Friday, 27 April 2012

The Olympics – a Tale of Pros, Cons, Hacks, Heroes & Heartaches

It would take an unusually inattentive Londoner not to realise that in three months’ time the Olympic juggernaut will be rolling into town. Not yet are the streets festooned in flags, bunting and the Olympic rings (officially merchandised of course…) but the posters are getting ever more ubiquitous, the ‘buzz’ is more audible, and some of us are discussing heading for the hills, if we haven’t taken up the offer to rent our flats out for £8,000 a week as per the ad splashed on the tube last week.

For the phlegmatic rest of us life will go on, albeit one a little more crowded, busy, exasperating and exciting. London is both a ‘world city’, home to expats from almost every corner of the globe, and an old hand, having hosted the summer Olympic Games twice before in 1908 and 1948. Times of course were different then: in 1908 sport was still wholly amateur (and largely male) and amateur meant gentlemen of leisure; in 1948 the world was still recovering from the traumas of six years of war, and the Wembley Olympics were very much a make-do affair as can be seen in Janie Hampton's 'Austerity Olympics'.
Today the talk is of ‘legacy’, for the sportier elements of the nation as a whole and for the inhabitants of East London. Too many past Olympics have left debts and white elephants but now accountability is all the rage. Taxpayers’ money is handed over to the organising committee who answer to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Exclusive merchandising rights are sold to the usual subjects; expect a summer of burgers, fizzy drinks and trainers. And money. Not everyone is convinced, check out Iain Sinclair’s trenchant arguments in ‘Ghost Milk’ and perhaps be afraid.

It is perhaps at this point I should declare an interest in these games: I’m a slightly abashed Olympic stat nerd: ‘Bermuda? Yep, one bronze medal in boxing. Montreal 1976.’ ‘Monaco? ’65 year old Paul Cerutti disqualified for taking amphetamines in ’76 despite coming 43rd out of a field of 44.’ All human life is here and I want to watch it although I don’t particularly wish to pay for it (or have to walk to work). What will the opening ceremony be like? How will Danny Boyle and Underworld tackle the thousand year history of empire and fighting the French without offending anyone, and let’s face it we’ve fought the Dutch, the Germans, the Irish, the Americans, the Japanese, Russians and Chinese at some point or other? Will they jump from 1066 to the swinging Sixties? Will there be Morris dancing??

It’s easy to be turned off, angered, protest camped by the spectacle, the hype, the money, the spoilt millionaires, the toffs and the bureaucrats but many individual medallists’ stories show people struggling against immense odds: poverty, crippling disease, discrimination, bullying, and wartime incarceration, before they bow their heads to receive their medals.
1960 100m sprint champion Wilma Rudolph was born prematurely, suffered polio, double pneumonia and scarlet fever, and wore a brace until the age of 11. She was also one of 22 children of a poor Tennessee Afro-American family. Her Olympic triumph came at a time when the profile of black women in the world was practically negligible. Since the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 the profile of the competitors has mirrored the changes in society and the world. What was a white, male, aristocratic elite playground now encompasses women from all corners of the world with China dominating table tennis and diving, Indonesians winning at badminton, Ethiopian girls from poor, remote villages dominating the long distance running events, and Arab women from the Middle East and the Maghreb shaking off societal disapproval to compete and win. The rise of working class athletes, of black and African athletes, of women athletes from the developing world, the appearance of openly gay/lesbian athletes, and paralympians, racial politics, Cold War politics, gender politics and gender bending Nazis …it’s all there in the Olympics, mirroring the changes in society:

Lis Hartel of Denmark, dressage champion in 1952, not only the first civilian and woman to win the gold in an event that had unbelievably been open only to commissioned officers (male of course) until 1948, she had polio and had to be helped on and off her horse.

Duncan Goodhew, British breaststroke swimmer and gold medallist 1980, bullied at school for being bald and dyslexic.

Camilla Andersen of Norway and Mia Hundvin of Denmark, the first married couple to compete against each other, in the women’s handball tournament in Sydney 2000.

Poland’s Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz’s rather rude gesture to the partisan Soviet crowd in Moscow 1980 after winning the pole vault gold (Google it…)
Dora Ratjen, German high jumper in Berlin 1936 who was actually Herman Ratjen and had been ordered by the Hitler Youth Movement to compete as Dora… teammates were alerted by his/her five o’clock shadow. 

Bruce Kennedy, a javelin thrower picked for the Rhodesian team to Munich 1972 and Montreal 1976, games from which the Rhodesians were barred due to the regime’s racial policies, made it onto the American team for Moscow 1980. The American team were made to boycott...

And finally China’s 1992 silver-medal winning shot putter Huang Zhihong who loathed her event: "If I knew the shot would make me so fat, I wouldn’t have taken it up."

Meanwhile the British seem to be expert at anything that involves sitting: cycling, rowing, sailing & equestrianism. If there was a competition for TV viewing we’d doubtless romp home first too…

I’m indebted to the Olympic bible: David Wallechinsky & Jaime Loucky’s 'Complete Book of the Olympics 2012 edition' for the nerd facts and stats quoted.


No comments:

Post a Comment