The 2008 Beijing Games was China’s triumphant coming of age. Four years and £9.5 billion later, the 2012 Olympics has arrived with less fanfare but carrying just as much importance for the host nation. Remarkably, this is London’s third Olympic Games. In its first outing in 1908, the Games was merely a fledgling movement involving 22 nations. The second time around was a subdued affair, held in 1948 as nations were rising out of the ashes of World War II. In 2012, with Great Britain a shadow of its former glory and tied to a continent in financial turmoil, this is a chance for the British to show that they are still a formidable force on the world stage.
The Opening Ceremony, titled the ‘Isles of Wonder’, was a joyous celebration of the best of Britannia. There was no chance that the Londoners would be able to emulate the glorious spectacle of Beijing. How could they? Instead, artistic director Danny Boyle showcased something quintessentially British in its understatement, humour and eccentricity. There was reference to the Industrial Revolution, of course. There was a head-scratching song-and-dance number dedicated to the National Health Service. Literary villains including Lord Voldemort and Cruella DeVille loomed threateningly over the performers, before they were rescued by a flying squadron of Mary Poppins. The Queen made her film debut accompanied by James Bond (and was later photobombed by an enterprising Aussie in the stadium), but it was Rowan Atkinson who stole the show with a hilarious cameo during the live orchestral rendition of ‘Chariots of Fire’. A musical medley — featuring songs from old timers The Who, Rolling Stones, The Beatles and Queen, to today’s Adele, Coldplay and Muse — reminded us of the great impact of the British on popular culture.
The Games have come a long way from the athletic competitions held in Olympia between the city-states of Ancient Greece. Its origins are lost to time, although one myth holds that the demi-god Hercules had established it in honour of his father Zeus. The earliest recorded Games in 776BC featured one event, the stadion, which was a short foot race. More events were added over the years, including chariot racing, boxing, wrestling, pentathlon and pankration — brutal, free-for-all combat. The Roman emperor Theodosius I abolished the Games in 394AD in a crackdown on pagan practices.
It wasn’t until the late 19th century that serious efforts were undertaken to revive the Olympic Games. The Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee in 1890, and in 1896 the first modern Olympics was held, fittingly, in Athens. Since then, the Olympics have changed enormously, in line with the social, political and economic developments of the nations themselves. In the last 100 years we have seen amateur athletes replaced by professionals; the diversification of the Games to all nations and to people of all colours; the increased participation of women (this Olympics is the first in which every country has a female representative); and the rise of commercialisation. The quadrennial, international format now has four mainstays: the Summer Games, Winter Games, Youth Games and Paralympics.
To me, the Olympic Games are equal parts colourfulness, achievement and inspiration.
Weird and wonderful facts abound. Ever heard the story of Spyridon Louis, a Greek who competed in the marathon at the 1896 Athens Games? The race wound through the countryside and the runner made a cheeky stop at an inn to have a glass of cognac. He went on to win the race. Intriguingly, the tug-of-war — where two teams pull against a length of rope — was featured in five Olympics from 1900 to 1920. For sheer wackiness, mention must be made of the intrepid Jamaican bobsledders who made their debut at the 1988 Winter Olympics and inspired the cult-classic, Cool Runnings.
Of course, what we love to see are athletes doing their best, for history to be made and records to be broken. Michael Phelps has now become the most decorated Olympian of all time at the 2012 London Games. Usain Bolt lit up the Bird’s Nest four years ago and has electrified the world again in London, where he became the first man to defend the 100m crown. One of the most remarkable athletes has to be Romania’s Nadia Comaneci. As a 14-year old at the 1976 Montreal Games, Nadia made history by becoming the first gymnast to earn a perfect ten in Olympic competition. Watch old footage of her performing — and be amazed.
The Olympics has also given us unforgettable, inspirational stories. Wilma Rudolph was born prematurely in Tennessee and contracted polio at age four. Her left leg was twisted and as a child she wore leg braces and shoes. Nevertheless, her determination saw her join the high school track and field team, eventually winning gold in the 100m and 200m at the 1960 Rome Games. Another indelible image of the Olympic spirit was that of British runner Derek Redmond. Derek tore his hamstring during the 400m race at the 1992 Barcelona Games. Hobbling in agony, his father ran to his side and the pair completed the lap with 65,000 spectators giving a standing ovation.
Ultimately, the Olympic Games have always been more than physical accomplishments. It is a stage upon which drama is played out, where triumph and disaster loom, and where acts of courage and sportsmanship transcend the medals they tally. Oh, and lots of hanky–panky too.