October 14, 2020
Wednesday, June 4, 2014
The 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada provided Americans with a lot of inspirational moments. Bruce Jenner became a household name after winning the decathlon. The careers of sprinter Edwin Moses and boxer Sugar Ray Leonard were launched and they became international celebrities in their respective sports. In Gymnastics, Nadia Comeneci captured the hearts of television viewers worldwide.
However, it was a couple of influential sports fans watching on television that launched an idea for Florida athletes of all ages and skill levels which has become an Amateur Sports Tradition celebrating its 35th anniversary this year.
In the summer of 1976, then State Senator Bob Graham and his neighbor, Bill Arnsparger, a coach for the Miami Dolphins and several other NFL teams, were watching the Olympics and were surprised at how infrequently the state of Florida was mentioned as the home state of U.S. athletes.
Their curiosity as to why led to an inquiry to find out a disappointing number that explained why his home state was mentioned so infrequently. Only nine members of the 1976 U.S. Olympic team were from Florida.
“I was starting my run for Governor and Bill and I decided if I was elected, we would try and do something to increase that number,” Graham said. “The end goal turned out to be the creation of the Sunshine State Games.”
Graham was elected Governor of Florida in 1978 and he and Arnsparger followed through on the plan creating the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Other influential Florida leaders such as Jim Smith, Joe Robbie, George Steinbrenner and Hugh Culverhouse, joined the cause to make the Games come to life.
When the Sunshine State Games debuted in 1980, it became the second State Games in the U.S. coming two years after the Empire State Games debuted in New York. Since that time, the Empire State Games did not compete for three years between 2009-12 and the Sunshine State Games are the longest continuously-running State Games in the U.S.
“There aren’t a lot of things that last 35 years and I’m glad to see the idea of developing athletes with Olympic sports backgrounds has taken hold,” said Graham. “It makes me proud that the Sunshine State Games are the longest continuously running Games and the concept is achieving its objective of Floridians representing the U.S. at the Olympic Games.”
The Sunshine State Games opened in July, 1980 with Florida amateur athletes competing in 15 sports: Archery, Boxing, Canoe/Kayak, Cycling, Diving, Fencing, Gymnastics, Judo, Sport Shooting, Swimming, Synchronized Swimming, Track and Field, Volleyball, Weightlifting and Wrestling. High School All Star Games in Basketball, Football and Women’s Softball were also held in 1980 as part of the Sunshine State Games.
The inaugural Games produced at least three future Olympians as 21-year old Rowdy Gaines, of Winter Haven, won a gold medal in the men’s 100M freestyle with time of 52:01. Jacksonville’s Nancy Hogshead won five gold medals in the 200M, 400M and 800M Freestyle, 100 and 200 Fly, as an 18-year old. Both competed in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
A 12-year old boxer, Antonio Tarver, of Orlando, also won a gold medal in the 1980 Games and represented the U.S. at the 1996 Olympic Games winning a bronze medal.
While swimming, gymnastics, boxing and track and field have long been Olympic Games fan and athlete favorites, another one of the goals of the Sunshine State Games was to give athletes an opportunity to compete in a number of Olympic sports that were not well known or practiced.
With the inception of the Games in 1980, athletes in Archery, Fencing, Judo and Synchronized Swimming had a chance to branch out into statewide competition in an effort to achieve their goals.
Tallahassee’s Jan DeLaney was a Fencing gold medal winner in the Men’s Sabre event in the 1980 Sunshine State Games. To compete in the Games at that time, fencers had to place in the top four in their event at one of three divisional tournaments.
“There were three power centers in the state at that time and they all focused around college campuses,” DeLaney recalled. “There was a good group in Tallahassee, in Gainesville, Miami and Tampa. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was not unusual for us to have a local membership of 50 or 60. It might not seem like much now, but then it was a lot.”
DeLaney also said at the time of the first Sunshine State Games, nationwide membership for the United States Fencing Association was approximately 6,000 to 8,000. Now membership nationally is over 20,000.
A proud native Floridian, Graham is still singing the praises of the Sunshine State as a natural training spot for athletic achievement.
“We live in a state with phenomenal natural resources and qualities. You can compete 365 days a year in many of the summer Olympic sports if you choose,” he said. “The coaching and facilities to achieve at high levels for our own competitive aspirations are available to bring glory to the U.S. and the State of Florida.”
While he admits to not being much an athlete in his younger days but venturing onto the basketball court every now and then while competing in a few traditional track and field events, he gladly provides motivation to athletes who have competed in the Games and are competing now.
“Remember the excitement and appreciation in sports and for the opportunity to compete and showcase skills in hopes of catching the attention of a strong college program,” Graham said. “Take advantage of the opportunities to be exposed to coaches that may considering you for a college scholarship and advance your education as well.”
The 2013 Sunshine State Games Athletes of the Year are a perfect example of how the annual Olympic-style Sports Festival is able to serve athletes of all ages and skill levels.
Justin Herman, a 15-year old fencer from Plantation, advanced through a 34-person field to win the Men’s Foil event last year in Gainesville. He has aspirations of attending a college that offers a fencing program and after this year’s Sunshine State Games he will compete in the U.S. Fencing National Championships.
The 2013 Female Athlete of the Year is an adult taekwondo athlete who holds Power Breaking records. At the Games last year she broke five cinder blocks to establish a new record. She also competes in taekwondo forms competitions and practices the sport with her teenage son.
What began as disappointing news about a lack of Florida athletes has grown into an annual amateur sports tradition that has provided a competitive outlet for athletes of all ages for 35 years. Next stop – 40 Years! Then we’ll go for 50!
Registration is still open for a few sports of the Sarasota County Festival, to be held June 6-8 in Sarasota County, the Polk County Festival, June 21-22 in Polk County, and the Sunshine State Games Track and Field Championships (June 21), Water Polo Championships (June 27-29) and Badminton Championships (June 28-29). Visit www.flasports.com for more information.