This article appeared in the July 30, 2012, issue (“War Games”).
The connection between sports and militarism has never been very subtle—all you have to do to notice that is read Homer.
The ancient Olympics had a number of events that were clear simulations of military prowess, including chariot races, boxing, wrestling, and, after 520 BC, a curious footrace called the hoplitodromia. The athletes weren’t entirely naked for that race, as those in all other events were; they had to put on about 50 pounds of armor, including helmet, shin guards, and shield. The hoplitodromia held a position of honor on the Olympic schedule, traditionally closing the Games.
Flash forward a couple of thousand years, and you find much the same thing: When a seven-year-old French boy named Pierre (not yet Baron) de Coubertin learned about the Prussian defeat of Napoleon III’s forces at Sedan, which led to the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine, he burned with national shame.
Later, the official story goes, he came to understand the military defeat as having been caused by the lack of athletic training of the French citizenry as compared to the Prussian soldiers, who were taught gymnastics.
That version of de Coubertin’s inspiration is a bit suspect — the Baron seems to have cribbed it from an English country doctor named W.P. Brookes, who had been trying to establish modern Olympics for decades before de Coubertin hit puberty — but let’s leave that aside for the moment.
It’s unquestionable that the first modern games in Athens in 1896 included a number of martially inspired events, such as fencing and shooting, and others were introduced shortly afterward. In fact, de Coubertin is most closely associated with one event still on the Olympic schedule: the modern pentathlon, which he designed.
The pentathlon was introduced at the 1912 games. Contestants compete in five events: running a 3,000-meter cross-country course, 200-meter freestyle swimming, show jumping on horseback, fencing, and 10-meter pistol shooting.
De Coubertin even provided a little story to explain the legs of the pentathlon: “They represent the daring adventures of a French cavalry officer” caught behind enemy lines. To return to his own side, he has to ride through obstacles, swim a raging river, and run the remaining distance, along the way defending himself with both gun and sword.
In other words, you know, not that modern. I would recommend that, in an attempt to reach out to younger viewers, the IOC rename that event the “antiquated pentathlon,” and create a new pentathlon to more accurately simulate the skill set required of a contemporary soldier, the Ultra-Modern Pentathlon. You could, of course, go many ways with this, but I would humbly recommend the following legs:
I would so watch that.
All the main disciplines with the exception of track and field got underway in London this past weekend. Here are some of things that caught my eye: The first gold medal of 2012 went to Yi Siling of China in women’s 10-meter air rifle shooting. The US men’s archery team did the unthinkable and beat the South Korean squad, which had to settle for bronze. One of the most dramatic gold medal moments came with Italy’s one-point victory over the US in the final.
The US women’s basketball team looked tentative at first, but pulled away from Croatia convincingly in the second half to win, 81-56.
I liked the way the senior Dream Teamers joked and played with Anthony Davis after the sole collegiate player on the roster dunked for two points in their July 29 win over Tony Parker and France. This edition of the team seems to enjoy playing together, which is a nice change. I also would hug Michelle Obama if I could without putting me in the crosshairs of her Secret Service contingent.
In a very exciting finish to the men’s cycling road race, Colombia’s Rigoberto Uran finished second to Kazakhstan’s Aleksandr Vinokurov. He went all wobbly just as Vinokurov started his final sprint, leading to suggestions that Uran threw the race. Hard to imagine. It was part of a pretty good opening day for South American nations—alongside Colombia’s medal, Brazil won a gold, a silver, and a bronze.
The 22-year-old champion judoka in the 48kg division, Sarah Menezes, became the first Brazilian woman to win individual gold at the Olympics. Her story is a bit of a reverse Billy Elliot. Menezes is from Teresina, a poor provincial capital in northern Brazil. She started taking judo classes at age 9, sneaking around behind her very traditional parents’ backs to do so. Bet they’ve changed their tune.
Ryan Lochte, the child of a Cuban-American mother, officially ended Michael Phelps’ tenure as Poseidon when he won gold in the 400-meter individual medley on Saturday. Phelps finished out of the money (fourth) in an Olympic race for the first time since 2000. Then, shockingly, the French 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay team beat Lochte, Phelps, and Co., with Yannick Agnel overtaking Lochte in the anchor leg.
In gymnastics, Danell Leyva and John Orozco qualified for the all-around competition, finishing first and fourth; the women’s all-around world champ, Jordyn Wieber, did not. Her scores were high enough, but only two contenders are allowed from each country, and Wieber’s teammates Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas both outpointed her.
In men’s football, Japan shocked the world by defeating Spain 1-0; but the death blow was delivered on Sunday by Honduras. Jerry Bengtson scored the only goal of the match barely 7 minutes in, and Los Catrachos hung on to bounce La Furia Roja from the competition. Truth be told, it was an ugly affair pretty much from start to finish, with a few extracurricular scuffles and six yellow cards handed out to each side.
I tested out the live web streaming on the NBC Olympics site for the first time early Saturday morning, and, at least on Time Warner Cable, it’s a dicey proposition. I streamed Sarah Menezes in the judo competition, while I flipped the TV between the Canada-Russia women’s basketball game and the men’s cycling road race. The DVR was taping NBC Sports Network, which was showing who knows what. The judo feed went patchy, then it froze. As I tried to close windows, something odd started happening with the television: I changed the channel and the show’s info didn’t disappear as it normally does. I muted it, unmuted, and found that the volume level wouldn’t leave the screen either. Then it started taking a full minute to respond to my pushing a button on the remote.
Hmm, I thought, then pulled the power cord out of the cable modem. After everything rebooted, all returned to normal. I decided not to risk live streaming again.
On Sunday afternoon, I needed a break from the aural assault of the NBC networks commentators. (I love Teddy Atlas and respect his opinion on all things boxing implicitly, but the man has got to stop repeating the exact same thing over and over again for the full nine minutes that Olympic bouts can last.) So I tried out the feed again. This time I shut down the television.
Let me tell you, it was a thing of beauty. No announcers, just the sound of the crowds and the PA and the athletes themselves. There are two screens, a large one and another that's a bit bigger than thumbnail size, and toggling between the events on each screen is a snap. On the main screen I watched the medal round of the women’s weightlifting 53kg group, while Senegal trounced Uruguay, 2-0, in men’s football in the thumbnail window. After the weightlifting was done, I switched over to women’s field hockey and saw Argentina dominating South Africa. In about an hour the feed started getting glitchy again, but for as long as it lasted, I loved it.
Speaking of that field hockey match: Apparently, they don’t play field hockey on a field — at least at these games, it takes place on a large blue mat. The other surprising thing was that the South African team had not one black person on it. Not the lineup I saw, anyway. They do have 4 black players on their roster of 16. I’m not sure which of these facts I find more absurd.
Here is a sample of what Latin American papers are writing about the Olympics:
And my favorite: