[Paleopsych] TLS: Mary Beard: Olympics, keep out

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Mary Beard: Olympics, keep out
The Times Literary Supplement, 4.7.9

    How sportsmen failed with money, women and drugs - but kept poetry at

    ATHENS TO ATHENS. The official history of the Olympic Games and the
    IOC, 1896-2004. David Miller. 576pp. Mainstream. £35 (US $65). 1 84018
    587 2.

    THE ANCIENT OLYMPICS. Nigel Spivey. 273pp. Oxford University Press.
    Pounds 12.99 (US $28). - 0 19 280433 2.

    ANCIENT GREEK ATHLETICS. Stephen G. Miller. 280pp. Yale University
    Press. £25 (US $35). - 0 300 10083 3.

    OLYMPICS IN ATHENS 1896. Michael Llewellyn Smith. 256pp. Profile.
    £16.99. - 1 86197 342 X.

    In the Stockholm Olympics of 1912, the American athlete Jim Thorpe
    pulled off an astonishing double: he romped home, a record-breaking
    first (in one case 598 points ahead of his nearest rival) in both the
    decathlon and the pentathlon. The King of Sweden presented him with a
    bronze bust to celebrate this feat, remarking as he handed it over,
    "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world". Disarmingly (or
    subversively) informal, Thorpe is said to have replied, "Thanks,

    This story of cheeky American heroism - later turned into a movie
    starring Burt Lancaster as Thorpe - has a bitter sequel. As David
    Miller explains in Athens to Athens: The official history of the
    Olympic Games and the IOC, 1896-2004, a few months later Thorpe was
    revealed to have accepted payment, little more than pocket money, for
    playing minor league baseball in North Carolina. Despite his apologies
    and ingenuous pleas of ignorance, the American Amateur Athletic Union
    reclassified him as a professional and the International Olympic
    Committee deleted his records from their books, stripped him of his
    medals and demanded the return of the bronze bust and of a precious
    chalice that had been given to him by an equally admiring Tsar
    Nicholas. It was not until 1982, thirty years after Thorpe's death
    ("penniless in a caravan park in California") that the IOC repented
    and sent his descendants some replica medals. There was more to this,
    Miller suggests, than intransigence. Racism played its part in the
    IOC's unbending line (Thorpe was of mixed race, more than half Native
    American). So also did the personal animosity of Avery Brundage, the
    "despotic, moralistic bulldozer" (nicknamed "Slavery Bondage") who was
    IOC President between 1952 and 1972. Brundage himself had competed in
    the decathlon and pentathlon in 1912; in the pentathlon he had come in
    sixth, in the decathlon "a dilatory fifteenth".

    Miller tells a fascinating tale of more than a century of modern
    Olympic Games, from Athens 1896 to Athens 2004, backed up by 150 pages
    of statistics on participating countries, records, medal winners and
    IOC members. These are less dry than they sound, particularly in the
    glimpse they offer of what Miller politely calls "discontinued
    sports": cricket, croquet and the equestrian high jump, for example,
    all played once only, in the Paris Games of 1900; as well as the
    slightly better established rugby union, running deer shooting and tug
    of war, which lasted respectively from 1900 to 1924, 1908 to 1924
    (plus a brief revival in the 50s) and 1900 to 1920. It is hard,
    reflecting on this graveyard of Olympic events, not to wonder which
    will be the next to go: dressage and trap-shooting look like plausible
    candidates, making their way for more curling, synchronized swimming
    and beach volleyball, all of which are newcomers of the past twenty

