Olympics Through the Ages

Yesterday, I read in an article in The Guardian that the  winner of the men’s 5000m race in the 2008 Beijing Olympics would have beaten the winner of the men’s 1500m race in 1908. They took this fact from a report created by researchers in the House of Commons, which also said that the winner of the women’s marathon in 2008 would have beaten the winner of the men’s race in 1908 by half an hour.

Interesting stuff.

It seems we are becoming superhuman – or godlike, if you will, like the Ancient Greeks. We (and I use the word “we” as opposed to “they” when I reference athletes as it makes me feel good about myself) just keep getting faster and stronger and breaking each other’s world records. We can’t help but push ourselves. So how did we get like this, and why weren’t we like it in the past?

A number of reasons:-

– money. People didn’t have the money for training regimes – especially women for obvious reasons in the past (on a side note, women have only been allowed to compete in all categories at the Olympics for the first time this year – the final sport being boxing. Strangely, there are still some sports that don’t allow men, such as synchronised swimming. Also, in the old days, people not deemed to be of a civilised origin had to compete in separate events i.e. in 1904, those from colonies such as Africa, out of fear of later revolts against the dominant world leaders and empires, were only allowed to compete in so-called “athletic events for savages”. Fast forward to the black power salute of the 1968 Olympics, and even to today with such programmes as Survival of the Fastest and race and genetics still play a very prominent role in modern Olympics).

– two world wars got in the way. Ducking bombs whilst out jogging is obviously too distracting.

– regarding jogging – although the term jogging has been referenced since Shakespeare’s day, with a slightly different meaning of “slight, quick movements”, it never really took off until the 1960s/1970s and in those days was called roadwork, something mainly used by athletes. My point is that the idea of keeping fit – jogging regularly being a main part of modern day fitness regimes – wasn’t really a habit of the general public until the second half of the 20th century. Yes, people did exercise, but it generally consisted of flapping your arms and legs around.

(Club swinging – a discontinued Olympic event)

Fitness regimes of athletes were probably not as hardcore as today’s athletes either, and they didn’t push themselves like others today. The idea was to ease your body into fitness, not pummel it into it. For example, you can chart the progression of the star jump – originally a simple stretch waving the arms up and down in the Victorian times, through to the Edwardians where the movement had progressed to doing the same action but holding weights as well, and finally towards the twenties and onwards where jumping becamed involved – forming the star jump. So in the old days, people did not have as deep an understanding of the human body as we do today. Nor did early modern Olympians have the same kind of diets. Or drugs. Or rather sport enhancing drugs we use today – past generations were also known to have taken drugs as I will describe later.

In terms of overt fitness or muscle tone, muscle-building is one thing that has been around since the late 1800s, promoted by the likes of Prussian Eugen Sandow with his Grecian Ideal, but his look was probably considered that of the other, and was not the norm. Yet, the Victorians and Edwardians did generally get into more outdoor sports and leisure activities, like cricket. This led to such games in the 1908 Olympics as the popular sport of pedestrianism.

This was basically long distance walking brought about by the Victorian love of the great outdoors. But we aren’t talking a simple 3-hour race. Though they loved the great outdoors, this sport was gruelling and repetitive, as outlined in this article stating how one six-day pedestrianism race took place in one sports ring. Six days! That meant walking round and round and round and round… In fact, some people found the exercise so physically challenging, they often cut their thighs to relieve muscle tension. It’s easy to see why even Victorian athletes took drugs for pain relief in those days. As pharmacies were more relaxed during Victorian times, and were generally still experimenting themselves with many types of drugs, athletes would chew coca leaves, and take cocaine, strychnine and alcohol. However, this was all banned by the 1908 Olympics.

But still, the muscles we see in the Olympics today were a little less recognisable in the old days – a bit more deflated and, well, flabby. Roll back the clock to the Ancient Games, and there is an obvious difference.

