It need not be strictly in the viewpoint of a gourmet alone. But even then, the Olympic Games — the ultimate in sporting excellence and entertainment — is a veritable feast.
And as one digs in through the pages of history, the mystique which surrounds the quadrennial extravaganza is certain to tease and pamper the taste buds much like the different dishes of a 36-course Kashmiri wazwan.
Indeed, it is hard to ask for more. Even if the main course herein remains repetitive to an extent.
But again, it could never be stale, as the superlative performances have remained the hallmark of the Games and kept mankind in a state of enthral since Athens 1896; the images of those champions who have stood on the podium and the sweat, toil and determination helping them to get there being an inspiration.
However, beyond these great athletes and their fabulous deeds, the Games is also about several other things.
This story, essentially, is all about that and more, piecing together nuggets and throwing light to what has made the Games so sublime, iconic, crazy and bizarre over the years.
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A soul-stirring start
One of the most followed events of the Games is the opening ceremony in which the host country gets to showcase its cultural values and its prowess across fields of human endeavour. And, here again, what remains the key highlight is the lighting of the sacred Olympic flame — a ritual which was started in Amsterdam 1928.
While top stars of the host country were often given the honour of spreading the flame physically to the specially constructed cauldron through the preceding editions, Barcelona 1992 saw a difference as Paralympic archer, Antonio Rebello, signalled the start of the Games in a most spectacular fashion — firing a burning arrow from far away — leaving the world awestruck.
Staying with the ceremonies, another play up event is undoubtedly the marching in of the athletes representing the nations participating in the Games again in a particular fashion — Greece which hosted the inaugural edition — upfront and the host nation bringing up the rear.
Normally, athletes never formed part of the closing ceremony until then. But a novel practice was put in place in Melbourne 1956 as the Games moved to the southern hemisphere for the first time.
At the end of the Games, the participants instead of being categorised under flags of their respective nation, marched together at the close of the Games, marking a significant change in ceremony plan for ever.
This new move was initiated on the basis of a letter from a 17-year-old Chinese-Australian schoolboy, John Ian Wing, who wrote to Sir Wilfred Kent Hughes, the chair of the local organising committee: “I believe that it has been suggested that a march should be put on during the closing ceremony. During the march, there will be one nation. War, politics and nationality should be forgotten…. no team is to keep together and there should be no more than two team members together.”
The rest as they say is history, though it did require considerable effort on the part of the organisers as no marshalling area was marked originally and more buses had to be added to the schedule to transport the athletes. The tradition has been stuck to religiously since then.
Seoul 1988 did venture to add a new beginning but ended in a tragedy. The opening ceremony in the second Asian city to host the Games saw the release of pigeons — the symbols of peace — for the first time.
But with several of the released birds sadly being roasted by the flame in the cauldron, the IOC was quick to step in and ban the practice with immediate effect.
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A perfect 10
Gymnastics is one of the sporting disciplines which has been in the Olympic roster right from the start. Through the initial years only competitions for men were conducted and it was again Amsterdam 1928 which signalled the inclusion of women gymnastics in the fray for the medals.
But one moment that redefined the sport and the Olympic movement came only in Montreal 1976 when an unheralded pint-sized Nadia Comaneci from Romania, standing at 4ft. 11 inches and weighing only 39 kg, achieved what experts had always thought to be impossible — a perfect 10. Competing in the bars, the 14-year-old was just scintillating so as to achieve the first perfect10 in the sport. So unexpected was the result that the digital scoreboard was not actually set to display four digits. Instead, as the scores were fed, what it showed was 1.00.
At Montreal 1976, the unheralded, pint-sized Nadia Comaneci from Romania, standing at 4ft 11 inches and weighing only 39kg, achieved what experts had always thought to be impossible — a perfect 10. So unexpected was the result that the digital scoreboard was not actually set to display four digits. Instead, as the scores were fed, what it showed was 1.00. – AFP
While this technical hitch did leave the IOC red faced, what happened in Sydney 2000 only highlighted that even experts and the considerable effort that go behind in the conduct of each discipline are fallible. Or just imagine the surprise which emerged during the competition of women’s vault which saw many of the participants tumble badly until it was found out that the apparatus was set five centimetres too low than required. You cannot simply beat this.
The gymnasts, in general, are all lithe and supple in build, young and bubbling with energy. But back in St. Louis 1904, George Eyser was of a different mould. He competed with a wooden prosthesis, having lost his left leg after being run over by a train. Yet, the American was not to be stopped, winning six gold medals on a single day. His gold medal in the vault is still considered to be one of the greatest effort of the Games to this day, as the apparatus meant a jump over a long horse without the aid of a springboard. And impeccable, it certainly was.
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Young and old
The oldest man to compete and win an Olympic medal, we are sure, is Oscar Swahn. The Swedish shooter was 72 years and 281 days old when he won a silver medal in Antwerp 1920. This was his third straight Olympics having earlier participated in London 1908 and Stockholm 1912, taking part in a shooting discipline — running deer. Overall, he won six medals through his career and would have extended his record again in Paris 1924 for which he did qualify but did participate.
In case with the youngest Olympian, the story, however is a bit complex. Though almost the Olympic history is well laid out, certain finer points, at least from the early part, are quite debatable in the absence of a foolproof mention.
So we have two view points on who is the youngest Olympian ever. One, that of a young coxswain representing the Netherlands in Paris 1900 in the pair oars boat event. He was a last-minute replacement as the regular coxswain (Hermanus Brockmann) was determined to be too heavy. Only a picture of this boy (apparently aged seven according to one account) remains part of the Olympic history and no name recorded. So, generally, Greek gymnast, Dimitrios Louundras, who at 10 years and 218 days, is considered the youngest of all time and winner of an Olympic medal, winning bronze in the team event.