    For an "official history", Athens to Athens is remarkably frank. There
    are, of course, plenty of disasters to dwell on (most tragically the
    assassination of Israeli competitors by Black September at Munich in
    1972). But in general Miller's detailed narrative is a powerful
    antidote to the modern nostalgia which likes to imagine that -
    Hitler's 1936 Games apart - political infighting, bad sportsmanship
    and corruption are anything new in Olympic history. There has never
    been an Olympic Games that has gone "smoothly" in that sense. In Paris
    in 1900, for example, the final of the long jump sparked religious
    controversy when it was scheduled for a Sunday and the winner was the
    only one who was willing to compete on the Lord's Day (his arch rival,
    though Jewish, had refused to go ahead on grounds of religious
    solidarity - and a punch-up nearly ensued when the victor refused to
    replay on the Monday). In London eight years later, it was the turn of
    the tug of war to provoke an international incident: the Americans
    called foul and lodged high-level complaints about the unfair footwear
    worn by the British teams - regulation policemen's boots with steel
    toecaps. This, combined with nationalistic disputes about the absence
    of the Stars and Stripes from the flags flying in the main stadium,
    forced the British to publish a pamphlet in defence of their
    administration, Replies to Criticisms of the Olympic Games.

    If we stand back from these individual conflicts and squabbles, the
    history of Olympic organization comes across in Miller's account as a
    history of the IOC's attempts to hold the line against a series of
    more or less unwelcome intrusions into the Olympic world and Olympic
    ideology. One of the first of these intrusions was women. There were
    no women competitors in Athens in 1896, but in 1900 there were
    official women's events for the "ladylike" sports of golf and tennis
    with figure skating added in 1908, swimming and gymnastics in 1912.
    This gradual encroachment was quite against the will of the founder of
    the modern Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who insisted in 1912 that
    women "did not constitute a proper spectacle for the audience", while
    trailing the horrific possibility of women runners or football
    players. In fact, female Olympic runners were less than two decades
    away, thanks largely to a tough campaign by a woman rower, Alice

    She launched a rival series of women's Olympics, which forced the hand
    of the IOC, who then reluctantly conceded a place for women in a wide
    range of track and field events. By 2000, only boxing and wrestling
    were closed to them, though Athens 2004 promises female wrestling. It
    is not now women who are the threat: the IOC's current bogey is
    "performance-enhancing substances". If their past record on "keeping
    the enemy out" is anything to go by, we can confidently predict a
    performance-enhanced Games by 2020.

    In 1912, when Thorpe was stripped of his titles, the chief Olympic
    enemy was the professional sportsman, the vulgar money-making creature
    who threatened the purity of the high-minded amateur competitor who
    was simply playing the game (or, to put it another way, the enemy was
    the working-class lad who needed the cash to continue training, and
    who threatened the upper middle-class, Oxbridge/Ivy League club that
    dominated the Olympic community in almost every competing nation).
    Professionalism continued to be top of the IOC's hit list through the
    Presidency of Brundage and into the 1980s, when the amateur status of
    competitors was still obsessively policed despite the fact - or
    perhaps because of the fact - that in many sports the distinction
    between amateur and professional was increasingly hard to determine
    (were, for example, the full-time gymnasts of the Eastern bloc
    "amateur" in any recognizable sense?). In the end, as Miller makes
    clear, it was tennis that let the professionals in, for the simple
    reason that high-level tennis (which the IOC was keen to bring back
    into the Olympic fold after a sixty-year absence) was irremediably
    professional. But this was not before several other athletes had had
    the Thorpe treatment, wherever there was a whiff of advertising
    revenues or commercial sponsorship.

    Even more than the exclusion of women, the ban on professionals was
    justified by appeal to the tradition of the original, ancient Greek,
    Olympics. Commenting on the Thorpe case, Coubertin himself turned to
    ancient precedent ("It is enough to remember the careful way antiquity
    allowed participation in the Olympics only to those athletes who were
    irreproachable") and Brundage, too, repeatedly harped on the shining
    example of pure Greek amateurism. In fact, quite how "amateur" (in our
    sense) the ancient Olympics were is a matter of some dispute. To be
    sure, the ancients themselves had a myth - not entirely dissimilar
    from our own myth of decline in the modern Games - that in the good
    old days the Olympic Games, like all sporting competition, had been
    the preserve of high minded aristocrats, but that eventually (and
    particularly under Roman influence) professionalism, commercialization
    and other forms of corruption had crept in and come to dominate. But
    Nigel Spivey, in his timely account, The Ancient Olympics, shows why
    we should question that simple model.

