Cotswold Games

Robbie Brightwell was a 16-year old student in Shropshire, England, and was straining to keep his eyes open while doing research in his local library when he came upon an old magazine and was struck by a picture of runners in a competition sometime in the late 19th century. As he related in his autobiography, Robbie Brightwell and His Golden Girl, he was surprised to see that in an area called Much Wenlock, not far from his own, there was a sporting event called “The Olympics”.

Intrigued, Brightwell, who went on to captain Britain’s track and field team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, began impromptu research into the Much Wenlock Games, and learned that Baron de Coubertin, at the age of 27, came to Much Wenlock and met an 81-year-old English physician, who planted the idea for what we now recognize as the Modern Olympics.

But as is true with any great endeavor, new ideas and initiatives are often built on earlier iterations. According to The Games: A Global History of the  Olympics by David Goldblatt, events held in both England and France could be considered precursors to Coubertin’s Olympics.

The Cotswold Games: In the early part of the 17th century, fairs and festivals were a common part of the English country lifestyle. One of the biggest in England was the Cotswold Games in Chipping Camden, a mixture of fun and sports, contests and gambling. As can be seen in the poster for the Cotswold Games, also known as the “Cotswold Olimpicks”, there was a mock castle created on a hill, in front of which was the main theater for the events. Developed by Robert Dover, a “charismatic and charming man”, the Cotswold Games featured “hare coursing and horse racing, wrestling and shin kicking, stick fighting and hammer throwing.” Dover established this country fair in 1612 and was able to organize the Cotswold Games for about 30 years. Unfortunately for Dover, and perhaps the community of Chipping Camden, the 1630s saw a shift from the hedonistic reign of King James I to a more conservative, puritanical approach of Oliver Cromwell, who overthrew the King in 1645. That put an end to the Cotswold Games.

The Republican Olympiad: When the French monarchy was overthrown in the French Revolution of 1789, leaders of the new republic were excited about change to come. One of the leaders of the revolution, Charles Gilbert Romme, devised a way to update the calendar for a new, enlightened France. With five days added to the year, with the inclusion of another day added to a Leap Year, which would take place every four years. According to Goldblatt, “Romme thought that the lead day might be a good occasion for staging public festivities and games: ‘we suggest calling it the French Olympiad and the final year the Olympics Year.” In 1796, the first Republican Olympiad was held in Paris, where hundreds of thousands came out for games, music, dancing, running and wrestling. Winners of competitions won wreaths of laurels, pistols, sabres, vases and watches. The Republican Olympiad continued for two more cycles, but died out before the start of the 19th century.

Benefit of Mr Kite and John Lennon
John Lennon in front of poster that inspired “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”

Pablo Fanque’s Travelling Circus Royal: As Goldblatt noted, the Olympics were often more often associated with circuses in the 18th and 19th centuries in England. One of the most popular traveling circuses was called Pablo Fanque’s travelling Circus Royal, which offered an “unrivalled equestrian troupe” and ” new and novel features in the Olympian Games.” Pablo Fanque was said to be the most popular circus proprietor in a golden age of circuses in Victorian England, and was quite accomplished not only as an equestrian, but also as a master of the corde volante. But as you may be able to tell, Fanque’s association to the Olympics is peripheral at best. His association to The Beatles may be stronger. The album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” featured a song called “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite“, the lyrics of which are primarily lifted from an 1843 poster marketing Fanque’s Circus Royal.

The Much Wenlock Olympian Games: Dr Penny Brookes of Shropshire, England, agreed with the thinking of the time, that it was important to promote “the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town…by the encouragement of outdoor recreations and by the award of prizes annually at public meetings for skill in athletic exercises and industrial attainments.” The first Much Wenlock Olympic Games were held in 1850. While these Olympic Games were a rural fair, they also had a firm sporting focus. In addition to fun events like wheelbarrow and sack races, both amateurs and professionals competed in cricket, football, archery, hurdling, running, shooting, cycling and a pentathlon. Large cash prizes were awarded.

When Baron de Coubertin, was told about the Much Wenlock Olympic Games, he made it a point to visit and meet Dr Brookes, a seminal act in the origin story of the modern Olympic Games.

William Penny Brookes in 1876 Photo WENLOCK OLYMPIAN SOCIETY
William Penny Brookes in 1876 Photo WENLOCK OLYMPIAN SOCIETY

 

Olympia ancient greece_artist's rendition
Artist’s rendition of the site of the ancient Olympia Games

 

Today, the modern-day Olympics are held over a two-week period, or 16 days because it covers three full weekends.

