This weekend will see the Olympic torch arrive in Britain amidst wrangling over Chinese human rights and the role of Prime Minister in the ceremony. Tomorrow, April 6th, is also the 112th anniversary of the opening of the first modern Olympic games in the Panathenaic Stadium in Greece. Most people ignore the Much Wenlock (Shropshire) Olympian Games of 1850 as a precursor.
The first modern Olympics in Greece had many of the features of the more recent encounters. The organising Committee saw costs multiply to three times budget, before they resigned en masse in 1894 saying the games could not be staged in Athens as they could not afford it. Others stepped in to raise more money and sort the problems out. The games were organised with representatives from 14 different nations, who joined in the Opening ceremony in national groups. Silver medals and laurel wreaths were awarded to winners and copper medals to runners up. Attempts to construct a modern gold/silver/bronze medal table for Greece shows the host nation winning, with the US second and the UK fifth. There were 43 separate events covering nine sports, with the highlight for the home crowd being a Greek victory in the marathon. There was a protest by a female athlete, running her own marathon to highlight the organiserâ€™s ban on women participating in the games at all. There was no special accommodation for athletes. It was left to who happened to be able to afford to be in Athens at the time as to who could join in. Several of the British competitors were attached to the British Embassy. The rowing had to be cancelled owing to high winds, and sailing was abandoned owing to a shortage of boats. The closing ceremony took place a day late owing to bad weather.
In many ways the modern Olympics are much better. Women and the disabled can join in the games. Provision is made for the athletes. Many more countries are represented and more sports featured. More preparation and more money allows the best in the world access to good equipment and high standards of organised competition. They have, however, wandered further and further from the ideal of dedicated amateurs competing for the fun of it. The advent of ever bigger money has produced all the trappings of professional sport â€“ expensive coaches, expensive equipment, detailed regimentation of the athletes life by others, and so much training that an Olympic athlete can no longer hold a normal job as well. It brings with it lawyers and ever more complicated rules. As the prizes become so much more valuable to win, so the ingenuity of coaches and athletes pushes at the limits of the rules. An athlete who wins an Olympic gold may still be an amateur in the sense that they are not paid for the winning race, but they will on the back of it be able to enter all sorts of lucrative contracts and deals to exploit their skill and celebrity status. The rules have been changed and relaxed over the years to reflect the reality that financial support helps produce better performances.
We are learning to live with the rough side of the Olympics. Any host nation is opening itself up for scrutiny, and potential abuse if the world does not like the way it behaves. The Olympic movement does little to stop the advance of ever more money in the games themselves, and even encourages it by backing very expensive staging and lucrative media involvement. It has become a media fest and a celebration of large corporations as sponsors, as well as a showcase for the fastest, strongest and most skilled competitors. We should expect more political controversy over the games, as the games are big news and those campaigning see an opportunity to gain air time and coverage. Attempts to stop peaceful protest will simply increase the coverage of the protesters, as it will make the story bigger. The arrival of the UK Lib Dems on the scene trying to find the moral high ground tells you they realise it is a great media circus, where even a squeezed third party can find some oxygen of publicity.