    There is, of course, as Spivey points out, conclusive evidence for the
    elite participating in Olympic events in the supposed classical heyday
    of the competition, between the sixth and fourth centuries bc; indeed
    the best poets of the time were hired to celebrate aristocratic
    successes. Then, as now, it was equestrian sports that tended to
    attract the rich and snobbish. The infamous and well-connected
    Alcibiades, for example, is supposed to have "opted for chariot-racing
    because he did not care to mix with the ruffians in the wrestling
    ring". (It was a safe option too, since in the ancient Olympics it was
    owning the team of horses in the chariot race, not driving them - a
    task often left to a slave or hired driver - that brought the honour
    of an Olympic victory.) But there is no reason to suppose that the
    elite ever deserted the competition, still less that chariot racing
    was ever, even in the depths of Roman rule, significantly
    democratized. Equally, there are strong reasons to suspect a wider and
    more "professional" involvement in Olympic competition from an early
    period. Nigel Spivey cites the example of the almost mythical athletic
    superstar of the late sixth century bc, Milon of Kroton, a Greek city
    in South Italy. Milon won six successive Olympic wrestling victories
    and he is written up in ancient accounts as an early professional
    strongman - and none too bright, at that (stories of his "diminutive
    brain" soon threatened to outnumber those of his athletic prowess).

    But it is not just a question of Milon's own professionalism. Stephen
    G. Miller, in his excellently documented and marvellously illustrated
    Ancient Greek Athletics, adds an intriguing twist to the Milon story.
    He points out that of the twenty-six Olympic victors in the "stadion
    race" (roughly the 200-metres sprint) between 588 and 488 bc, eleven
    came from Kroton, its nearest rival city scoring just two wins. Over
    the same period, of the seventy-one gymnastic victors whose names we
    know, twenty were also from Kroton. As Miller observes, it is
    extremely odd that a single, and not particularly distinguished, South
    Italian town should produce almost 30 per cent of these victors. The
    figures alone suggest that there is more to this than meets the eye.
    Either the Krotoniates were even more fanatically keen on athletic
    training than the average Greek city (and about as "amateur" as the
    old Soviet bloc gymnasts). Or they were buying in professional talent
    from outside to boost their successes; for Kroton, read Arsenal or

    However we choose to explain the pre- eminence of Kroton in the
    classical Olympics, it is clear that Coubertin and Brundage's faith in
    the irreproachable Greek "amateur" did not entirely match up to the
    ancient evidence. The same is true of many other romantic visions that
    we project back, even now, onto the ancient Games. They were not a
    precursor of League-of-Nations-style internationalism, but rigidly
    nationalist and exclusively Greek; in the early fifth century bc, even
    a Macedonian King, Alexander I, did not qualify, and was thrown out by
    his fellow competitors as a "barbarian" (ironically, as Spivey
    suggests, it was not until the Roman Empire that the Games gained a
    truly cosmopolitan character). Even the famous Olympic Truce (which
    involved the cessation of all warfare around the time of the Games)
    was honoured in the breach as well as in the observance; in fact,
    during the Games of 364 bc, there was a full-scale battle at Olympia
    itself, when the local people of Elis, who traditionally controlled
    the site, marched in during the pentathlon to reclaim it from a rival
    city which had temporarily taken over.

    But the most famous piece of spurious antiquity associated with the
    modern Games must be the invention of the Marathon - the
    twenty-six-and-a-bit-mile race, often thought to commemorate a
    messenger who, in 490 bc, ran back from Marathon on the Athenian coast
    to the city itself, to announce the Athenian victory over the
    Persians. The best account of the invention of the Marathon is given
    in Michael Llewellyn Smith's sharp and elegant history of the first
    international modern Olympics, Olympics in Athens 1896. Without too
    much rancour, he exposes the self-seeking ambition of Baron de
    Coubertin, who proclaimed the reinvention of the ancient Games as his
    own - so riding roughshod over the rather better claims of Dr William
    Penny Brookes, who had hosted Olympics on a vaguely ancient model in
    Much Wenlock in Shropshire since the 1850s, and started a tradition of
    Shropshire Olympiads that continue, largely unnoticed, to this day.