1896 saw the first modern Olympic Games in Athens. The Ancient Olympics didn’t actually take place in Athens, but in Olympia, beginning in 776 BC and continuing every four years (known as an olympiad) around the time of the summer solstice. Any free man from any country and state could compete as long as he spoke Greek, but women couldn’t attend. There were a few differences between the Ancient Olympics and the modern Games of around the turn of the 20th century. My first point regards muscles. Look at these Ancient Classical Greek artefacts:

The Ancient Greeks tried to model themselves on the Olympic Gods in body and in mind – hence their gymnasiums and games such as the Olympics, and also through studying all different subjects. The Olympics was a religious event dedicated to the gods – mainly Zeus and Hera. Of course, we can’t expect that every Greek looked like the two bronze Riace Warriors above (not least because elements of these figures just don’t make sense: muscles are over-defined, and they are actually missing their coccyx bones. Though they seem highly realistic, they are still works of art and emphasize the supposed perfection of the Ancient Greek body), but perhaps many of the athletes did.

I always remember my Classics teacher at school telling us that when sculptures like this were first discovered, the people laughed at the muscle definition, simply because they didn’t realise these muscles existed.

Ancient Greeks did also compete in the nude, if not to prove they were men and legible to enter the Games, but also to show off their fine physiques. In the old days, there were fewer events, but these included things like the 192m sprint race, which involved contestants running down a straight, or a stade as it was known – the length of the stadium, round a wooden stake, and back down the straight they came down to the starting line.

On this vase, showing such sprinters, there is obvious muscle definition, so we can only determine from all of these artefacts – regardless of artistic licensing – that they must have been very fit in the Ancient Games.

Another event was the pankration – a fighting sport with an anything goes kind of attitude, except it didn’t allow biting or eye-gouging. These men were obviously bulkier.

And of course chariot racing – dangerous and bloody. Prizes for the various Panhellenic Games, which the Olympic Games were a part of, involved a gift of whatever was the symbol for that event (for the Olympics, it was an olive wreath, known as kotinos), and a lot of public recognition – and much partying!

One event I always found intriguing was the ancient technique for the long jump, part of the pentathlon.

They did it from a standing position (even in the original modern day Olympics they did the long jump from a standing position) and held weights, swinging them backwards and forwards before taking a leap. Apparently the weights pulled them further forward and steadied their landing.

Here are some modern games that are no longer practised:

Tug-of-war

Yes, the tug-of-war. A very British game, which would explain who came first in all three places in 1908: Gold went to the City of London Police, Silver to the Liverpool Police, and Bronze to the Metropolitan Police “K” Division. I wonder if this event would ever have made it to the Games if Rome had in fact held them as intended, and not Britain who stepped in when Mt Vesuvius erupted on April 7, 1906. As of this year, Britain will be the only country to have held a record of three Olympic Games – 1908, 1948 and 2012. At the 1948 Olympics, Germany and Japan were strictly prohibited from entering.

I did a tug-of-war once with loads of other local children, and I remember being pulled forward along with the rest of my side so fast that I tumbled over onto a topless man with a massive beer belly who was lying out on the floor. I lost my balance and sat on his beer belly twice. Yes, tug-of-wars remind me of sunny, summer days – not that we’ll apparently see much of that at this year’s Olympics, which will be another record for Britain: it is due to be the wettest Olympic Games in history (most events will be wet t-shirt competitions – wahey!).

Archery

In this picture, we see the British women’s archery team who won all lead position. This may have been due to the fact that Britain was the only nation to have a women’s team…

The Plunge/Swimming Obstacle Race/Underwater Swimming

The Olympics used to feature a whole host of swimming events which you can see being relived here by Sports Relief on the BBC. My favourite is the obstacle race which involved such things as swimming under a boat and climbing up and down a pole.

Delivery Van Driving

In the 1900 Olympics in Paris, this was an unofficial event as part of the World Fair. In fact, there were all forms of motor racing at this event, including a taxi race, 7 seater car race, 2 seater car race… the list goes on.

And a few more  that have gone out of fashion over the years:

Live pigeon shooting

Rope climbing

Long distance horse jumping

Poodle clipping

Solo synchronised swimming

Club swinging (as pictured above)

Hot air balloon racing

It seems the older modern day Games had a much more lighthearted feel. I for one am going to propose a slippery pole competition for this year’s Games – if it’s not too late.