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History of Olympics: nasty, brutal and short
The Telegraph Book of the Olympics (Aurum Sport £20) is a collection of articles and readers’ letters chosen by Martin Smith, an ex-sports editor of the newspaper, starting with London
The book reflects the high quality of the paper’s sports reporting, and it is interesting to see how the writing style and the degree of deference have changed over the years in this anthology, part of a series that has included compilations on the Tour de France, Formula One and Wimbledon.
As expected, British successes feature more than most, at least where there have been successes. Some of the early problems remain familiar: there were difficulties with ticket sales for London 1908, when over-priced seats remained empty. The prices were reduced and the people came.
The weather in London was often poor. Organisation has improved since then: there was a lot of gamesmanship in 1908 (some might call it cheating), and it was charmingly amateur in many ways. The tug-of-war final was between two police teams, when the Met beat the Scousers. The marathon was memorable: the Italian Dorando Pietri was in the lead but very wobbly. He collapsed in the stadium and was helped to finish first, only to be disqualified for receiving help. The articles surrounding his notoriety are fascinating, especially his views on the disqualification.
The Telegraph reflected on the lack of track success at London 1948 for the home team, saying: “We are a long way behind the Americans in technique.” We thought we had won gold in 1948 in the 4x100m relay, but only because the faster American team, who had finished “eight yards ahead”, were disqualified for a faulty first change-over. We imagined we had been technically superior on that one occasion. But no, the Jury of Appeal saw a film of the changeover, revoked the disqualification, and so we only took silver. Ah well.
Although London 1908 and 1948 feature strongly, the book presents pieces from Olympics in between and since: Linford Christie and Sally Gunnell in Barcelona 1992; Steve Redgrave and Denise Lewis in Sydney 2000; Michael Johnson’s unbelievable running in Atlanta 1996; and Paula Radcliffe’s disappointment in Athens 2004. It concludes in Beijing 2008, with the hopefully prescient: “Nothing can top these Games, but, by paying attention to the people who really matter, the fans, London 2012 could do something equally memorable.”
In The Ancient Olympics (OUP £9.99) Nigel Spavey looks at the unusual history and bizarre nature of the games held at ancient Olympia. The author’s choice of title for the first chapter, ‘War minus the shooting’, reveals that those games were quite unlike our own.
We might conjecture that modern sport is a sublimation of violence, but the ancient Olympics were brutal and dangerous and there were fatalities (but not many).
When de Coubertin revived the Olympic Games as a celebration of goodwill and amateur athletics, it was a misrepresentation of history. Strenuous exercise was a civic duty, and was part of daily routine of caring for the self which also included sleep, food, washing and sex.
It combined with erotic and aesthetic elements to generate kalokagathia, or ‘beautiful goodness’. There are plenty of illustrations in the book to confirm this view.
The Olympics were held every four years for close to 1,200 years, and remained largely the same for that whole period. The contest enjoyed lasting renown throughout the Mediterranean because of its order and conduct. Taking part was not the main aim: athletes came to win. Indeed, our word athletics comes from a Greek verb meaning “to struggle for a prize”.
Contests were fierce and often bloody, and bribery and cheating were common. Winners were written into the victory register and became part of history.
The result was even more important socially than it is now. Politics was linked with sport, so the author has included the political history of Olympia from 776 BC up to the official closure of the site around AD 393.
The penultimate chapter explores the findings of modern archaeology and attempts to relate those to the myths of Olympia. This is an excellent book, full of fascinating detail and intelligent analysis. What happens at London 2012 may be a different story.