    (I write as a native of Much Wenlock, who last competed in their
    Olympics in 1965.) Llewellyn Smith also captures brilliantly the
    atmosphere of Athens in the late nineteenth century, and offers one of
    the few accessible accounts of the wheeling and dealing by which the
    Great Powers filled the throne of Greece between the War of
    Independence and the end of the nineteenth century. More relevant to
    strictly Olympic history, he shows how, both in ancient and modern
    literature, a famous - and much longer, better-documented and more
    impressive -run between Athens and Sparta was twisted into the
    twenty-something-mile dash between the coast and Athens; and then how
    in the 1890s "another romantic Frenchman", Michel Breal, presented a
    silver cup for the winner of this new "Marathon", which has become
    such a prominent part of modern athletics.

    Its early days were less auspicious than we would now imagine. The
    first Marathon victor in 1896 was (to the delight of Athens) a Greek,
    Louis Spyridon, who beat off an international field of sixteen. The
    myth-making started almost instantly (the comfortably middle-class
    Spyridon was portrayed as, and made to act the part of, a Greek
    peasant, while being offered lucrative presents sponsorship deals in
    modern terminology - from leading manufacturers). So did the

    In that first Marathon race, the Greek competitor who came third was
    later judged to have hitched a lift in a carriage for part of the
    route (there were even rumours that Spyridon himself had been helped
    by a horse; his time in the race proper was, after all, suspiciously
    better than in the practice round). Later races only intensified the
    bad feeling. In Paris in 1900, the route was so circuitous that the
    eventual winner was believed to have taken a not quite so circuitous
    short cut. In 1904 in St Louis, it was so badly policed that
    (according to David Miller) several contestants were chased into
    adjacent fields by stray dogs. In 1908 in London, the Italian
    celebrity Dorando Pietri was helped to the finishing line by his
    supporters - though not including, as an erroneous rumour had it, Sir
    Arthur Conan Doyle - and so disqualified, only to be given a special
    silver cup as a consolation prize by Queen Alexandra the next day. It
    was, in fact, the Queen who inadvertently fixed the precise distance
    over which the Marathon is still run. In the earlier Olympics, the
    length of the race had varied. By insisting that it start underneath
    the windows of the royal nursery at Windsor, finishing in the Olympic
    Stadium, she gave us the 26 miles, 385 yards of today's race.

    There is a vast wealth of detail in all these accounts of the modern
    (and ancient) athletic contests; there is, however, a disappointing
    reticence about one aspect of the modern Games - the artistic Olympics
    which once ran alongside the sporting competition. It is true that
    cultural events still accompany the athletic events; and in Athens it
    is the refurbishment of the archaeological museums that is likely to
    be the most lasting legacy of the 2004 Olympics. But this is different
    from the situation between 1912 and 1948, when actual Olympic medals
    were offered for various - now forgotten - cultural competitions
    (architectural design, town planning, sculpture, painting, poetry,
    drama, epic), for work on themes associated with the Olympic ideal.
    Konstantinos Dimitriadis, for example, won a gold medal for sculpture
    in 1924 for an image of a "Finnish discus thrower";

    Ferenc Mezs a gold for epic in 1928 with a "History of the Olympic
    Games". One of the first gold-medal winners in 1912 was Baron de
    Coubertin himself (entering under a pseudonym) for an "Ode to Sport",
    which concluded: ". . . Sport thou art Boldness! / Sport thou art
    Honour! / Sport thou art Fertility! / Sport thou art Progress! / Sport
    thou art Peace!". (It reads no better in the original French.) This
    was exactly the same year in which Jim Thorpe was denied his two
    medals for having played some pocket-money baseball. It says a lot
    about the Olympic ideal of the early twentieth century that Coubertin
    could get away with this, while voting to disqualify "the greatest
    athlete in the world".

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