But back in the day, way way back in the day – say over 2500 years ago – The Olympia Games were a five-day affair, as is explained in the book, The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, by David Goldblatt.

Opening Day: Today, an athlete a judge or official and a coach take an oath symbolically for all athletes, judges and coaches at the opening ceremonies of an Olympiad, promising to uphold the spirit of sportsmanship. Here is the athlete’s oath, for example: “In the name of all competitors, I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules that govern them, committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams.”

In the 5th century BC, athletes, trainers and their families took an oath “that they would be guilty of no foul play and that they would be fair and not accept bribes.” But as we find inconsistency at times between what athletes promise to do and what they actually do, we find human behavior hasn’t changed much over the millennia. According to Goldblatt, “there was plenty of cheating and plenty of bribery.” He went on to say that the many statues of Zeus that adorned the area of the sporting grounds were paid by with fined for rule breakers.

boxing in ancient greece
Greek boxer surrendering by raising of index finger

Day Two: According to Alan Carter’s book, The Olympic Glory That Was Greece, the second day was devoted to competitions for boys. The morning saw heats after heats of foot races as the qualifiers are shrunk down to the finalists. The victor receives a palm leaf, and his family and home town are honored by his grand accomplishment. The afternoon sees competitions in wrestling and boxing for the boys, as well as what could be considered a mixed-martial art called the pankration. Carter described it as “training for warriors who would be engaging in hand to hand confrontation with the enemy and Sparta was particularly associated with the sport.” In the pankration, you could bite or gouge eyes.

Day Three: On the third day, according to Carter, spectators enjoyed chariot races at the hippodrome. There were some six variants of chariot races – two and four-horse competitions, two mules, or foals as well – and they ran anywhere from 3,500 to 14,000 meters long. Below is a clip from the 1959 film Ben Hur, which is supposedly Rome in AD 26, over 680 years after the establishment of the four-horse chariot race. If the chariot races in Olympia were anything like this, I could see why this was a must-see event!

Day Four: Goldblatt wrote that day four was the day for generalists, when the pentathlon was held. The pentathlon then was made up of five events: the discus throw, the long jump, the javelin throw, a foot race and wrestling. According to Goldblatt, the competitors faced off in a footrace, the discus, the javelin and a jump that may have included weights. The winner was often determined after these four events. In the a winner could not be decided, wrestling was the tie breaker. The order and the way the winner was decided apparently is unclear and still debated.

Again, due to the sketchiness of the historical accounts, there is debate as to what happened on the fourth day. According to Carter, Day Four was a festive days, starting with the slaughter of 100 oxen in honor of Zeus. This was followed by the premier events, the stadion (200 yard foot race), the diaulos (400-yard foot race), followed by wrestling, boxing and pankration.

Day Five: Goldblatt wrote that day five is running, wrestling, boxing and “pankrating” (if I can turn that into a gerund). But Carter wrote that it is about pomp and circumstance, focusing on awarding the victors at the Temple of Zeus. The winners are announced with trumpets and declarations of their names and hometowns. They are given a palm leaf to hold and a wild olive branch to wear as a crown. After that, its feasting and partying into the night.

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Hans-Gunnar Liljenvall in Mexico City

One thousand Russians are known to have benefited from doping and the cover-up of doping in the state-sponsored program to provide illicit advantage to Russian athletes, particularly during the 2012 London Olympics, the 2013 track and field world championships in Beijing, and the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The first major report on Russia from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in July, 2016 included a recommendation to the IOC to ban the entire Russian team from the 2016 Rio Olympics. As a result, over a hundred Russians were eventually forbidden from competing in Brazil.

WADA released a follow-up report on December 9, 2016 – a far more comprehensive review of the state-sponsored doping program in Russia, and it was damning. And there will likely be another round of medal shuffling – at least 15 Russian medalists at the Sochi Winter Games had urine samples that had been tampered with.

It’s a grim time for international sports – the insidious plague of doping and the lengths individuals and countries will go. It makes me pine for those halcyon days of the 1960s and 1970s (yes, written with ironical intent), when our views on doping were less sophisticated.

The first person ever disqualified for “doping”, as it were, was when Swede Hans-Gunnar Liljenvall was discovered to have ingested an illegal substance prior to competing in the modern pentathlon at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics – beer.

