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Sochi, Russia

Sochi, Russia

The 2014 Winter Olympics will be held in Sochi, Russia which is a city on the Black Sea near the Georgia border.   The games will be the first winter games to feature medals competitions in “Slopestyle” snowboard and skiing as well as snowboard parallel slalom.

Parallel Snowboard Slalom

Parallel Snowboard Slalom

Of course the real competitions have already been held: namely the insane International competition to host the Olympics (which came down to a choice between Sochi, Salzburg, and Pyeongchang) and, more importantly, the competition to choose the official Olympic mascots.   You will no doubt recall that the 2012 summer Olympics mascots were “Wenlock and Mandeville”, two cyclopean alien robot monsters.

Wenlock and Mandeville

Wenlock and Mandeville (sigh)

In an attempt to end up with less appalling mascots, Russia turned to the time honored Russian solution of…democracy (?).  Wow! The world really is changing.  A list of vetted candidates was drawn up and submitted to the public for consideration.  Some of the shortlisted design ideas included Matryoshka dolls, Dolphins, Bullfinches, snow leopards, hares, bears, a tiny anthropomorphized sun, and Ded Moroz (the Russian “Father Frost” who acts as Santa).

The shortlist of 2014 Olympic mascot candidates

The shortlist of 2014 Olympic mascot candidates

Zoich, the counter culture mascot of the 2014 Olympics

Zoich, the counter culture mascot of the 2014 Olympics

Zoich, the anti-establishment furry crowned toad (who was modeled after Futurama’s hypnotoad) was quietly omitted from the final list of candidates as was Ded Moroz, when it was discovered that, if he won, he would become the intellectual property of the International Olympic Committee.

Sorry Ded, you must belong to the children of Russia

Sorry Ded, you already belong to the children of Russia

A telephone voting competition was held between the final mascot candidates and the three winners (the snow leopard, hare, and bear) became the official Olympic mascots.  Unfortunately the election was tainted with scandal when Russia’s elected leader and perennial strongman, Vladimir Putin announced that his favorite candidate was the snow leopard.  Subsequent to this proclamation, an immense number of phonecalls were immediately tallied for the snow leopard, which has led to charges of vote-rigging (so maybe the world hasn’t changed so much after all).

The winners

The winners

The designer of the 1980 Moscow Games mascot Misha (a bear which nobody saw because of the U.S. boycott) has accused the designer of the Sochi bear mascot of plagiarizing his bear expression.  Certain political groups have also darkly hinted that the bear was chosen because it resembles the mascot of the United Russia political party (which is the dominant force in Russian politics).

The Sochi 2014 mascot bear, Misha, the 1980 mascot bear, and the United Russia bear

The Sochi 2014 mascot bear, Misha, the 1980 mascot bear, and the United Russia bear

So it seems only the snow hare and the Paralympic mascots (a snowflake girl and fireboy) are untainted by controversy.  I dislike admitting it, but to my eye, Putin was right and the snow leopard, although not native to Sochi, is the most compelling figure.  They are all pretty cute, so maybe this whole democracy thing actually works (despite the ghastly results we have been getting lately in America).

Better than Congress!

Better than Congress by a lot!

The 2012 London Olympics are passing into history.  Congratulations to all of the athletes and planners (and to the British in general).  Now the world is becoming curious about what’s going to happen in the next summer Olympics in Brazil.  Will that nation continue its meteoric rise from underperforming “developing” economy into a major international powerhouse?  Will municipal authorities clean up street crime in Rio de Janeiro?  Will Cariocas continue to disdain all but the skimpiest of garments—even with the eyes of the world upon them? These answers will only be known in four years: it is impossible to see into the future.  But maybe it’s worthwhile to take another look back at the past.  The first modern Olympic games were held in Athens in 1896 thanks to a late nineteenth century obsession with fitness, the hard work of Pierre de Coubertin, and a widespread interest in the classical Olympics (the roots of which are lost in history, but which are mythically believed to have been initiated by Hercules).  Yet there were earlier modern Olympic-style contests which preceded the 1896 Olympics.  The Wenlock Olympic games, an annual local gaming festival which originated in the 1850’s in Shropshire, England, have been much discussed by the English during the run-up to the 2012 Olympics (in fact one of the awful mascots takes his name from the venerable tradition), however an even older modern Olympics festival was celebrated in much stranger circumstances.

On September 11, 1796 (also known as “1er vendémiaire, an IV” under the crazy Republican calendar) the “First Olympiad of the Republic” took place in Paris at the Champ de Mars.  As many as 300,000 spectators watched some part of the contests. The opening ceremony was dedicated to “peace and fertility” and then teams of competitors participated in various sporting events modeled on those of classical antiquity.  The first event, a foot race, was a tie between a student named Jean-Joseph Cosme and a “pomegranate” named Villemereux [I had to break out the French-English dictionary to determine that Villemereux was (probably) a grenadier instead some sort of seedy fruit].  The Olympiad also features horse and chariot racing.  The victors were crowned with laurel and rode in a chariot of victory.  The event ended with fireworks and an all-night drinking holiday.  The event was very popular with the public and the press.

There were two more Olympiads of the Republic, in 1797 and 1798.  The 1797 Olympiad was modeled closely on the 1796 event, however the 1798 Olympiad took additional inspiration from the classical Olympics and from the Enlightenment ideals of science and reason.  Wrestling was added to the contests and the games featured the first ever use of the metric system in sports.  However in 1798, the ominous shadows lengthening over Europe were apparent at the games.  As the athletes marched onto the field, they passed in front of effigies which represented all of the original French provinces, but they also passed before effigies which represented the newly conquered provinces from the Netherlands, Switzerland, and northern Italy.  The armies of the French Republic were surging through Europe.  As the Directory gave way to the Consulate the games were subsumed by more serious martial conflict, and the first consul—soon known as Emperor Napoleon, apparently saw no reason to bring them back.

