The trouble with the modern Olympics is that they’ve totally abandoned the spirit of the ancient games and sold their soul to sponsors, professionalism, and cheating, not to mention the worst traffic jams you’re ever likely to see in a modern city. That, in any case, was the opinion of Pausanius writing nearly 2000 years ago about the games organised by the Romans.
He had a point, but luckily some things have improved over the years. McDonalds has been mocked for insisting their deal gives them an exclusive right to sell chips at London 2012 (TM), but as historian Mary Beard points out, at least they don’t expect their CEO to be allowed to compete in the sport of his choice. When Nero bankrolled the games, he insisted on driving in the chariot race. And getting the laurel wreath, despite as Professor Beard points out, coming technically what we’d call “last” after falling off at the first bend.
In his defence, he did actually race, for a few metres anyway. In the Greek tradition, the winner was the team’s owner, not the sweaty riffraff on the track, which is how a Spartan princess became the first woman to win Olympic gold. Well, not quite gold, only some twigs and leaves, and there was none of this nonsense of giving a prize to the first and second loser. The medals came with de Coubertin’s modern games as did a range of other traditions, from the Hitler-inspired Olympic torch to the Brezhnev-inspired special traffic lanes. One of the weirdest inventions is the length of the marathon, practically a sprint compared to the original it claims to imitate. The distance varied until the London games in 1908 when Queen Alexandra insisted it start under the windows of the nursery at Windsor Castle, 26 miles, 385 yards from the finishing line in the stadium.
Other innovations from these earlier games have since disappeared, including shooting at deer, pigeons, and each other (I’m not 100% sure of this, but the records show an event called “duelling pistols”). Likewise, the poetry medal has gone, despite de Coubertin himself winning it with an effort that included the unforgettable line “Sport, thou art fertility”. And what fun it must have been to assist at the town planning competition! Shame they didn’t have slow motion replays on the telly.
If you never get beyond freestyle pole dancing or synchronised shoplifting on GuySports, you may wonder why anybody would go to all the trouble and expense of organising anything with so many dull moments as the Olympics in the first place. The answer doesn’t seem to have changed over the millennia. Cities and countries feel that sport is a good investment in their image, as well as a boost to the economy, and even in the golden age they were prepared to spend on success. It’s highly suspicious that the otherwise unremarkable town of Kroton was home to 11 of the 26 victors in the prestigious stadion race between 588 and 488 BC, compared with 2 for its nearest rival, as well as 20 of the 71 known gymnastics champions. Sounds to me like Manchester City or Paris St Germain buying up the stars.
Does it work? The Insights blog is proud to be sponsored by the OECD which has studied the impact of big events on the organising cities, and in 2010 produced a peer review of the Olympic and Paralympic legacy for East London. For me, the most interesting part is when it implicitly rejects the Olympics’ schizophrenic mixture of nationalism and individualism, arguing that to realise the legacy of London 2012, “it will be important to tell the story of east London’s inhabitants very much better. The area has a rich history as a centre for trade, logistics, and production, for hardworking people of exceptional character, for immigration and asylum… and for making lives worth living in ways they would not have been lived otherwise.”
Faster, higher, stronger versus friendly, adventurous, innovative. Take your choice.
Other OECD work could have helped to prevent a major tragedy if it had been published a couple of thousand years earlier. After the boxer Kleomedes was disqualified in 492 BC, he went to a school in his home town and pulled away the column holding up the roof, which collapsed killing 60 children. Our work on school safety doesn’t address proofing the building against bad losers as such, but it does give plenty of sound advice about construction standards.