The magic of the games

The Olympics have a weird and wonderful history

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Someone had forgotten to order the wind. The sea had come in at Weymouth, on time and under budget, but the flags hung limply at the 2012 Olympic sailing venue. Racing abandoned for the day, I did what any responsible journalist would do and headed for the pub.

I could hear the excitement before I entered. “Come on my son!” they were roaring. “Get in there! Yurssss!” A crew of decorators were crowded around a television in paint-spattered dungarees, cheering on Britain as they went for gold in the team show-jumping.

Their hero was Nick Skelton, who first sat on a horse at 18 months old and now, 53 years later, had just had a second clear round to ensure that Britain’s quartet had matched the Dutch. The gold would be decided by a jump-off, an equine penalty shootout. “Should we go back to work, boss?” one of the painters asked, the lunch hour having long been extended.

The foreman thought for a second, then ordered another round. Architraves can wait. You only get one chance to watch someone jump over a model of Tower Bridge to seal Britain’s first team jumping gold since 1952. The winning horse, Vindicat, became such a celebrity it was later sold to Bruce Springsteen’s daughter, Jessica.

This is the magic of the Games. Every four years — extended to five this summer by Covid — we become gripped by sports we would never otherwise go out of our way to watch, such as trampolining, fencing or beach volleyball.

Even athletics, the bread and butter of every Olympics since man first stripped off and went for a sprint through those Peloponnesian olive groves, has a quadrennial novelty. How many people watch a steeplechase or a triple jump or a shot put apart from during the Olympics?

Is breakdancing any less valid as a sport than rhythmic gymnastics?

It is why, with respect to the athletes who will compete in football, tennis and golf this summer, their sports never really feel as if they belong: they are too familiar, too well remunerated. This summer, we get to become experts in skateboarding, surfing, karate and rock climbing, all new on the programme. Next time, in Paris, breakdancing will join the party. Is it any less valid as a sport than rhythmic gymnastics or synchronised swimming?

When I covered the London Olympics, the last of the 15 British medals I saw was in the modern pentathlon: a contest concocted by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, godfather of the Games, to demonstrate the skills required of a Napoleonic soldier trapped behind enemy lines. Competitors have to run, swim, fight with pistol and sword and then ride an unfamiliar horse. Alas, he didn’t make it a heptathlon by adding competitive drinking and seduction.

The American entrant in the pentathlon in Stockholm in 1912, its first year, was George S Patton, three decades before he led the Third Army in the Battle of the Bulge. Despite missing the target three times in the shooting (he was using his US Army pistol, which had a much larger calibre than the others, and claimed he had been so accurate he shot through the same holes), the future four-star general came fourth in the fencing and third in the running, apparently while legally doped up on opium, to finish fifth overall.

A reader once told me that sports involve killing things. Hunting, shooting and fishing are sports, he said. Everything else is a pastime.

He would have enjoyed the live pigeon shooting at the 1900 Olympics. The rules were simple: kill as many birds as you can from 30 yards, once you miss two you’re out. The official Games report described the sport as “très aristocratique”. It was won by Léon de Lunden, a Belgian who bagged 21 of the 300 pigeons who nobly gave their lives.

Until 1992, Olympic organising committees could hold “demonstration” sports in the hope they might be adopted as full sports in time. Canoeing, basketball and volleyball, all demonstrated at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, eventually entered the full family; real tennis, pelota and la canne, a sort of martial art using a walking stick, were at the same Games but did not make the step up. Ten-pin bowling (Seoul, 1988), motorcycling (St Louis, 1904), water-skiing (Munich, 1972) and gliding (Berlin, 1936) have all had an outing.

Anything can be made a competition

The golden Games for oddities were in Paris in 1900. As well as those live pigeons, they had hot-air ballooning, tug of war, rope climbing, cannon shooting, pigeon racing and cricket, in which Montagu Toller took seven for nine as a team from Devon and Somerset beat France in the only match. Among the swimming events was a 200m obstacle race in the Seine in which competitors had to climb over or go under a series of boats. It was won by Fred Lane, an Australian, whose prize was a 50lb bronze statue of a horse.

The equestrian events included a long jump and a race for horses pulling a mail coach, while the motorsport golds were all claimed by France save for Gilbert Brown, of the US, who won driving a fire truck. Speaking of which, a team from Leyton represented Britain in the firefighting competition only to be just pipped to victory by los bombeiros of Porto.

Anything can be made a competition. Such is the essence of the Olympic spirit, one that should never be extinguished. Let Baron De Coubertin’s motto, which first appeared at the Games in 1924, be expanded for its centenary to Citius, Altius, Fortius, Absurdius. Faster, Higher, Stronger, Wackier.

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