British rider Lorna Johnstone remains the oldest woman participant (Munich 1972) at 70 years and 5 days, while, American archer Lida Peyton Pollock oldest female medallist at 63 years and 333 days (St. Louis, 1904). The youngest winner of a medal in this category is Italian gymnastic Luigina Giavotti (11 years, 301 days) in Amsterdam 1928.
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Starting 1930s, a huge controversy with regard to gender did emerge so much so that the American sprinter Helen Stephens — who won the 100m gold in Berlin 1936 with an upset win over the then reigning world record holder, Stefania Walasiewicz (Poland) — was accused of being male. A subsequent examination confirmed her to be female. Her rival, silver medallist Stefania who later migrated to the United States and took the anglicised name of Stella Walsh, ironically, was reported to be found to have testes when she was autopsied in 1980, after being killed in a firing incident.
Another participant of the same Games, Dora Ratjen of Germany, who finished fourth in the women’s high jump, later, controversially, admitted to being a man, started living as one, and changed her name to Heinrich.
These two instances was what paved to gender testing in sport — a touche subject and outrightly contested by women and human rights activists, which, from Sydney 2000 has been discontinued at the Olympics. The only woman participant, in the interim, who was not subjected to the gender test remains Princess Anne of the Great Britain, who took part in equestrian in Montreal 1976. As the daughter of the British Queen, Elizabeth II, as such a test was seen as inappropriate.
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One of a kind
Philip John Baker was the flag-bearer of the British flag at the opening ceremony in Antwerp 1920 before winning the silver medal in the men’s 1500m. Years later, he was bestowed with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for his contribution towards disarmament. Baker is the only person, to date, to win an Olympic medal and the Nobel Prize.
Right or Left, an ageless champion
Some are born champions. It seems to be especially so in the case of Karoly Takacs, who was to undergo a tough ride before emerging Olympic champion. The Hungarian right-handed shooter was denied a place in the Hungarian squad for Berlin 1936 on the flimsy ground that he was only a sergeant in the Hungarian army as the prevailing rule in that country defined that only commissioned officers will be eligible to compete under the National flag.
Hungarian Karoly Takacs was in agony after he injured his right hand when a faulty grenade exploded. However, he returned to practice and switched to shooting with his left hand and won the Olympic gold medal in London 1948, clinching the 25m rapidfire pistol. He repeated the feat four years later, in Helsinki 1952. – The Hindu Photo Library
Takacs suffered another agony when he injured his right hand when a faulty grenade exploded. However, the iron in the Hungarian was on full display as he returned to practice and switched to shooting with his left hand. But as ill-luck would have it for Takacs, the Games of 1940 and 1944 were cancelled due to World War II.
Still, he persisted and landed his ambition of winning the Olympic gold medal in London 1948, winning the 25m rapid fire pistol at the age of 38. He repeated the same feat four years later, in Helsinki 1952. What a champion!
It is not often that athletes who fail to qualify in the heats get to international fame. This happened in the case of Eric Moussambani in Sydney 2000. The swimmer from Equatorial Guinea had taken to the sport only eight months prior to the Games and had received an invitation to take part through a wildcard, provided by the IOC to athletes from those countries which lack in training facilities.
Moussambani had never seen an Olympic size pool before he got to Sydney. Imagine his plight when he was forced to compete in his heat all alone after his two rivals for the race were disqualified for false starts.
Equatorial Guinea’s Eric Moussambani had never seen an Olympic size pool before he got to Sydney in 2000. Imagine his plight when he was forced to compete in his heat all alone after his two rivals for the race were disqualified for false starts. Yet, he finished the two lap race in 1:52.72, the slowest timing in the 100m freestyle ever recorded in Olympic history. However, his fighting qualities of competing alone and finishing the race did gain Moussambani international recognition. – Reuters
Yet, he finished the two lap race in 1:52.72, the slowest timing in the 100m freestyle ever recorded in Olympic history.
Naturally, he failed to advance despite the fact that the time was a personal best and also bettered the existing National record.
However, his fighting qualities of competing alone and finishing the race did gain Moussambani international recognition.
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The Games and the tinsel world
The inspiring stories on the achievements of athletes at the Games, too, has found its echo in the tinsel world, across the world, time and again.
Perhaps, the best among this genre is the Chariots of Fire, a British historical production which went on to win the British Academy award for the Best Picture and Screenplay in 1981.
A good satirical version of the Olympics which could send anyone to nuts, is the 1972 French production, Crazy Boys of the Game, which ran to full houses then. In all, over 30 full length films, produced world wide, do feature themes taken out from the Olympics. This is besides the production of documentaries, which have been made in plenty.
The Games made a suitable contribution to Hollywood in the form of Johnny Weissmuller, who was featured in the title role in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan in ‘Tarzan the Ape Man’ (1932) and its five sequels. Prior to shifting focus to acting, the American won the 100m freestyle, and the 400m and 800m freestyle relays, besides a bronze in waterpolo, at Paris 1924. He successfully defended the 100m freestyle and 400m relay golds at Amsterdam 1928. He was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1955. – The Hindu Photo Library
The Games, in return, also made a suitable contribution to Hollywood, in the form of Johnny Weissmuller who was featured in the title role in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan in ‘Tarzan the Ape Man’ (1932) and its five sequels.
The American prior to shifting focus to acting won the 100m freestyle, the 400m and 800m freestyle relays, besides a bronze in waterpolo, in 1924 Paris. He successfully defended the 100m freestyle and 400m relay golds in 1928 Amsterdam. In later years, he was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1955.