AUGUST 31: Korbut vaults into our hearts

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ON THIS DATE (August 31) in 1972, seventeen-year-old Olga Korbut of the Soviet Union won two gold and one silver medal in individual competition at the Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany.

Four years later, fourteen-year-old Nadia Comaneci did even better, winning three gold medals, a silver, and a bronze at the Montreal Olympics. In the process, Comaneci introduced gymnastic perfection, receiving the first-ever perfect scores (seven in all).

Who was the better gymnast? Comaneci. Who made the greater cultural impact? I say Korbut because she was the first teenage pixie (4-foot-11, 84-pounds) gymnast, and her emotionalism made a lot of us re-think the dehumanizing stereotype of cold, calculating Soviets.

Comaneci, a Romanian, also belonged to a Soviet bloc country, but despite her bangs and big brown eyes, she was as precise and deadly as an AK-47.

That’s no knock on Comaneci. She had a job to do in the 1976 Olympics, and she did it brilliantly. It’s just, she dazzled us through sheer athletic genius, where Korbut was more about joy and tears and passion. We admired Comaneci, but we connected with Korbut, who seemed as emotionally vulnerable as any American of her age, if not more so.

Americans tend, I believe, to overrate the effect of athletics on politics — did Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmeling in 1938 really humble Nazi Germany? (As a nation, they didn’t act too humble). So maybe I’m wrong here. But I think it did Westerners good to watch and love Olga Korbut during the fourth decade of the Cold War. It’s hard to hate an enemy when you suspect that they’re a lot like us.

AUGUST 30: The email inventor debate

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ABOVE: Shiva Ayyudurai (top) has said he’s the inventor of email. Many believe Raymond Tomlinson (below) introduced electronic messaging.

ON THIS DATE in 1982, eighteen-year-old Shiva Ayyadurai copyrighted the term “EMAIL.” Did he also invent electronic messaging? The Indian American from New Jersey says yes — One of his websites is titled and states his case for being the originator of email.

What is known is that in 1978, the fourteen-year-old Ayyadurai began working on an electronic mail system for a New Jersey medical/dental university where his mother worked. Two years later, he had completed an e-mail system.

In 2011, TIME magazine called Ayyadurai “The Man Who Invented EMail” in a headline, and a 2012 Washington Post story appeared under the heading, “V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai: Inventor of email honored by Smithsonian.” A number of readers charged that Shiva had no claim to the invention, and the newspaper printed a correction that stated, “A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai as the inventor of electronic messaging.”


In 2013, Ayyadurai was often seen with former “The Nanny” star Fran Drescher, fifty-six. It was reported that they were dating.

Thomas Haigh, a computer historian and assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, responded angrily to the Post story. “Mail features became common on the timesharing computers of the late 1960s,” he wrote.

The Internet Hall of Fame ( credits thirty-year-old Raymond Tomlinson with creating the first e-mail system in 1971. A profile on the website says Tomlinson “is widely known for inventing network electronic mail, choosing the ‘@’ sign in emails to connect the username with the destination address.”

One of Ayyadurai’s supporters is famed intellectual Noam Chomsky, who wrote that “email was invented in 1978 by a 14-year-old working in Newark, NJ,” wrote Chomsky. “ The facts are indisputable.”

Superb Cinema Seniors

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LOTS OF GOOD SENIORS missing here, including Lloyd Dobler (Say Anything), Bud Stamper and Deanie Loomis (Splendor in the Grass), Baby Houseman (Dirty Dancing), Ren MacCormack (Footloose), Marty McFly (Back to the Future), Olive Penderghast (Easy A, Tre Styles (Boyz N The Hood), Jim Levenstein (American Pie), John Bender (Breakfast Club), Jason Dean (Heathers), and Rizzo (Grease).

Who else is missing?

By the way, I know that Lloyd Dobler was a lot more interesting than Diane Court. I just wanted someone smart on the list (she was valedictorian of her high school). Most compelling movie teens are goofy or troubled. If they’re bright, they tend to be more savvy bright than classroom bright.

Jeff Spicoli doesn’t make the list because he was a sophomore in Cameron Crowe’s script for Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I’m pretty sure Carrie White (Carrie) was a sophomore or junior, although she attended the senior prom. Max Fischer of Rushmore is one of my favorite teen characters, but he was a sophomore at the start of the movie.

Juno MacGuff may have been a junior. She was only sixteen. But she acted much older.

AUGUST 29: Hail the Tiny Diver




ABOVE: Aileen Riggin dives at the Antwerp Olympics, and poses with a trophy she received from Belgium’s King Albert.


ON THIS DATE in 1920, fourteen-year-old American Aileen Riggin dove into the muddy waters of an Antwerp (Belgium) canal and won the first-ever gold medal in Olympic springboard diving.

 The youngest member of the first American women’s Olympic swimming and diving team, Riggin became the tiniest champion ever, standing just four foot seven and weighing 65 pounds.

 “Until two months before the tryouts, we had no idea of the dives required, and some were entirely new,” Riggin wrote in 1974. What worried her most, though, was the mud at the bottom of the diving canal. “I kept thinking, the water is black and nobody could find me if I really got stuck down there,” she said, quoted in Greg Kehm’s Olympic Swimming and Diving (2007). “And if I were coming down with force, I might go up to my elbows and I’d be stuck permanently, and nobody would miss me and I’d die a horrible drowning death.”

 Riggin survived to compete again, four years later, at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. The Rhode Island-born New Yorker won a silver medal in springboard diving and a bronze medal in the 100-meter backstroke, making her the only woman to win medals in swimming and diving in the same Olympics.

 Aileen Riggin Soule, ninety-six, died in a Honolulu nursing home in 2002. She had been the oldest living American female gold medalist.

AUGUST 28: Two Teens and UPS

ON THIS DATE in 1907, a pair of teenagers formed a messenger service in Seattle that we now know as United Parcel Service, or UPS.

ups_timeline-mainJames E. Casey, nineteen, and Claude Ryan, eighteen, originally called their company American Messenger Service. Operating out of a 6-by-17 foot room beneath a tavern run by Ryan’s uncle, they employed six bicycle riders to deliver messages and packages throughout Seattle. 

By the end of 1912, Casey and Ryan employed 100 messengers. Ryan sold his shares in the company in 1917, two years before the business expanded to Oakland, California, and took the name United Parcel Service.

By 1930, UPS was operating in cities all over the West Coast, as well as New York City. Stressing efficiency and courtesy, the company was able to serve every address in America by 1975. Thirty years later, UPS had gone global, delivering nearly 16 million packages and documents worldwide each day to more than 200 countries and territories.

AUGUST 27: Supermodel Sims

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ON THIS DATE in 1967, nineteen-year-old Naomi Sims graced the cover of Fashions of The Times, a New York Times supplement. The next year, she appeared on the cover of Ladies Home Journal, making her the first African-American model to be featured on the front of a mainstream women’s magazine. “Naomi was the first,” the designer Halston told The New York Times in 1974. “She was the great ambassador for all black people. She broke down all the social barriers.”

A Pittsburgh native, Sims didn’t set out to be a model but needed money for school while attending New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology in 1967. When agencies turned her down, some saying she was too dark, she went straight to photographer Gosta Peterson, who shot her for Fashions of The Times. The model promoted herself when agencies continued to put her off and by 1969 was earning $1,000 a week. 

“Sims was known within her industry as someone who showed up on time and prepared, usually having already done her own hair and makeup because few stylists knew how to work with a black woman,” The New York Times wrote in 2009.