It’s said that he had a couple of beers and that traces of alcohol were found in urine. Unlucky for Liljenvall, 1968 was the first year that the IOC included urine testing, as well as alcohol on the list of banned substances. Unfortunately, Liljenwall took his two other teammates down with him, as they lost their bronze medals as well.

Why beer? After all, alcohol is a depressant, not a simulant. This article supposes, probably correctly, that in certain hand-eye coordination events, like pistol shooting in the pentathlon, you need to calm yourself, as opposed to gear yourself up. That’s the same reasoning why anti-psychotics are sometimes illegally injected into horses in equestrian events – to calm down the excitable horses.

Today, getting disqualified for beer sounds silly. Getting banned for caffeine too, but I suppose only to the non-athlete. My mind wonders how many cups of coffee or cans of red bull would it take to get you to world record levels…but I suppose that is not what WADA is looking for.

Caffeine is a stimulant, and until 2004, it was a banned substance. In fact, the second person ever banned for “doping” was a Mongolian judoka named Bakhaavaa Buidaa, who lost his silver medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics after over 12 micrograms of caffeine per milliliter was found in his urine. At least that’s how a lot of sources explain this incident.

But there are also references to Buidaa taking Dianabol, an anabolic steroid that provides a low-cost way of building muscle quickly. Since combining caffeine and Dianabol is a popular routine for athletes who need muscle mass to compete, it’s possible that both were in the judoka’s system.

Caffeine was taken off the banned substance list, but it is still on the IOC monitoring list.

cian-oconnor-waterford-crystal
Cian O’Connor on Waterford Crystal

Show Jumper Cian O’Connor was stripped of his gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics. O’Connor didn’t do the jumping himself. The Irishman is an equestrian, who rode a horse named Waterford Crystal. In competition horses also get tested for illegal drugs, and at the Athens Games, traces of various anti-psychotic and pain relieving drugs were found in Waterford Crystal.

So yes, Jane Fonda, they do shoot (up) horses.

Apparently, anti-pscyhotic drugs like fluphenazine are commonly used to calm horses, particularly in cases when horses have been injured and completed treatment, but won’t stay calm and allow their wounds to heal. Another drug like reserpine acts as a long-lasting sedative, which is likely prescribed for similar reasons as fluphenzine. They were likely in Waterford Crystal in order to calm this excitable horse and thus give the rider a more stable mount in competition.

Clearly the horse has no say in the matter. The team around the horse, including the rider and the trainer, are held accountable for what goes in the body of the horse. About a year after the Athens Olympics, O’Connor had to return his gold medal, and Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil became the new showjumping king, trading his silver for gold. Chris Kappler of America got to trade his bronze for silver, and suddenly, Marco Kutscher of Germany was awarded a bronze medal.

Four years later in Beijing, a horse named Camiro was found to have the illegal pain killer, capsaicin, in her system. Camiro was the horse of rider Tony Andre Hansen, who was one of four members of the Norwegian jumping team. Camiro apparently failed the first of two drug tests so Hansen was not allowed to compete in the individual jumping event, but was allowed to compete in the team event, at which Norway took the bronze medal.

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Riders from the team of Norway celebrate during the victory ceremony of the team jumping final of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games equestrian events in Hong Kong, south China, Aug. 18, 2008. Tony Andre Hansen far left (Xinhua/Zhou Lei)

The Norwegian team stood on the medal podium and sank in the cheers and congratulations. Ten days later, after the Beijing Games had completed, Camiro failed a second test. With Hansen’s horse now DQ’ed, the Norwegian team dropped from third to tenth in the point totals. The four members of Team Switzerland were suddenly bronze medalists.

As for Cian O’Connor, eight years later at the 2012 Olympics, he was able to ride a horse named Blue Loyd 12 to the medal podium, taking the bronze medal in the London Games.

takeichi-nishi-and-uranus

He cut a dashing figure, this officer of the Imperial Japanese Army, who did more for Japanese-American relations in the 1930s than anyone else. Takeichi Nishi, who won gold in equestrian show jumping at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, was a star.

He was the son of baron in the Japanese peerage system of the time. His horse was Italian. He spoke English. And he ran in the circles of Hollywood royalty – Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. He was the most popular Japanese man in the United States already. But on the final day of the 1932 Olympics, Nishi mounted his horse, Uranus, and slayed a difficult course that six of the final eight competitors failed to complete.

