An Olympic Meeting for the Birds
Bill Hosket was a 6'8" forward/center, who led his Dayton Belmont High School basketball team (Dayton, OH) to the 1964 Ohio state championship, was named Ohio Player of the Year and was also MVP of the state tournament. He played college basketball at the Ohio State University from 1965 to 1968 and amazingly led his team in scoring and rebounding during each of his three varsity seasons, while earning All-American honors and leading the Buckeyes to the Final Four. Bill succeeded in making the 1968 USA Olympic Basketball Team and was thrilled to find himself in Mexico City in his first and only trip to the Olympic Games.
Bill remembered, “It was just prior to the opening ceremonies and they were getting the entire USA Olympic team organized outside the stadium. All of us were outfitted in our parade dress; female athletes in the front and male athletes to the back. Because of our height, the basketball players were positioned in the final two or three rows with other large athletes.
“Once positioned, I looked to my left only to discover a very well built, more mature athlete. It was the great Al Oerter. I awkwardly introduced myself as Bill Hosket, a member of the basketball team. He politely said, ‘Hello,’ and was clearly not overly impressed. One has to remember that this was Al's fourth trip to the Olympics, having won gold in the previous three and setting a new Olympic record in the discus each time.”
Even though Bill was four inches taller than Al, it didn’t feel that way being in his presence. A little starstruck, Bill said, “For me, it was like meeting John Wayne. I went on to explain to Al that I had thrown the discus in high school and that he was in all of our training films (showing the techniques that made him a world champion).” Al asked, “How did you do?” “I offered that I won the city championship my senior year at Dayton Belmont high school in Ohio.
“With that, a whistle blew and they informed our USA team to march toward the tunnel that would take us into the stadium. As we approached, all I could think of was that I just told the "World Champion" discus thrower that I had won a meet in high school. Ugh! We proceeded through the tunnel and into the stadium. At that moment I was totally taken by the enormity of the event and forgot about my previous conversation with Al. Our USA team received a huge ovation from the crowd as we entered, passed by the president of Mexico and the president of the IOC, circled the track and took our assigned place in the infield with all of the other countries' participants.”
Bill was mesmerized by the moment and the pageantry. He continued, "After the opening remarks, the Olympic torch entered the stadium. It was carried up the steps to the top where the cauldron was lit, signifying the official opening of the 1968 Olympic Games. Once lit, there were fireworks and what sounded like cannon fire from a distant hill. Simultaneously, there were spring loaded cages all around the base of the stadium that released 5,000 white doves representing peace. It was a special moment as millions watched on TV from around the world.
“From my perspective as a participant, we were in a circular stadium beneath 5,000 cannon-boomed, petrified birds attempting a mass exit. Our red blazers were the landing area for what birds do when they are scared; all blazers, but one! Al Oerter, the veteran Olympian, had reached into his breast pocket, retrieved and covered his head and shoulders with a sheet of dry cleaner-plastic. As I was trying to cover my head with my hands, he walked toward me and said, ‘There he is--the Dayton City Champ!’"
It is believed that the release of homing pigeons began during the ancient Olympic Games as a way to communicate a victorious Olympian’s exploits to his village and family so to allow enough time to prepare a hero's welcome for the returning athlete. In 1896, at the first modern Olympic Games, birds were released as a sign of global peace and freedom, and officially became part of the Olympic Opening Ceremony program at the 1920 Games in Antwerp. Even then, experienced athletes brought newspapers to cover themselves from the dove droppings.
At the1936 Games in Berlin, in the midst of Hitler’s attempted bold display of Nazi superiority, German organizers decided to release the birds prior to the lighting of the Olympic cauldron. U.S. distance runner Louis Zamperini, subject of Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book Unbroken, relayed what happened next: “They released 25,000 pigeons, the sky was clouded with pigeons, the pigeons circled overhead, and then they shot a cannon, and they scared the poop out of the pigeons, and we had straw hats, flat straw hats, and you could hear the pitter-patter on our straw hats, but we felt sorry for the women, for they got it in their hair, but I mean there were a mass of droppings, and I say it was so funny...”
Even in 1964 in Tokyo, one Olympian said, ”It was a crap-fest,” while most of the men on the US team were protected due to their wide-brimmed cowboy hats. Dove release ended after the 1988 Games as, at Seoul’s Opening Ceremony, a good number of birds came to rest atop the Olympic cauldron as it was being lit, and so were the birds. The common practice now is a demonstration representing the symbolic release of doves after the flame has been ignited.
In 1968, Al Oerter went on to win his fourth consecutive gold medal in the discus while setting a fourth consecutive Olympic record, and defeating the existing world record holder for the fourth consecutive time (read Rarefied Air here). Bill Hosket earned a gold medal of his own as the underdog USA Basketball team went undefeated, with standouts like Spencer Haywood, Jo Jo White, Mike Silliman and Charles Scott. Hosket played a pivotal role and was fifth on the team in scoring. Bill went on to play four seasons in the NBA with the New York Knicks and Buffalo Braves. He was a world champion again, professionally, when the Knicks took the NBA title in 1970.
Over the years, Bill Hosket and Al Oerter saw each other at various events. Al would always laugh when reminding Bill of their first meeting. Bill wrote, ”My Olympic basketball experience was truly a great highlight in my athletic career, but meeting Al Oerter during the opening ceremonies will always be one of my fondest memories. He proved to me that day that experience is a great teacher. Al will always be remembered as a legendary athlete and an even better person.”
Bill Hosket was honored in 2002 by the Ohio High School Athletic Association with its highest honor – the Ethics and Integrity Award. In 2006, he was inducted into the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame.
Like birds of a feather, it seems that those who live the Olympic ideal, flock together.
© 2020 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved