I’ve been up half the night watching the Olympics from Rio. Wonderful spectacle, great athletes competing at the highest levels. Heroic efforts, smiles and tears all the best of our human talents on show. What is there not to like?
Well if you’re a Brit there’s much to shout about, more medals than you can shake a stick at, huge TV coverage at home and a great sense of national pride.
However, there are many issues that spring to mind not least the contrasts between the rich and poor countries, but the differences between then 1900 and now 2016.
Firstly the historic contrasts many of which are both astonishing and amusing.
In 1900 no opening or closing ceremonies were held; competitions began on May 14 and ended on October 28. In total, 997 competitors took part in 19 different sports. Women took part in the games for the first time and sailor Hélène de Pourtalès became the first female Olympic champion. The decision to hold competitions on a Sunday brought protests from many American athletes, who travelled as representatives of their colleges and were expected to withdraw rather than compete on their religious day of rest.
Most of the winners in 1900 did not receive medals, but were given cups or trophies. Professionals surprisingly competed in fencing and Albert Robert Ayat (France), who won the épée for amateurs and masters, was awarded a prize of 3000 francs.
Some unusual events were contested for the only time in the history of the Games, including automobile and motorcycle racing, ballooning, cricket, croquet, Basque pelota, and 200m swimming obstacle race and underwater swimming. This was also the only Olympic Games in history to use live animals (pigeons) as targets during the shooting event. Three marathon runners from the United States contested the result saying the French runners who got first and second places took a short cut, and the proof was they were the only contestants not spattered with mud.
The medals were shared between six different nations. There is a debate as to whether the live pigeon shooting event was a full Olympic event, Belgian Leon Lunden shot twenty-one birds on his way to the championship. Up to thirty unofficial shooting events were also held.
Golf was played as again this year, the 36 hole tournament was won with 82-85 by a mere one stroke.
The women’s division was a stage for many firsts that occurred in the Olympic Games. Not only was this the first time women were ever able to compete in the Olympic Games, the women’s division was won by Margaret Abbott of Chicago Golf Club. Abbott shot a 47 over 9 holes to win and became the first ever American female to win a gold medal in the Olympic Games; second overall female. She never received a gold medal because she was given a bowl. Abbott’s mother also competed in this Olympic event and finished tied for seventh, shooting a 65. They were the first and only mother and daughter that have ever competed in the same Olympic event and at the same exact time. Margaret never knew that they were competing in the Olympics, she thought it was a normal golf tournament and died not knowing. Her children had no idea that their mother was the first ever American female gold medalist until they were contacted by University of Florida professor Paula Welch. It took Welch ten years to track down Abbott’s family.
Rugby sevens was introduced in 2016 whereas is 1900 full fifteen aside rugby union was played. Three teams competed in the Rugby tournament. A French representative team defeated a team from of Frankfurt and Moseley Wanderers from England. The Moseley team had played a full game of rugby in England the day before they made the journey to Paris. They arrived in the morning, played the match in the afternoon and were back in their home country by the next morning. The proposed game between the British and German sides was cancelled and both are credited as silver medalists. The Franco-Haitian centre Constantin Henriquez become the first black gold medalist.
Dead pigeons, absent minded golfers and professional fencers all part of the glorious elite at play! A place for the likes of Bertie Wooster and caddy shack characters, but still the elite of their day.
Is 2016 so very different? Well obviously it is, the brilliant and extravagant opening ceremony, the Brazilian Government lashing out billions on national prestige whilst the country labours in economic drudgery. Professionals in every event, no one entering on a whim for a game of golf or tennis.
The rich nations dominate because they pour money into their athletes as the Olympic Games is now a show place for national status. This is fine at least for them, but how about those who cannot afford to compete?
It seems that the world continues to be blighted by the contrasts between rich and poor. We’ll see very few long distance runners from Tibet or Bangladesh, or cyclists from Rwanda.
Does this sad state negate the value of the Olympic Games? If anyone saw the titanic struggle between Mo Farah and his adversaries, or Andy Murray and the brave Martin del Potro cannot but admire these world elite athletes and their dedication to their sport. Let’s rejoice in their perfect attainment.
Then there is perhaps the greatest event of all, The Para-Olympics which goes a long way to granting elite status to those who have disabilities however they were attained in war or by accident of birth. Surely every bit as inspiring as the Olympics.
But let’s not forget that there may well be the fastest man or woman in the world clearing sewage or sewing sports shirts in Bangladesh.