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Ramblin’ to Paris Pt, 5: GT at the 2021 Olympics

A record Olympics for the Ramblin’ Wreck

Caio Pumputis at the Tokyo Olympics
| Satiro Sodré/SSPress/CBDA

Welcome to part 5 of 30 of my Ramblin’ to Paris series. Check out last week’s piece where we detailed the physical space used on Georgia Tech’s campus for the 1996 Olympics. Today’s piece is sponsored by Tech alumni and Travelmation travel agent, Nicolas Santine.

When we last talked about the Georgia Tech athletes that had made the Olympics (RtP Pt. 3), I intentionally left out the 20201 Tokyo Olympics (for this article, I’ll refer to the Tokyo Olympics as the 2021 Olympics because it bugs me to no end that the IOC didn’t rename it for the year it actually happened).

That’s because up until then, Tech had never sent more than five coaches or athletes to a single Olympics (2004 and 2008). Since 2000, At least three Tech coaches or athletes have been at every summer games after having eight total in the 20th century. At least one person from Georgia Tech has been at the Olympics in some participation or coaching capacity since the 1984 Los Angeles games. If anyone happens to know if we had someone in the running for the 1980 Moscow games that didn’t participate because of the American boycott, do let me know.

In 2021, there was a spike. A school record NINE people from the Georgia Tech athletic family made it to Tokyo. Seven athletes participated over two sports along with two coaches representing six countries.

The increase in Olympic athletes was primarily because of how Tech swimming has recruited their best swimmers in the last five years or so. They’ve always had a mix of Georgians and international swimmers, and recently that international talent has mostly come via Turkey and Brazil led by Batur Ünlü (Turkey), Berke Saka (Turkey), Mert Kilavuz (Brazil), Caio Pumputis (Brazil), Leonardo Odorici (Brazil), Defne Taçyildiz (Turkey), and Deniz Ertan (Turkey).

For the Turkish contingent, they just need to hit Olympic qualifying times to make the Olympic team, unlike the Brazilians and Americans who have Olympic trail meets to determine who makes their teams.

Of the aforementioned names, Pumputis, Saka, Ünlü, and Taçyildiz all qualified for the 2021 Olympics. Taçyildiz by the time the games rolled around had not actually swam for Tech, but was an incoming freshman to The Flats in the fall of 2021. Pumputis swam in the 100 meter Breaststroke (34th) and 200 meter IM (19th). Saka swam the the 200 meter Backstroke (23rd). Ünlü swaim in the 200 meter Freestyle (34th). Taçyildiz swam the 200 meter Butterfly (14th).

Andrew Chetcuti (Malta), previously mentioned in part 3, qualified for Tokyo but did not swim.

Those five swimmers were the most athletes from Tech to qualify in a single sport for any Olympics. Pumputis, Saka, Ünlü, and Taçyildiz were all active or incoming at Georgia Tech during Tokyo, another school record in itself.

Out of the pool, Berke Saka served as one of Turkey’s flag bearers in the opening ceremonies, I believe making him the only Georgia Tech athlete to ever do so for any country.

Berke Saka (middle) with Merve Tuncel representing Turkey as the country’s flag bearers for the 2021 Opening Ceremonies.
AP Photo/Petr David Josek

Tech’s final two athletes both came in Men’s Basketball: Josh Okogie (Nigeria) and Avi Schafer (Japan).

The Nigerian team did not make it out of the group stage, losing all three of their games to Australia, Germany, and Italy. Okogie started the Australia and Germany games, scoring 11 points against Australia with three assists, but did not score against Germany in 16:03 of floor time. He only played 7:41 against Italy with three turnovers.

Josh Okogie in Nigeria’s final Olympic game in 2021 against Italy.

Japan similarly went 0-3 in their Olympic group games against Spain, Slovenia, and Argentina being an automatic qualifier. Avi scored five points from 15 bench minutes against Spain and did not score against either Slovenia or Argentina.

On the coaching side, Mfon Udofia was an assistant coach for Nigeria’s basketball team, and Nat Page served as an assistant coach for the U.S. Track & Field team focusing on jumps/combined.

Was this the most successful Olympics for Tech?

As I was finishing up writing the piece, this question came to mind, and I think it’s a good one because there’s multiple ways to think about this from different perspectives.

The “easiest” way to measure this perhaps is by pure medals won. For Tech, that would be 1996 when Derrick Adkins won Gold in the 400-meter hurdles and Derek Mills won gold in the 4 x 400-meter relay. It was a home Olympics where U.S. Olympians from Tech won two of the most watched events in the entire games. It will probably never get better than that in terms of a pure moment at the games. Tech hasn’t won two golds in any other Olympics.

Another angle though is thinking about how the games reflect Tech’s significance on an international level, and what that means for our future on campus rosters. This is where the Tokyo games has a real argument. By sending seven athletes, all from out of the country, it does a tremendous job in pushing Tech’s brand internationally when our coaches are out recruiting talent. They can point to this success that if you come to Tech, we can be a program that will support Olympic ambitions and help you get there.

This extends to other sports too. For volleyball, who hasn’t had an Olympian yet (we’re keeping a close eye on if Julia Bergmann makes the Brazilian team, which has already qualified), the incredible years put up by Mariana Brambilla and Bergmann were critical in opening the door for Tech into South America, which has then brought in Bianca Bertolino (Argentina), Heloise Soares (Brazil), Paola Pimentel (Brazil, albeit transferred from a Florida JuCo), Larissa Mendes (Brazil), Luanna Emlilano (Brazil via UTRGV), and Deren Çukur (Turkey again!), most of whom have been the lifeblood of Tech’s team.

For women’s basketball, Nell Fortner has had a steady stream of Europeans come in who have all been massively impactful in the last five to six years: Nerea Hermosa (Spain), Lotta Maj Lahtinen (Finland), Lorela Cubaj (Italy), Aixa Wone Aranaz (Spain), Rusne Augustinaite (Lithuania), Inés Noguero (Spain), and Ariadna Termis (Spain).

Of the two arguments, if I had to pick one, I’d go with the latter that Tokyo was in fact our most successful, because it reflects the growing strength our Olympic sport programs have shown. We will never have the resources of Florida, Stanford, or Texas, but Tech’s prominence globally is not shrinking. Getting ourselves out there like we did in Tokyo is going to pay off much more down the road. If in Paris or Los Angeles we get lucky and end up with a couple medals to show for it, that would be icing on the cake.

Closer to summer, we’ll dive into the athletes going to Paris and see if we’ll once again have seven or more athletes make it.

NEXT WEEK ON RAMBLIN’ TO PARIS: My first interview with one of Tech’s past Olympians!

Jack Purdy is a non-revenue sports writer and co-host of Scions of the Southland for From the Rumble Seat. He previously served as The Technique’s assistant sports editor before graduating Georgia Tech in 2022. Follow Jack on Twitter @JackNicolaus

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