Friday, 22 August 2008

Olympics: You're 100 years too late.

Y'know what? Screw the 2008 Olympics. If you want a truly great sporting competition you have to go back exactly 100 years to the 1908 Olympics in London.

Apparently this year the Great British team (or "Team GB" as all the papers keep saying) has done better that they have for 100 years. Bravo lads and all that, but as I'm sure has been mentioned a lot in the press back home, in 1908 we won 56 gold medals - more than twice as many as our nearest rivals the USA. How did we do this? Well partly by doing what Englishmen do best - being scoundrels.

The 1908 Olympics seems to have been one of the greatest sporting events ever held. Originally slated to be held in Rome, the Italians pulled out after Vesuvius erupted, devastating Naples. Ostensibly they no longer had the money to stage the games because they were rebuilding Naples, although apparently it is also thought that Baron de Coubertin used this as an excuse to hide the fact that they never had enough money to begin with. This BBC article describes Baron de Coubertin as "wily". Wily! Is there any greater adjective? Britain stepped in at the last minute and saved the day, and in doing so organised an Olympics where they could thrash the pants off everyone else in the world. Here's a faceful of facts for ya taken from articles on Wikipedia, The Guardian and the Beeb:

- The 1908 Olympics was six months long. No, really.

- The 1908 Olympics was the only Olympics to feature "rackets" some sort of racket-ball game only played by public school boys in England. Thus the only competitors were British, and we collected all the medals. This kind of thing happened quite a lot in the 1908 Olympics.

- We won gold, silver and bronze in the tug-of-war too, even though two other nations did enter.

- Tug-of-war was actually in the Olympics. God I would love to see that now.

- After a dispute over the rules, the American team refused to take part in a re-run of the men's 400 metres. This left only one British runner to run around the track on his own to collect the gold. Impressively this is apparently the only time this has ever happened at the Olympics.

- The marathon deserves a post all of its own. This was the first marathon to be 26 miles long, and the length was decided in some sort of bizarre battle of wills. The British organisers were determined to honour the King, after the Americans had refused to dip their flag to him, stating "this flag dips to no earthly king", so they extended the Marathon by a mile to start from Windsor Castle and finish in front of the King. That's a pretty badass line about "no earthly king" though to be honest.

- The leader into the final section of the marathon was the Italian, Dorando Pietri. However in the final straight he collapsed five times, got up and started running back the way he came. The British officials intervened and helped him over the line, but after a complaint by the Americans he was disqualified because of this outside interference. It has a happy ending though, he went on to win lots more marathons, and he was given a special gold cup because he should have won that one.

- Pietri was given brandy as he was running as a pick-me-up. The favourite, a Canadian runner, was given champagne, and collapsed after 19 miles.

Of course the 1908 Olympics was seminal to the development of the Olympics. For the next games they brought in a whole raft of improvements to make the games fairer and more sporting. So in a way Great Britain had a key role in the development of the Olympics - just by being bastards. Ah my people, scoundrels one and all.

I would love to see tug-of-war reinstated to the Olympics, though.

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