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October 05, 2000|LARRY STEWART

What: "History Undercover: Stolen Gold"

Where: History Channel

When: Sunday, 10 p.m.

What do Jim Thorpe and Mary Decker Slaney have in common? Both felt they were cheated out of Olympic gold. They aren't the only ones, and their stories are among many involving Olympic controversies told in this one-hour segment of the "History Undercover" series. The stories come from David Wallechinsky's "Complete Book of the Olympics." (Wallechinsky appears throughout the documentary.)

This could be called the "Incomplete Film of the Olympics." The producers should be admired for the undertaking, but they bit off more than they could chew. They should have taken a cue from Olympic documentarian Bud Greenspan, who limits the number of stories he tells in his films to deal with them more in-depth. They should have been more selective in which Olympic controversies since 1908 to explore, and which ones to ignore.

The first one is about the 1908 tug of war. Really! The U.S. team complained that the winning team from England, made up of policemen from Liverpool, wore illegal boots.

The second story is about the 1908 marathon in which the winner, Italian runner Dorando Pietri, was disqualified because he had to be helped across the finish line. John Hayes of the U.S. was declared the winner. Maybe the most interesting aspect of this segment is that South African Charles Hefferon was leading late in the race when he accepted champagne from a spectator, then developed stomach cramps.

It's noted that the length of the marathon was increased by 385 yards so the runners would pass in front of the Queen, but the fact that 26 miles 385 yards became the permanent distance for a marathon is left out. The extra distance is blamed for Pietri faltering and needing help, but in Wallechinsky's book, there is no mention of that.

The Jim Thorpe story, which has been well chronicled, is told through the eyes of Thorpe's daughter Grace, who gives viewers a tour of her father's hometown of Prague, Okla. Thorpe was stripped of his gold medals (he won both the decathlon and pentathlon at Stockholm in 1912) after a journalist reported he had earned $25 a week playing minor league baseball. Thorpe died in Lomita in 1953; his medals were returned to his children in 1983. Ignored are the efforts of Thorpe biographer Bob Wheeler and his wife, Florence Ridlon, in getting those medals back.

Stories of more recent vintage deal with the U.S. losing in basketball to the Soviet Union in 1972 and Decker Slaney getting tripped by Zola Budd in 1984. "If I was ever going to win a gold medal in my athletic career, that would have been the day," she says.

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