Games of the XXX Olympiad by Angela Caldin

The Olympics are imminent and those of us in London for the duration are wondering how it will all turn out. We’ve had the embarrassment of the graffiti-style logo and the mascots, Mandeville and Wenlock. We’ve had the failure to recruit enough security people and the decision to bring in the army. We’ve had the controversy over rooftop missile defence systems, which have been installed in spite of residents’ objections. We’ve had the confusion over the Olympic road lanes and who can use them when, closely followed by the rephasing of traffic lights causing serious congestion. We’ve had the recruitment of coach drivers from Scotland sent out untrained to drive athletes across the capital, only to get hopelessly lost. What else can go wrong?

From the beginning, controversy has dogged the Olympics. Established in 776 BC as a religious festival, the Games soon saw arguments over doping, bribery, politics and biased judging. Boycotts were common and punishments severe. Any athlete or trainer who failed to obey the rules of the Games could be publicly whipped by the mastigophorai (whip-bearers), and heavy fines were levied against offenders. The first recorded cheat was Eupholus of Thessaly who, in 388 BC, bribed three boxers to lose. He was fined and the money used to erect a statue of Zeus outside the stadium to appease the gods and to warn other potential cheats. Soon, there was a line of statues, each with a detailed description of the offence. A famous controversy involved Emperor Nero, who, in the Games of 67 AD, bribed his way to laurels. He competed in the chariot races with a 10-horse team, only to be thrown from his chariot. Even though he didn’t finish, he was still proclaimed the winner on the grounds that he would have won if he had been able to finish.

When the Olympic Games resumed in 1896 under the guidance of Pierre de Coubertin, problems arose despite de Coubertin’s noble intentions. In the men’s marathon during the rather disorganised 1904 Olympics in St Louis, American runner Frederick Lorz crossed the finish line first, but officials discovered that he had covered most of the course by car. The second-place winner, British-born Thomas Hicks, had been given a potentially fatal mix of strychnine and brandy by his trainers to keep him going. Not surprisingly, he collapsed after crossing the finish line and might have died if four doctors hadn’t attended him.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics are remembered not only because Hitler used the Games to advance the Nazi cause, but also because of the black athlete Jesse Owens. Owens set several records, including the 100 metres, the 200 metres, and the long jump, disproving Hitler’s theory that blond, blue-eyed  athletes would win. Owens became a superstar with the German fans, but Hitler reportedly snubbed him. Owens later said he didn’t feel snubbed and that Hitler waved at him. Owens did add, however, that he felt snubbed by Presidents Roosevelt and Truman who never invited him to the White House or offered him any honours.

The months preceding the 1968 Olympics in Mexico saw increased activity concerning civil rights. American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who came in first and third in the men’s 200 metre race, showed their support for the Black Power movement’s racial equality campaign by raising clenched fists during the American national anthem.  Both were suspended from the US team and evicted from the Olympic Village.

The darkest day in Olympic history occurred on September 5, 1972, during the Munich Games. Eight men who were members of Black September, a terrorist group linked to the Palestine Liberation Organization, entered the Israeli quarters in the Olympic Village, killed two people, and took nine Israelis hostage. They demanded the release of 200 Arab guerrillas and a plane to take them and the hostages to an undisclosed location. By the end of the nightmare, in what some say was a botched rescue attempt, 11 terrorists, nine athletes, and one West German police officer were dead.

The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were remarkable for the women’s 3,000 metre race. South Africa was banned from the Games because of its apartheid policies, but Zola Budd, a white South African, was allowed to compete as a British citizen because she had a British-born grandfather. Anti-apartheid campaigners were furious and tensions increased when American pre-race favourite Mary Decker and Budd collided during the race, causing Decker to fall and to be carried from the track. The American crowd booed Budd and, clearly affected by the incident, she could finish only seventh.

Other scandals have included the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson who broke the world record during the men’s 100 metres at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, beating the favoured American, Carl Lewis.  But just three days after he won gold, Johnson’s drug test came back positive and he was stripped of his world record and gold medal. In 1994, before the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, Nancy Kerrigan, a gold medal favourite, was whacked above the right knee with a black baton. Investigators later found that her competitor, Tonya Harding and her ex-husband were involved. Harding was placed on three years’ probation, fined and sentenced to 500 hours community service.

Do we even want the Games in the light of so many problems? People in London can be heard murmuring this under their breath as they struggle to get to work, as they read of yet another threatened strike and as another few millions are added to the ever escalating bill. My hope is that they will pass off without a major incident or scandal, that they will be enjoyable, and that it won’t rain too much.  In the long term, I hope that they really will regenerate the east end of London and that young people will be encouraged to aim for excellence in sport.

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