“Baron Nishi” as he was called, was not only a champion, he was a shining light of pride for Japan. But he was one of many new heroes in the Japanese sporting pantheon.

Through three Olympiads from 1912 to 1924, Japanese athletes garnered a total of only three medals (in tennis and wrestling). In 1928 in Amsterdam, Japan began to show some life with five medals. Mikio Oda (triple jump) and Yoshiyuki Tsuruta (200-meter breaststroke) became the first Japanese to ever win gold.

It was at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, when Japan sent 142 athletes and amazed the sporting world. Japanese athletes took home a total of 18 medals, placing ahead of European powers Hungary and Great Britain. Their 7 gold medals was better than prominent powers of the time, Hungary, Finland and even Germany that was to be the host of the Berlin Games four years later.

kentaro-kawatsu-toshio-irie-and-masaji-kiyokaw-1932
Kentaro Kawatsu Toshio Irie and Masaji Kiyokawa, 100-meter backstroke swimmers in 1932

In addition to Baron Nishi’s star turn, Japanese swimmers became overnight heroes. In fact, 12 of Japan’s 18 medals won at the 1932 Games were in swimming, including gold medals in the men’s 100 meter backstroke, 100-meter freestyle, 1,500-meter freestyle, 200-meter breaststroke and the 4×200-meter freestyle relay. In fact, in the 100-meter backstroke, Japan swept gold, silver and bronze. With headlines of “Team Swimming Championship Will Go to Sons of Nippon”, this August 13, 1932 Associated Press article explained the triumph this way:

The turn of affairs came suddenly yesterday, as expected, when the Japanese finished one, two, three in the 100-meter backstroke final. Masaji Kiyokawa outclassed his field to win by three yards in 1 minute 8.6 seconds. He was fourteenths of a second short of the only Olympic record of the whole water festival which withstood attack.

Japan did not limit its success to equestrian and swimming events. They took gold in the triple jump, silver in the pole vault and silver in field hockey, and bronze in the long and triple jumps.

Prior to the 1932 Olympics, Japan was somewhat of a mystery to the West, so far away, so different. Increasingly they were a threat as well. The Japanese had defeated the Russians in a great naval battle in 1904-5, re-setting the global balance of power. And when the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931, they became an instant competitor with Western imperialist powers for colonies and natural resources in Asia.

The Japanese success at the 1932 Olympics put human faces on these so-called inscrutable Asians, and gave momentum to Japan’s bid to hold an Olympic Games in Tokyo. The writer of this August 13, 1932 AP report thought so too.

“Japan’s improved showing all along the Olympic lines has been a conspicuous feature from the start. The Japanese have high hopes of landing the 1940 Olympics for Tokio.”

chuhei-nambu-1932

Coca Cola Booth Roppongi Hills 1
Coca Cola booth at Roppongi Hills

 

It was August 6 and I had just watched the opening ceremonies of the Rio Olympics, which was being broadcast live in Japan that lazy Saturday morning. Quite coincidentally, my wife and I reserved a Brazilian barbecue place in Roppongi for dinner that evening.

Roppongi is a hive of activity, a center of commerce, entertainment and shopping that bustles 7 days a week. In our stroll through Roppongi that day, I came upon two examples of how official Olympic sponsors have begun marketing the Olympics, not only as a lead in to the Rio Olympics, but also as a proud reminder that Tokyo will be the host of the XXXIII Olympiad in 2020.

Coca Cola is one of 12 worldwide Olympic sponsors, part of the so-called TOP program – TOP standing for “The Olympic Partner”. Like other TOP sponsors, Coca Cola has exclusive rights in the food and beverages industry to use the word Olympics and the five-ring symbol of the Games in its global marketing and advertisements, among other exclusive rights.

And in the popular Roppongi Hills square was a Coca Cola booth, with kids and adults lining up to get in. Inside the booth was a large screen displaying a swimming competition computer game. A pair of contestants would line up in front of the screen, get a motion-sensing band attached to their wrist, and then furiously roll their arms as their watched their avatar on the screen race to the finish. At the end, they were awarded a medal with a bottle of Coca Cola attached.

After dinner, we walked to my old work haunt – Midtown Tower. This popular office complex was built by Mitsui Fudosan, a major real estate developer in Japan. Mitsui Fudosan is not a TOP partner, but is instead a Tokyo 2020 Gold Partner. In the Olympic hierarchy of sponsors, the IOC allows the local national Olympic committee to select local sponsors that have exclusive rights in Japan to market and advertise using the word “Olympics” and related logos.

