Category Archives: Olympics
Guest post by Jonathan Eyers
There are only so many guest posts you can write for a sports blog before you have to finally confess you’re just not that into the whole thing. It’s not that I’m apathetic about sport. In fact, since Euro 96, when my disinterest was punished with dead arms, I have actively loathed everything to do with it. The nadir of Gareth Southgate’s career was the zenith of my interest in sport. I imagine I enjoyed that penalty as much as the Germans did.
I could start ranting about how sport brings out the imperialistic tendencies of otherwise sensible people, but it’s not just the desire to avoid sounding like a tuft-bearded lentil-eating nineteen-year-old economics student from West London that stays my typing hand. Because the truth is, I’ve been just as enthusiastic about the Olympics as anyone. And all the naysayers and doom merchants just made me more so (except when they castigated the logo; they were right about that).
The only big national events we tend to do in this country are royal weddings, royal funerals and royal jubilees. Celebrating anything else is just a bit too American for us. Perhaps that’s why the Olympic opening ceremony has ensured Danny Boyle will be Sir Danny by January. We could all get behind this barnstorming vision of Britain and pretend the show was just for the rest of the world’s benefit. Because, of course, the rest of the world understands the shipping forecast…
Yes, the spirit of national unity and bonhomie didn’t last long, with partisan oiks from the Daily Mail to the Guardian claiming the next day that the ceremony represented only their worldview, and that it must have infuriated their political enemies, and that this was a good thing. But for the rest of us, the ceremony set the tone for not just a national event but an international one, and one which transcended sport.
I applied for about £1,000 worth of tickets, which was apparently pretty typical (though perhaps not for someone with my professed level of interest in sport). All I got was the fencing (men’s sabre final), which I ultimately enjoyed, but it was at ExCeL, out in the Docklands. I was disappointed not to get anything at the Olympic Stadium. It somehow didn’t feel like I was going to the real Olympics when I got off at Stratford and then went in the opposite direction to the Stadium.
So when I heard in early August that there were still tens of thousands of tickets for the Paralympics left, I made a beeline to get online, and looked only for events at the Stadium. I was in luck. Not only were there still tickets for athletics left, but some of them were in the £10 category too. (I do work in publishing, after all.)
One of the benefits of not being particularly interested in sport before the Olympics is that I was immune to any ideas of sporting celebrity. Most of the sportsmen I could name I had only heard of for their extracurricular activities (with or without their wives and girlfriends). The only Olympians I was really aware of before the end of July were Usain Bolt and Tom Daley. Even when I was seeing famous British competitors, I had no idea who they were. It didn’t really matter to me.
As soon as I started expressing enthusiasm for having got tickets to Stadium events at the Paralympics I picked up on this sense from some people that the Paralympics weren’t the real Olympics, and not in the same way that events at ExCeL hadn’t felt like the real Olympics to me. I definitely got the impression there was more to it, that the Paralympics are considered inferior because most Paralympians (Oscar Pistorius notwithstanding) are less famous (and for reasons few would openly admit, I’m sure).
Of course that wasn’t an impression borne out by the reaction of the crowd in the packed Stadium when 80,000 of us watched Mickey Bushell win his heat in the 100m. Decibels reached unsafe levels, I’m sure. (I can only imagine the sound level when he won the gold medal in the following day’s final.) It certainly all felt real at that moment, and any distinction between Olympic and Paralympic less so.
I could end with a slightly sourpuss suggestion that Mo Farah, Ellie Simmonds or Bradley Wiggins would be better role models than our much-idolised footballers, but instead I’ll finish in the same way my Paralympic experience ended, with tens of thousands of people singing our national anthem following David Weir’s gold medal ceremony. Listen carefully and you might even hear the American next to me swept up by the nation’s mood and joining in.
The tittering schoolboy version of the history of the Olympic Games would have us believe the Ancient Greeks used to strip naked, oil themselves up and then fight to the death in a stadium at Olympia. And believe them we should, because there’s an element of truth to all of that. London’s Olympic Games in 2012 might have billions of spectators (if only thanks to television), but the Ancient Olympic Games of 776BC onwards make Seb Coe’s pet project look decidedly staid.
The Ancient Olympics was originally established as a religious festival to worship the mightiest of Greek gods, Zeus. A colossal statue of him, built to preside over the stadium, was later designated one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Only Greeks were allowed to participate. After all, everyone else was a barbarian. This didn’t change for 500 years, until the Roman Empire conquered Greece, stomped its collective feet and demanded their own supermen be allowed to join in.
Naturally only men could compete. Some women were allowed into the stadium to watch, but only if they weren’t married or betrothed (which was probably for the best, given the Team Greece kit – see below).
Originally the Games only lasted for a single day, but then, they only consisted of a single event – the stadion race. This was a short sprint of about 700ft, which was the length of the stadium (the word ‘stadium’ actually having come from the name of the race). Eventually the Ancient Olympics were extended to five days and incorporated multiple events. Most fell by the wayside in the intervening 1,500 years between the Ancient and Modern Olympic Games (most lamentably chariot racing), but the javelin and discus have both remained staple events, whilst others have evolved.
In case modern boxing isn’t brutal enough, the boxers of the Ancient Olympics could weight their hard leather hand coverings with metal for extra pain infliction. There weren’t any rules against hitting a competitor when he was down either. Matches had no rest periods and no time limits – they went on until one of the men gave up, or died. Killing your opponent was not advised, however, because the dead guy automatically won the contest.
Pankration is another event that has disappeared from the schedules. Worryingly there would probably be plenty who would relish the chance to bring this fighting sport back, but health and safety officials would never allow it. The rules of pankration were quite simple. No eye gouging. No biting. And that was it. Spleen-rupturing kicks to the belly were allowed. Choke holds were recommended. Digging thumbs into your opponent’s trachea was an acceptable winning move. Elements of pankration have made it into mixed martial arts, but that pales in comparison on the violence front.
The more cynical amongst us might take a bemused look at Stella McCartney’s kit for British competitors and suggest the Ancient Greeks did it better when they competed in their birthday suits. However, nudity was not in fact the official uniform of the Ancient Olympics for the first 50 years, only being introduced by decree in 720BC. The Games were partly about celebrating the human body, after all. Competitors would rub olive oil over their bodies, both for cleaning and aesthetic purposes. Only in one event was anyone allowed to wear clothes – the armoured race. But even then, the only armour they could wear was a helmet and shin guards. There was still plenty of flesh flapping around in the sun. Interestingly, the word ‘gynasium’ comes from ‘gymnos’ – the Greek word for ‘nude’.
There were no gold, silver or bronze medals for the winners in the Ancient Olympics, just a crown made from an olive wreath, along with an olive branch and supplies of more olive oil. Bertolli, sponsors of the original 776BC Olympic Games, continue to prosper to this day, apparently.
Unfortunately it all came to an end in AD393 (or AD435, depending upon whose version of history you would shed blood over) when the Roman Emperor Theodosius I (or II, depending upon – etc, etc) embraced Christianity and banned the whole thing for being just a little too pagan for Jesus. It wasn’t until 1896 that the ancient ideal of an international celebration of sporting prowess was born again, but that’s another story altogether.