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MELVIN DURSLAG

Axthelm's Career Left the Gate at a Gallop

February 06, 1991|MELVIN DURSLAG

The life of Pete Axthelm wasn't especially long--he died the other day at 47--but it wasn't devoid of action.

Pete flourished on action. It was the fuel that propelled him. As early as high school, he would make his way to Belmont Park, matching his science against the forces confronting him.

For a man eager to get down a bet, horses offer matchless opportunity because they never stop running, except maybe between midnight and noon.

Because football is seasonal, it served Pete only as an adjunct, as Bo Jackson serves the Raiders.

A Yale graduate and a gifted writer, Axthelm went to Newsweek in 1968, a year he would be assigned to the Olympic Games in Mexico City.

At the time, he was 24, adventurous and guarding the ramparts of the downtrodden. It never was noised about, but Pete played a role in one of the most celebrated affairs of the modern Olympics--the black-fist incident on the victory stand.

Pete knew it was coming off. He knew because it is suspected he was one of the architects of this unique protest shaking up the planet.

Two black sprinters from the United States, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, finished first and third, respectively, in the 200 meters. Figuring to be medalists, they had prepared a message for the world when they appeared for the awards ceremony.

Both would wear black socks. On his right hand, Smith would wear a black glove. Carlos would wear one on his left.

It was a biting commentary on distribution of wealth in America, the fact that two of its citizens could afford but one pair of gloves between them.

But each wore two socks.

They also wore a large button reading: "Olympic Project for Human Rights." An Australian who finished second, Peter Norman, didn't know what was going on, but, handed a button, he pinned it on, too.

Then, when the U.S. national anthem began, Smith and Carlos raised their gloved hands, fists clenched. It would be explained afterward by Smith that the clenched fist symbolized unity on the part of blacks, as opposed to separation as might be indicated by an open hand.

Well, as you can imagine, things hit the rotating blade. Mexican officials were furious, charging an insult to the Olympic spirit and to their hospitality. They had just chilled an international incident in the Olympic Village, where athletes from the African nation of Guinea shared a building with the Poles.

The Guineans had brought their drums and, one evening outside the building, were working up a pretty good beat.

The annoyed Poles leaned out the window and dumped water on them. The Guineans responded by throwing a brick through the Poles' window. For the Mexican hosts, it was a delicate issue to adjudicate.

Now came the victory stand crisis, to which the USOC reacted by kicking Smith and Carlos off the team. Embarrassed by the protest, George Foreman, Olympic heavyweight champion that year, waved an American flag in the ring.

Axthelm is believed to have helped shape the victory stand scenario with Smith, Carlos, a coxswain from Harvard and assorted others.

Whereas folks looking at it draw back in shock, Pete smiled knowingly. It was like cashing a bet on a race in the bag.

An industrious worker, arranging his labors around his bets, "Ax," as he was called, served Newsweek for 20 years, then People magazine for two. He wrote five books.

Searching for an answer to Jimmy The Greek, tendering football betting information for CBS, NBC hired Axthelm. What offset to the Greek more logical than Pete?

When Jimmy was released by CBS and a piety of sorts beset the networks in connection with gambling, Axthelm was sent packing by NBC, shifting his artistry to ESPN, for which he worked until his liver failed, resulting in his death.

Pete was easy to like, never taking himself or his functions too seriously.

His case study, though, often raised in our mind the propriety of gambling by those in our line of work. There is no sermonizing here, no morality speeches.

It is simply that guys who gamble go nuts, a state of mind also attainable by writers who don't gamble.

But those who do not only find themselves romping in that fragile latitude called conflict of interest, but they plunge so heavily into the grip of betting that their writing (or broadcasting) becomes incidental.

A friend covering the Kentucky Derby one time confessed to us he never saw the first eight horses that crossed the finish line.

That's because the horse he bet finished ninth.

We have a feeling that Axthelm today would advise young colleagues not to bet, but asked if he would follow again the course he did, he would answer yes.

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