Sumitomo Fudosan Midtown Tower Olympics Exhibition 1

Mitsui Fudosan used the open area in front of Midtown Tower artfully. Dotted throughout the square were sculptures of figures in athletic pose, gleaming white and geometrically fashioned. A female basketball player and a wheelchair tennis player greet us at the entrance. A sprinter climbs the glass cover of the escalator leading down to the underground shopping areas. Synchronized swimmers rise from a shallow pool of water, a paralympic runner strides, and a pair of judoka negotiate a fall.

Mitsui Fudosan wants you to “Be the Change”. In a missive at the display area, the JOC Olympic sponsor states that like athletes, whose daily efforts and countless beads of sweat and tears, have shaped them into Olympians with unique and wonderful stories, Tokyo is also being shaped on a daily basis, building by building, each with their own stories. The last line of the missive states, “Next, it’s Tokyo’s turn. The Olympics will be on our stage. What fantastic stories will be told?”

Sumitomo Fudosan Midtown Tower Olympics Exhibition 2

Michael Phelps
The incredible Michael Phelps

Gymnast Oksana Chusovitina, representing Uzbekistan, competed in her seventh Olympics in Rio at the age of 41.

American cyclist, Kristin Armstrong, won a gold medal in the individual road time trial in Rio, the third consecutive Olympics she has done so, at the age of 42.

Equestrian Phillip Dutton won a bronze medal in individual eventing for America at the age of 52.

Relative to Chusovitina, Armstrong and Dutton, swimmer Michael Phelps is a spring chicken. But at the age of 31, Phelps’ phenomenal Olympic career, particularly based on his results in Rio, is most definitely an outlier vis-a-vis his rivals and rival-wannabes. According to The Washington Post, “over the past 10 Summer Games, the oldest athlete to swim in the finals for the same events in which Phelps is scheduled to compete has been 29 years old, with the average age just under 22 years old. And, not surprisingly, times get slower as an athlete ages.” (Yes, Anthony Ervin winning gold in the 50-meter freestyle at the age of 35 is an even greater outlier.)

Michael Phelp's Aging Curve Compared_Washington Post

Role models are so important to aspiring athletes. And it’s not just adolescents and teenagers whose passions are ignited by their heroes. It’s Gen X. It’s even the Baby Boomers. They see Chusovitina and Phelps as trailblazers for those of us in our 30s, 40s and 50s, whose daily lives are filled with marketing meetings, children’s soccer matches, evening social gatherings, and attempts to overcome sleep deprivation on the weekends.

More and more commonly, men and women past their “prime” are making the time and taking the challenge to up their game in high performance athletics. The “Olympics” for athletes of age groups from 35 to over the century mark is the World Masters Games. The number of participants since 1985 has grown from over 8,000 to close to 30,000 in 2009, which was more than twice the number of athletes who took part in the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000.

Oksana Chusovitina in Rio

As the nations of the industrialized world see their populace age rapidly, the people with the most money and influence are the aged demographics. Clearly, their interest in staying healthy and happy grows as they collectively age. As the human body’s production of hormones that enhance the benefits of physical exertion diminish from the age or 35, we can feel very clearly our strength diminishing over time. But considerable research and thought is going into how to increase flexibility, strength and staying power the older you get.

And the research tells us that exercise, low intensity or high, done on a consistent basis, will yield positive results for practically everybody. But the fact of the matter is, our busy lives demotivate so many of us from making that daily effort. This personal coach explains that making the effort is just a matter of making a decision.

The hard part about this for maturing athletes is that job and family responsibilities may make getting to bed early difficult. You need to make a choice as to the type of life you want to lead. If you’ve made the decision that you want to live a healthy, fit life, then going to bed early is part of it. That will likely mean the end of midweek social events, skipping TV after dinner, and strict adherence to stopping work after 8:00pm.

But to get to competitive levels of athletic performance, no matter your age, you need to dream. Photojournalist, Susana Girón, has followed these silver athletes taking their pictures, and concluded that age is not an issue if you have that burning passion for excellence

Sport in the elderly is not simply an issue of health. It is said that once you become older, you stop dreaming and become less passionate about things. The bodies of these athletes might dwindle with each year, but the passion with which they live and face the events remains stronger than ever, especially as they become aware that every championship might be their last. Living with passion means to remain forever young.

Phillip Dutton in Rio
Phillip Dutton