After what has seemed like a never-ending build-up, the London 2012 Olympic Games are finally upon us, luxuriously draped in all their gleaming regalia. The last time London was hosting, large parts of the city were just rubble, the athletes were housed in the RAF barracks at Uxbridge, and Britain's official football team were literally amateurs who'd never met. Back then, in 1948, Britain was on its knees, straightjacketed by austerity and financially ruined by a global catastrophe... so it's good to see we're proudly continuing the tradition.
While the world has advanced greatly in those years, there are plenty of absurd things to marvel at this time around - the rather conspicuous surface-to-air missiles jauntily pointed at passing aircraft; the merciless litigiousness sprayed like machine gun fire at any local café owners hoping to use the Olympic logo; the inherently ridiculous choice of corporate sponsors at a sporting event (McDonalds?!); and, chief of all, the brilliantly demented official theme song by Muse - a piece of music more suited to being the national anthem for a post-Apocalyptic Soviet USSR, plagued by radioactive zombies with a thirst for human blood.
Yes - though I'm rather looking forward to the sporting spectacle - London 2012 is destined to be quite memorable, if only for its oddity. However, to boring old historians like me, oddity is rather reassuring. The Olympics has a lengthy track-record (if you'll pardon the pun) of providing eyebrow-raising moments, so let's have a quick recap, shall we?
According to legend, the first Greek Olympiad was in 776BC, and the last was in 393AD, when it was finally closed down by the Christianized Romans. During that generous six century window, there were plenty of thrills, spills and WTF moments. For starters, all the athletes competed in the nude, with the exception of the Hoplomachi foot race, where the sprinters donned a bronze helmet and shin guards, and pegged it a couple of hundred yards while clutching a large round shield. Before you ask, yes their dangly bits were still on show... There were also exciting events like Pankration, which was an extreme form of wrestling where only biting and eye gouging were forbidden. One famous bout ended up with the victor, Damoxenos, being disqualified and the loser, Creugas, being crowned instead. This was mildly problematic, seeing as Creugas was dead - Damoxenos, apparently, had eviscerated his opponent's entrails with his sharpened finger nails. Ouch.
The Greek Olympics were intended to be solely reserved for Greek men (women were not allowed to even watch, let alone compete - mostly on account of all those flopping penises), but once the mighty Roman Empire had swallowed Greece whole, no-one was brave or stupid enough to tell that to Emperor Nero, who in 67AD travelled to Olympus to enter himself as a competitor. If it wasn't rude enough to delay the games two years just so he could be involved, Nero then proceeded to change all the events to stuff he was good at. The famous physical events became music and poetry competitions, and though he decided to keep the chariot race, he still felt compelled to enter a team of ten horses in the Four Horse race. Rather brilliantly, Nero declared himself the victor of the chariot race, despite falling out of his chariot. His logic was impeccable - he would have won, if he hadn't crashed. This is now known as Newt Gingrichism. (Incidentally, a chariot crash was called a shipwreck - a linguistic non sequitur we still continue when we talk about cargo, which doesn't travel by car).
Clearly a man who demanded praise, even when he knew it wasn't genuine, the vainglorious Emperor bussed in 5000 Romans and paid them to applaud during his poetical and musical recitals - It seems, however, that even the allure of free money wasn't enough compensation for the trauma of witnessing his questionable talents. Some sources suggest a few crowd members actually feigned their own death, just so they could be carried out of his unbearably bad performances. When I tell you that Nero is famous as one of the world's earliest bagpipers, I suspect you'll understand why. Not satiated by his Herculean efforts at the Olympics, Nero travelled around Greece and entered the other pan-Hellenic Games too. Finally, he returned victorious to Rome with a haul of 1800 medals... eat your heart out, Steve Redgrave.
Of course, Nero was an awful cheat, and the Greeks usually had a punishment for being caught breaking the rules - the naughty athlete was forced to pay towards a statue of Zeus to adorn the route into the stadium. There were, by all accounts, an absolute shitload of these statues, called Zanes. We'll come to more modern cheating later on...
