Sporting in the Olympic Theatre

Olympic fever appears to have taken over the country, with Britain hosting, and performing astoundingly well, particularly in the cycling events, perhaps even putting cycling on the map as a national sport.

In such economically dark times, a bit of flag-waving patriotism may be just the tonic the country needs; the moral-booster that helps people forget their troubles.

Yet the Games isn’t just sport: it is an Event-with-a-capital-‘E’. It is sport invested with all the pomp and pageantry of which humans are capable, with its opening and closing ceremonies, its media hype and its crowd-pleasing winners. Athletes competing in the Games are not merely sportspeople but performers, playing to a crowd, putting on a show.

It seems, that in spite of the increasing de-formalisation of society, (even David Cameron’s wife opted not to wear at hat to Kate and Wills’ wedding at Westminster Abbey) – we still love the thrill and the glory of a formal event properly staged; the build-up, the presentation, the sheer performativeness of the display. The Olympics, purely and simply, is a three-week long piece of marvellous theatre, with sports commentators continually referring to an athlete’s ‘performance’ in their chosen event. Winning a race is deemed to be ‘a fine performance.’

In terms of its history, the Games is nothing new. It originated from Greece, taking its name from Olympia, the place where it was held. As early as 776B.C. the games took place every four years, although it is conjectured that it had already been established many centuries earlier. Events in these early Olympics were confined to running.

Other events were subsequently assimilated into the Games, such as wrestling and the pentathlon; an event which, in Ancient Greece, consisted of a day’s worth of contests, and included long jump, javelin, discus, a short ‘foot race’ and wrestling.

However, by A.D. 394, the Roman Emperor Theodusuis I, in some kind of personal crusade against the nature religions, abolished the Games, on the grounds that they were too pagan.

The first ‘modern’ Olympic Games was held in 1896, the International Olympic Committee having been founded two years earlier, in 1894. It was held in Athens, the home of the original Games and featured fourteen countries and a total of two hundred and forty-five athletes competed in a total of forty three events.

Of course, there was no television coverage of this first modern Games, only the live experience of seeing the event for oneself. Nevertheless, the Victorians doubtless enjoyed the spectacle in much the same way as we do today, marking it with both an opening and closing ceremony.

The 1896 Games did indeed begin with a grand opening ceremony, held on April 6th and the Panathinaiko Stadium was thronging with around 80,000 spectators, who listened in anticipation as Crown Prince Constantine declared the inaugural Games officially open.

1896 Olympic opening ceremony in Panathinaiko Stadium

Of the fourteen nations that competed in the Games, ten earned medals, the U.S.A. being the nation to earn the most gold medals, while Greece, the host country, won the greatest number of medals overall.

Of course, all the competitors were men, since the founder of the I.O.C., Baron Pierre de Coubertin, declared that to include women would be, ‘impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect.’

In hearty defiance of this stipulation, one woman, Stamata Revithi, did run the marathon course on April 11th, the day after the official race had been run. Revithi finished in around five hours and thirty minutes, and managed to achieve verification for her running time by persuading some witnesses to sign their names as proof of her achievement.

As to the sports themselves, the 1896 Games did not differ much from our modern Games, in terms of the events that were staged. There was Athletics, including a marathon and track running, in which the American, Thomas Burke, won the hundred metre race, finishing with a time of twelve seconds. Burke also won the four hundred metres race, finishing with a time of just over fifty four seconds. No world records were broken, perhaps because not many top athletes had opted to compete.

Interestingly enough, Thomas Burke was one of the first ‘modern’ athletes to crouch down at the start to the race instead of starting from an upright position, a move which confused the jury, who, perplexed, allowed him to start in this way.

Thomas Burke (2nd lane from the left)

In addition the Athletics, there was Gymnastics, Fencing, Shooting, Weightlifting, Tennis, Swimming, Wrestling and of course, Cycling, the track events of which, took place in the then newly constructed Neo Phaliron Velodrome, a building probably not too dissimilar from the London Velodrome, in which our modern cyclists are competing in 2012.

All cycling competitions employed rules created by the International Cycling Association and there was only one road event, a marathon of eighty-seven kilometres, racing from Athens to Marathon.

Frenchman Paul Masson won the track cycling, achieving victory in the one lap time trial, the sprint, as well as the 10,000 metres and Adolf Schmal, an Austrian, won the Marathon, which only two cyclists managed to complete.

Paul Masson

The Olympic Games has subsequently been held every four years ever since, the 1900 Games being held in Paris. The 1948 Games was the first Olympic Games to receive television coverage.

So what is it about sporting events of this magnitude that gets us all fired up? Is it the sport itself, or the media hype surrounding it?

My guess is that, in a world where political correctness has deemed competitiveness a negative thing, people enjoy watching sportsmen and women competing in a friendly, good-natured way, sympathising with the losers, celebrating the winners. At the risk of sounding dreadfully cheesy one might almost say the Games is like life, but with all the boring bits edited out. In other words, it is like a piece of art.

Interest in the Games shows that we still love a good show. The age of pomp and ceremony is not quite dead and the Games is feeding upon our human love of theatre and display, all in the name of some fine performances from our home-grown athletes.

Image reproduced from and

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About Julia Wood

Julia Wood, (M.A., University of Warwick) is an author, Oscar Wilde scholar and personality. She has received extensive press and television coverage for her distinctive Edwardian lifestyle and designs all her own clothes. Julia is currently working on a novel - a ghost story - set in the Edwardian era. Visit Follow Julia on Twitter @edwardianspice
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