A journey of 116 years

On the threshold of the 30th edition of the Olympics in London from July 27, it is difficult to remain unaffected by the vicissitudes undergone by the Games. The resilience of sport is amazing indeed, writes S. Thyagarajan.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin sanctified sport by gifting mankind the Olympic Games. He visualised sport as an instrument for peace. Whether Coubertin, or the rest who led the Olympic Movement, succeeded in protecting its purity is debatable. But the concept conceived by the French pedagogue has triumphed over two World wars, political perversion, boycotts, xenophobia, corruption, commercialism, drugs and what not.

The fecundity of the Olympic Games is fascinating. It mirrors the depth and dimensions of human endeavour, endurance, efficiency and endless passion to conquer the ever expanding frontiers of excellence.

Every Olympics engineered an era, unfolded an enchanting vista and etched memorable moments for posterity. The Baron desired to launch the Games in Paris in 1900. He declared his intent again in 1894 after an earlier suggestion in 1892 was rejected. But then he conceded to the enthusiasm of the Greeks who wanted the re-birth of the Games in Athens. It was here that the Olympiad, said to have lasted for 1100 years, was suspended in AD 393.

The dream turned real on April 6, 1896. At the beautiful Panathianikos Stadium, 241 athletes from 14 countries gathered to inaugurate the modern Olympics extravaganza. With success accomplished a plea was made to keep Athens a permanent venue. But Coubertin preferred to make the philosophy of sport universal.

In order to popularise it, he dovetailed the Games to the Universal World Fair in 1900. Spread over for five months in Paris the Olympics suffered for want of attention although women also figured in the competitions.

Sidelined by the organisers, a humiliated Coubertin was more embarrassed by political interference in the next edition. In the conflict between Chicago and St. Louis, the latter backed by President Roosevelt, won. Disillusioned, Coubertin stayed away. So did many others.

In an effort streamline the system, an intermediary Games came up in Athens. Coubertin disliked the idea. Whether it was official or not remained a puzzle till 1949.

In spite of the hiccups, the Games prospered. Rome pulled out in 1906 after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, paving the way for London to organise a well-structured event in 1908. An innovation was the march-past.

Progressively, the Games acquired shades of sophistication. Electronic timing and the public address system were on board at Stockholm in 1912. Boxing, an anathema to the Swedes, was removed from the programme. This prompted the IOC to restrict the power of the host to determine events.

The vibrancy diminished when World War I erupted. Berlin, the venue for the 1916 edition, was overlooked as the Games were revived in Antwerp. The IOC kept out Germany, Austria, Bulgaria and Turkey from this edition.

The Olympic flag, designed by the Baron, and oath-taking, highlighting the glory of sport, came on board.

A year before he laid down office as President, the Baron approved the Olympic motto, Citius, Altius and Fortius (Swifter, Higher, Stronger) when Paris played host in 1924.

At Amsterdam, the Baron moved to the sidelines. Henri de Baillet of Belgium took over. That sport was receiving greater attention across the globe became clear when 28 different countries captured gold medals. The highlight of 1928 was the introduction of women’s athletics and gymnastics.

In 1932, Los Angeles saw the construction of the Olympic Village, the podium, and the 16-day format.

Political pressures surfaced after Berlin won the vote as the candidate city in 1931. None had bargained at that point for the mercurial rise of Hitler. Jewish groups were agitated. Moves were afoot to shift the Games to Barcelona, which itself sunk into a civil war.

Influential members like Avery Brundage of the United States smothered the protests. But the Games, in 1936, which saw the introduction of TV broadcast and the torch relay, failed to serve the cause of Hitler’s Aryan supremacy.

Instead, it projected the greatest icon of sport—Jesse Owens.

Tokyo in 1940 and Helsinki in 1944 failed to host the Games because of World War II. Amidst the ruins of war London again served as the spring board in 1948. Austerity forced competitors to stay in schools and Army barracks. Germany and Japan were not invited.

Helsinki in 1952 is regarded as the best organised Games. It saw USSR in the fray for the first time.

That Melbourne in 1956 won by just one vote against Buenos Aires reflected the intensity of the bidding. The Germanys (East and West) fielded a joint team.

The term, “boycott,” began to attract more attention. Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon, stayed away over the Suez Canal issue, while Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland skipped, protesting the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Free mixing of competitors during the closing ceremony became a part of the programme here.

Rome in 1960 and Tokyo in 1964 consolidated the Olympic Movement. Japan’s prosperity and professionalism provided the perfect Games in 1964 although the banning of South Africa impacted the Tokyo Games a bit.

The honour conferred on a female athlete, Enriqueta Basilio, to ignite the flame added a touch of mystique in Mexico in 1968. Sex tests for women also came into being.

Initially, there was scepticism over the problem of altitude. But the Games became ever etched in memory for the remarkable long jump show of Bob Beamon and the ugly side represented by the ‘Black Salute.’

For all the good things that Munich offered in 1972 — 195 events, 7173 athletes, 121 countries and a Mascot (Dachshund) for the first time — the September 5 tragedy at the village devastated everything.

Terrorists, sympathetic of the Palestine cause, gained entry into the Israeli quarters at the village and shot two athletes dead, and captured some hostages. Later, in a gun battle with security guards at the airport, 10 hostages and five terrorists were killed. But the magnificent spirit of sport triumphed in the end. The Games resumed in less than 34 hours.

A financial crisis and an African boycott at Montreal in 1976 failed to mask the magnificence of the Romanian lass, Nadia Comaneci, on the gymnastics floor.

Signs of gigantism crept in. So did the power-play of blocs. The enormous preparations by Moscow in 1980 came to nought when over 50 countries boycotted in response to the call by American President Jimmy Carter over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Eastern bloc, headed by the Soviets, retaliated, staying away from the 1984 Olympiad in Los Angeles.

The Olympic Movement, by now, had shed its obsession for amateurism. Under President Samaranch, the Games were thrown open in Los Angeles. A blend of professionalism and commercialism brought huge financial rewards.

Samaranch succeeded in whittling down the influence of power players. In 1988 at Seoul, the world saw a huge congregation of 159 countries. Sadly, it also witnessed the plague of drug abuse when the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal in the 100 metres.

As the Games meandered to the Nineties, the pressure increased enormously on the host cities. Huge financial inputs were required without commensurate returns.

Colossal costs were being incurred on the opening and closing ceremonies, transport, and security. For sheer opulence and star-cast the inauguration in Barcelona remains unmatched. The creativity and craft of the Spaniards manifested in various forms. But nothing was more spectacular than the paralympic archer Antonio Rebello, firing a flaming arrow into the brazier to ignite the flame.

In a contest between Athens and Atlanta to host the Centennial Games (1996) the latter won. But the Games failed to measure up to the required organisational skills. The media ridiculed it as the glitch Games. A bomb blast near the media centre remains in memory as does Michael Johnson’s historic (200 and 400 metres) double.

In Sydney 2000, the aboriginal quarter-miler, Cathy Freeman, was honoured by being asked to light the flame.

No Olympics has generated much scepticism as Athens in 2004. Enmeshed in red tape, graft, change of guard at the helm, and incomplete facilities, the Games were in danger of being shifted out. Eventually, they went through, though hitting a hurdle now and then.

In 2008 Beijing gave to the world a brilliant profile of its professional efficiency and meticulous planning, despite negative propaganda by human rights activists. China also managed to oust the United States from the top in the medals tally.

On the threshold of the 30th edition in London from July 27, it is difficult to remain unaffected by the vicissitudes undergone by the Games. The resilience of sport is amazing indeed.