Monday, August 13, 2012

Olympic Quoits?

There has been a lot of hype surrounding the 2012 London Olympics. Millions of people watched the opening and closing ceremonies and enjoyed seeing the athletes compete in numerous sports. This got me thinking about the first modern Olympic games in 1896. Did our ancestors care that this tradition was resurrected? Did they even notice?

I searched the Kalamazoo Telegraph in 1896 and found a single article written several months prior to the games. The author was James G. Clark, editor of the New York Recorder in which the article initially appeared. [1] While our long gone Kalamazoo kin may have been aware of the Olympics they were not much interested, if the lack of coverage in the Telegraph is any indication.

The games were to last for 10 days in Athens, only fitting as the Greek tradition was revived. Clark noted: “Masons and carpenters are now busily at work rebuilding the famous Stadium, in Athens, and restoring at great cost the main scenic surroundings of the ancient festival, but Jupiter no longer has any worshipers, and the mystic rites of his great temple in the Altis, with its huge statue of Zeus, cannot be recalled at next April's fete. Yet those solemn ceremonies were the heart and soul of the original Olympic games.” [1]

Clark reported there would be many sports that modern viewers would recognize, including foot races, jumping, gymnastics, fencing, wrestling, rowing, swimming and water polo. Other sports at the Olympic revival were weight throwing, yachting, bicycling, lawn tennis, cricket, golf, “assaults with the saber and broadsword after the modern fashion” and quoits pitching (a game in which a ring is tossed a specified distance to land over or near a spike). Prize fighting the old Greek way was not to make an appearance as these contests “were of a very deadly order. The Greek cestus was the most terrible boxing glove that ever was worn. It was composed of rawhide thongs padded with metal. Practically it was a boxing glove with brass knuckles in it. Holes were cut through for the fingers, and the thumb overlapped the side.” [1]

It wasn't until 1908 that the Olympics seemed to make much impression in Kalamazoo. Even the 1904 Olympics held in St. Louis in conjunction with the 1904 World's Fair resulted in not a single mention in the paper. In 1908, however a couple of articles appeared in the Telegraph. Part of that could have been due to the dispute filed after the marathon. It seems that scandal and the Olympics go hand-in-hand.

In the 1908 London Olympics an Italian, Dorando Pietri, was the first to cross the finish line at the end of the marathon. The only problem, the Americans protested, was that Pietri did not complete the race under his own power. The story goes that Pietri was the first to enter the stadium, but collapsed from exhaustion before crossing the finish line. When the next runner, an American, entered the stadium Pietri managed to pull himself to his feet and stagger closer to the line. Again he collapsed, but two officials came to his aid and at the least assisted or at most actually carried him to the finish, depending on which account you read. Naturally, the Americans lodged a protest since their athlete, Johnny Hayes, completed the marathon unaided with a time of 2 hrs, 55 min, 18 sec. Hayes was awarded the gold medal and Pietri disqualified. [2]

I have one last note about the Olympics to offer. Today we know that Olympic participants are dedicated athletes who devote long hours to training. The 1908 Telegraph article mentioned that the Americans “were out in the arena early. . . and they had no intention of overlooking anything which would help them to win events for which they had gone through hard weeks of training.” [2] Clearly, the stakes are much higher now as is the pressure on these young athletes to perform.

Things have changed in other ways as well. While many of the sports and the controversies over results remain the same the media coverage has certainly altered considerably. Reading an account of a competition, even a well written one, simply can't compare to watching a video. Perhaps this is why the early Olympics attracted little attention in Kalamazoo. Whatever the reason, it is exciting to watch the world's elite athletes compete. I just wonder how much will have changed in another century.

  1. Kalamazoo Daily Telegraph, 1-31-1896, P5, col5.
  2. Kalamazoo Evening Telegraph 7-20-1908 P1, col1

No comments:

Post a Comment