So, the Olympics vanished in the late 4th century, until Baron de Coubertin brought them back? Nope - not exactly. Strangely enough, in 1612 a man named Robert Dover tried to reintroduce a vaguely similar idea with his Cotswold Olympick Games. These were local games, involving organised fighting, running, and whatnot - after the Restoration of Charles II, the games got even odder with the introduction of Olympick Shin-Kicking. Why this is not a proper event at London 2012 is beyond me.
So, now do we meet Baron de Coubertin? Well, not quite... He, in fact, was influenced by an English acquaintance called Dr William Penny Brookes, who introduced his own version of the Olympics to the Shropshire village of Much Wenlock. Here the events included normal sports, like football and cricket, along with hilarious additions such as the 'Blindfolded Wheelbarrow Race' and everyone's favourite, 'The Old Women's Race For A Pound Of Tea'. This is where Baron de Coubertin, the French historian and moralist, got his inspiration to revive the Classical Olympics.
So, in 1896, De Coubertin had the ancient stadium restored, and threw his first Olympics Games in Athens. The events were very much for amateurs - the Irish politician John Pius Bolan was on holiday in Greece at the time, and unknown to him was entered into the Olympic tennis tournament by a friend. Despite zero training, Boland walked away with two gold trophies. In fairness, Usain Bolt could probably do the same for the 100 metres.
Four years later, in Paris, the 1900 Olympiad was held concurrently with the World Fair. This caused some confusion - official Olympic events were held alongside unofficial Olympic events, at the same place and time. The Official Olympics saw the first and only ever cricket event, when England played France and won. In fairness, England was going to win either way, as the French team comprised English ex-pats. Other high-octane events included croquet and beach lifeguarding. Meanwhile, the unofficial events were much more fun. These included fire-fighting, cannon-shooting, hot-air ballooning, and three classes of motor-racing: car, truck, and delivery-van. Someone also decided it would be a great spectator sport to introduce poodle-clipping (yes, competitive trimming of dog fur). Best of all, the pigeon racing event was held alongside the pigeon shooting event... now there's a joke that writes itself. Later Olympics would also include an artistic classification of events - Sculpture, Literature, Music, Painting and Architecture. This was equally part of Baron de Coubertin's ideals, and he was rewarded with an Olympic gold medal for Literature in 1912. Clever boy.
Of course, aside from bonkers events, there has also been a long history of hilarious cheats. The modern day drug-doping scandals are so very boring when you compare them to the enjoyably crap attempts at cheating in the past. In the first ever Marathon event at Athens in 1896, Spiridon Balokas was disqualified from his bronze trophy for having taken a carriage most of the way. The fact he didn't even finish first just illustrates the world-class amateurism of that bit of fraud. Jumping forward to the 1936 Olympics, where Hitler was hoping to showcase Aryan supremacy to the world, we can feast our eyes on the toned biceps of Germany's female high-jumper, Dora Ratjens. Dora was, in fact, a fella who had been raised as a girl, and had kept this secret from the athletic authorities and her team-mates. Despite her possible physical advantages, Dora could still only manage a disappointing fourth place.
Famously, the Berlin Olympics gave us two memorable things (aside from Dora's tightly-wrapped testicles) - the first was Jessie Owens winning four gold medals for the USA, and the second was the concept of the Olympic torch. The recent reverence by the British media for the torch procession around the country has more than a tinge of bitter irony, particularly when it is described as a "proud tradition".
Finally, the greatest shame fell on a nation, not an individual, when Spain was found to have entered a team of ringers in the 2000 Para-Olympics Men's Basketball. They decided that the sweet taste of victory was worth the astonishing fraud of entering players without disabilities in the "learning difficulties" category. This was later used as the basis of a South Park episode featuring the moral vacuum that is Cartman doing exactly the same. When you've stooped to the level of a fictional, satirical, sociopathic, anti-Semite then you know you've gone too far.
So, while the organisers of London 2012 will be praying to the heathen gods for no hint of national embarrassment, I'll be hoping for some good old traditional idiocy, because history shows that it's human stupidity, not a flaming torch, that best represents the Olympic ideal.
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