When Dan Gable, US wrestling legend said, “Gold medals aren’t made of gold, they are made from sweat, determination and a hard-to-find alloy called guts!” he missed out on one element: Fun!
Winner of four gold medals at the London Olympics of 1948, Fanny Blankers-Koen put it in proper perspective when she said, “All I’ve done is run fast. I don’t see why people should make so much fuss about that.”
Sweden’s Carolina Kluft, who won the heptathlon at Athens in 2004, also believes that sport is about enjoying yourself. She carries a stuffed toy everywhere she goes, just so that she is reminded of that fact.
Meant for the ‘exaltation of athletes’ — as Baron de Coubertin would have us believe — the quadrennial sporting extravaganzas have had their fair share of laughs and faux pas over the last 120 years.
Ugo Frigero was one of the pioneers of the fun and enjoyment element in sport. A 10,000-metre walker, he would insist on the band at the Olympic Stadium playing music when he entered. The Italian waved his arms to help the musicians keep the right tempo and once even stopped during the race to yell instructions to the band. Is it any wonder then that he won gold medals in 1920 and 1924?
Ask Usain Bolt — who jokes with spectators — or for that matter, Estonian discus thrower Gerd Kanter. After winning a gold medal in Beijing, Kanter sprinted down the 100-metre track and did an ‘archer’s pose’, a la Bolt. Winning is all about enjoying the moment, isn’t it?
Smiles to go
In the mid-twentieth century there was this Czech athlete who ran like a locomotive. Wheezing and panting, with his head rolling about, his facial expression was tortuous. Yet, he won four Olympic gold medals — and a silver to boot, to be considered one of the best distance runners of all time.
Emil Zatopek was his name and he was nicknamed ‘Emil the Terrible’. When asked about his grotesque expression when he ran, he said, “I’m not talented enough to smile and run at the same time.”
Running with his left arm crooked and his wrist cocked, Ethiopian 10,000-metre star, Haile Gebrselassie won gold medals at Atlanta and Sydney. When queried about his peculiar running style, he said that he had to run 10-kilometres to school and back, every day, carrying books in his left hand. The style was a legacy of his school days!
And then there was this star long distance runner from Finland, Lasse Viren. He won a double at both Munich and Montreal. Trying to emulate Zatopek, he ran the marathon at Moscow despite an attack of diarrhea. Whenever nature called, he would rush to the bushes. He had to give up, a few kilometres into the event and after quite a few visits to the bushes.
Over the decades, some real unknowns have won medals at the Games.
Fancied to win the shot put event at Athens, in 1896, Bob Garrett of America chanced upon a discus lying on the grass at the Panathinaiko. Hurling it a fair distance, in fun, he decided to enter that event too.
The Greek discus throwers, Paraskevopoulos and Versis, who had trained long and hard, were beautifully coordinated and had perfected their throwing techniques. Garrett just spun around and threw the discus, many a times missing the spectators by inches. The competitors and the crowd laughed at him and he laughed with them. But in his final throw, the American hurled the discus 19 cm ahead of the Greek champion and won the event!
In 1912, the year of the Stockholm Games, two young students from Cambridge, Philip Noel-Baker and Arnold Jackson decided to visit Norway on a fishing expedition. There, on a lark, they entered the 1,500-metre Olympic event privately. Jackson won the gold medal, while Noel-Baker finished in 6th position. After the war, in 1920, Noel-Baker won a silver medal in the same event. A statesman in later life, Philip Noel-Baker was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1959.
Percy Williams of Canada was an unexpected winner of the 100-metre sprint at the 1928 Games. That evening a crowd of Canadian supporters stood outside Williams’ hotel hoping to catch a glimpse of the new national hero. Williams was such an unknown that he stood unnoticed in the crowd waiting for himself to appear.
And it can’t get better than this. Edgar Aaybe was a Danish journalist covering the 1900 Paris Olympics. In the tug-of-war competition the team represented by Denmark and Sweden needed another man and asked Aaybe if he would join. They won the competition and Aaybe became an improbable champion!
Around the time the London Games of 1908 were held, American Walter Dray was the pole vault world champion. He however declined the invitation to compete in the Olympics because his mother thought he was jumping too high and that he might injure himself if he competed!
When George Foreman won the heavyweight boxing gold medal at the 1968 Games, in Mexico, he resisted the urge to knock out his Soviet opponent, though he had several opportunities to do so. When asked why, Foreman said, “My mom had told me not to hurt anybody … and she was watching the bout on TV!”
At Helsinki, a 28-year-old American named Frank Havens, egged on by his mother, won the 10,000-metre canoeing gold. His father, Bill, had missed winning a gold medal at the 1924 Paris Games because he had dropped out of the American crew that had participated in the rowing competition. Bill had decided that he would be by his wife’s side when Frank was born!
The Olympics have seen some very strange games and sports over the last century.
The contemptible game of live pigeon shooting was one of the events at the 1900 Paris Games. The object was to shoot and kill as many pigeons as possible. A contestant who missed two birds was eliminated.
Four years later, at St Louis, one of the most unusual and shameful events named ‘Anthropology Days’ was held. It in, there were athletic events between the so-called primitive tribes. These included Pygmies, Patagonians, Filipinos, and Native Americans etc.
The 1906 ‘intercalated’ Games at Paris, which are now derecognised, had some bizarre events. There was a dueling competition where competitors shot at mannequins dressed in frock coats. A bull’s eye was printed on the mannequin’s throat.
But the athlete who takes the cake is a modern-day bigot. Ho-Jun Li, a marksman from North Korea won the gold in the small-bore-rifle prone-position competition at the 1972 Munich Olympics. When asked the secret of his success, he replied the he pretended that he was shooting at ‘capitalists’.
Laughable, to say the least!
At the Helsinki Games, after Parry O’Brien won the shot put gold, he passed on his lucky sweatshirt to Sim Innes, who won the discus gold the next day. Cy Young then got the sweatshirt and he won the javelin gold. When hurdler Jack Davis was asked if he would wear the sweatshirt, he declined and finished second to Harrison Dillard.
At the 1972 Munich Games, future gold medalist, Pietro Mennea of Italy stripped off his tracksuit and his shorts too, on the tracks, displaying his jockstrap to the amusement of the crowd.
Former athletes Gail Devers and Florence Griffith-Joyner painted their long fingernails in different colours, and the latter wore lacy outfits which she used to call ‘athletic negligees’. Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce is one of the modern athletes who dyes her hair in different colours and enjoys running.
The Olympics is, in the end, all about having fun!
Austin Coutinho is a former fast bowler turned coach. He is also a caricaturist and has authored several books including The Games, Goal, The Devil’s Pack, besides writing for several newspapers and websites.