India first, and pinned him.
“Then I wrestled a fellow from Poland, who I was very much in the match with. I lost that by three points and could have continued, but I was on a torn meniscus, which the doctor was looking at.”
With the daunting task of American Ben Peterson, the eventual gold medalist, and the Soviet Union’s Gennadi Strakhov, the silver medalist, up next on his wrestling card, George Saunders decided enough was enough.
“I would have been out right away,” he said.
While George Saunders never set out to make the Olympics, his father’s trek to Montreal was very deliberate.
An official in the newly minted city of Thunder Bay, Dan Saunders spent two full years training for his big break, determined to be at the ’76 Games, originally hoping his son might be in the competition. Even when it became obvious that dream wouldn’t be realized, he kept going.
“Once you get involved, it’s such a tremendous experience that you just can’t back out. The fact that you are rubbing shoulders with the top athletes of the world in your particular sport is an unbelievable experience,” he said.
“That was my final thing. I backed off of refereeing after that. I was the old man in the refereeing association here at that time. So I handed it off to some of the younger fellas.”
George Saunders said the most common question he’s asked about his experience is his recollection of the tragedy that hit the Munich Games, when 11 Israeli athletes and coaches, and a West German police officer were killed by Palestinian terrorists.
“It was very much front and centre, but certainly it is not the high point or the most significant part from my competing,” he said.
For George Saunders, that was probably getting to hang out with other athletes and watch them compete, sometimes surreptitiously, including a special moment with the Canadian equestrian team.
“Prince Phillip poked his head in the door of the van and said, ‘Hi,’ to the Canadian team. I said, ‘oh, wow.’ That was nothing new for the equestrian people to have that happen. But here it was wrestler sitting there.”
Sadly, moments like that are probably few and far between these days, with increased security, much of which had its origin in the Munich tragedy.
George Saunders is also worried about the direction of the Games.
He’d prefer a return to simpler times, where athletes and countries competed for the love of sport, not the all mighty dollar.
“It’s becoming more and more elite, both at the athletic level and the country level,” he said.
“Do I want to see it die? Absolutely not, but at the same time, what do you think?"
The London Games run through Aug. 12.
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