It’s all eyes on the Olympics right now, certainly at the Watusi Country Club.
This weekend we’ll all be cooing over how spectacular the opening ceremony was. At least I expect we will. Regular viewers are hoping for bursts of traditional Britishness, like celebratory Morris dancing, but that seems unlikely.
We’ve already had stories about the problems getting the games ready. In London these have focused on security concerns. It seems some nit-picky folks objected to having surface to air missiles launched from their roofs. The obvious solution of including surface to air missile shooting as an Olympic sport along with archery doesn’t seem to have been considered.
It’s a shame really – it would have looked great on television. And there are precedents: in the early twentieth century live pigeon shooting was an Olympic event. I suspect it had something to do with the French. There were a lot of Olympic events that have, for various reasons, now been dropped. Polo for instance. Others have been added. Curling became an Olympic sport in 1998, despite the fact that only two dozen people on the planet know how to play the sport.
The bods who run the games keep hush about all the events that have disappeared over the years. Apparently they’re called ‘discontinued sports’. No-one, it seems, wants to be reminded that tug of war used to be an Olympic event. Or, for that matter, rope climbing, which had several categories.
But the big dirty secret of the Olympics – no, not the bribes or the drugs – is that they didn’t used to be all about sport.
The modern Olympics were started in the late nineteenth century (after a gap of some thousands of years) under the guidance of an eccentric French gentleman by the name of Baron Pierre de Coubertin. And he actually won a gold medal himself. Anonymously. It’s hard to think of events you could enter anonymously these days (the masked hurdles perhaps?). But these days you don’t have an Olympic medal for poetry.
Yep. Poetry used to be an Olympic event, like rope climbing.
There used, in earlier times, to be Olympic medals for a whole slew of cultural practices. There were events in architecture, sculpture, painting and music (both solo and orchestral). There were also medals for town planning.
The oldest-ever winner of an Olympic medal was indeed in one of these disciplines: 73 year old Briton John Copfley won the silver medal in the etchings and engravings event.
That’s just scratching the surface of the strangeness. In 1900 a farmer’s wife won the gold medal FOR poodle clipping by clipping 17 poodles in two hours.
But 1900 was a long time ago. Surely these unusual practices were stopped soon after? Well, no. The ‘cultural’ events were finally dropped from the Olympics only after the 1948 games.
Now my natural assumption would be – since artists and musicians were the competitors in these events – that it was because of drug testing. They could have skipped the events and simply awarded the gold to whoever didn’t test positive…
But, no! It was actually because of worries about amateurism. In one of the more ironic examples of how the world has changed, artists were finally excluded from the Olympics because there was concern that they made too much money. For while a lonely javelin thrower would have to go back to their day job, the gold medal winning musician would continue being a professional musician between games, thus breaking the ‘Olympic code’.
How times move on, eh? Imagine a world where the artists are professionals and sporting heroes are amateurs. But, on that basis, culture was gone from the Olympics, never to return, a decision that may possibly have shaped how the arts are seen worldwide. Forget the cute gymnasts, we could have been watching Sam Hunt up there…
Check olympic-museum.de/art/artcompetition.htm for a recap of 50 years or so when the arts were Olympic sports.