Napoleon

Old-timey Olympics?

The Olympics is continually remade to reflect contemporary taste.  Sports which were once important are gradually abandoned.  Exciting new sports which appeal to younger audiences (or boring old sports which appeal to wealthier audiences) are tried out.  For example, the 2016 Olympics in Rio will feature two new sports—rugby sevens and golf (which has repeatedly been part of the Olympics in the past—and has repeatedly been dropped because it is an unwatchable festival of abject tedium).  The extent to which things have gradually changed becomes apparent when one looks back at the canceled sports of yesteryear, many of which are so anachronistic they seem like Monty Python gags.  The Economist illustrates the point with this delightful chart which features live pigeon shooting, javelin free style, and pistol dueling for teams (!?).  One of the discontinued sports which sounded most exciting to me was club swinging which conjures heady images of hirsute cavepersons belaboring each other with wooden cudgels. Was this the original sport?

Club Swinging?

Alas, my research into club swinging has revealed that the sport was not the Neanderthal free-for-all for which I was hoping (nor even some sort of amoral 70’s party event).  Apparently the “clubs” are those weird elongated bowling pin things that jugglers use.  The club swinger would take these objects and whirl them about his head and trunk in a discipline which combined saber-dancing, juggling, gymnastics, and just plain looking ridiculous. The sport had such a circus appearance that it gave rise to rumors that juggling was once an Olympics sport (which it never was).  Club swinging was also known as Indian club swinging because gifted participants apparently looked like they were taking part in some intricately choreographed Native American ritual.  In the fullness of time club swinging devolved into rhythmic gymnastics, that strange pseudo sport where a young Bulgarian dances and tumbles with a ribbon on a stick (which always makes my poor father apoplectic when he sees it on TV).

Club Swinging

Rhythmic Gymnastics

Club swinging was only a medal event at two Olympics festivals—the Saint Louis Olympics of 1904 and the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932.  Both of these Olympics were dominated by Americans because, in the age before cheap jet travel, the Olympics were not nearly as International as they now are.

“Smokey” the mascot of the 1932 Olympic Games

The 1932 Olympics took place at the high point (or low point?) of the Great Depression and underlines the sad exigencies of those times.  The gold medalist in club swinging was George Roth, an unemployed gymnast who was hit particularly hard by that economic catastrophe (in fact the Guardian reports that he once went 15 days without eating—so he probably looked like today’s gymnasts).  Roth embodied Baron de Coubertin’s ideal of unpaid amateur sports to an unwholesome degree: as soon as he was awarded with his gold medal he left the stadium and sadly hitchhiked home.

George Roth, the last Olympic gold medalist in Club Swinging

The 1988 Jamaican Bobsled Team

In high-low poker the person with the best hand of cards splits the cash pot with the person with the very worst hand.  I mention this because, in addition to spotlighting the world’s best athletes, every Olympics seems to feature an athlete or a team who wins the hearts of the fans because they are in way over their head.  The 1988 Olympics in Calgary, which marked the apogee of this trend, featured several different underdogs who became more famous than the actual winners.  The Jamaican bobsled team came from a nation which doesn’t have ice except in tropical drinks.  Their story is actually an inspiring tale of Olympic fraternity: other bobsledders lent them equipment (including bobsleds!) and helped them out with coaching and advice.  Although they did not officially finish in 1988, they showed great improvement and returned in subsequent winter Olympics (and were canonized in a not-entirely-accurate John Candy comedy).  Here’s a video of them zig-zagging down the track and crashing (it isn’t a practice run either).

Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards at Calgary

The 1988 Olympics also featured my favorite Olympic story—Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards, a far-sighted, big-chinned amateur British ski-jumper.  When I say “far-sighted” I don’t mean he looked deep into the future of the sport, I mean his vision was seriously impaired and he had to wear heavy glasses at all time.  These spectacles would fog up during his jumps which caused all sorts of problems (and you really don’t want any problems on a ski jump).  Eddie ran out of funds, so he trained with ski boots many sizes too large and lived rent-free in a Finnish mental hospital (ostensibly as a low rent boarder rather than as a patient).  On each of his jumps Eddie skirted dangerously close to death or contusion, yet he always provided an immensely entertaining spectacle.  The audience was a bit baffled by the flying-squirrel-like physiques and esoteric gliding skills of the winning ski jumpers, but bonded instantly with a lunatic everyman sliding off an immense ice-ramp for reasons of obdurate pride.

1998 Japanese Women’s Hockey Team

In the 1998 winter Olympics, the Japanese women’s hockey team (which was made up of miniscule, hyper-polite athletes) earned an automatic invitation to the tournament because Japan was hosting the Olympics.  I seem to remember watching a match where they were playing against craggy-faced giants from some icebound northern country and every single Japanese player fell down at the same time. Some of them didn’t (or couldn’t) make it upright for a while.

Eric “The Eel” Moussambani

In 2000 Eric Moussambani Malonga (aka “Eric the Eel”), a swimmer from Equatorial Guinea, stunned the world by taking longer to complete the 100 meter freestyle than competitors from other nations took to swim the 200 meter freestyle. “The Eel” who had been training for only eight months in a tiny hotel pool, had qualified for the Olympics when the two other swimmers in his heat were disqualified.  He swam his heat by himself—and won (even though he appeared to be sinking at the end).

Hamadou Djibo Issaka

Of course I would not mention these famously…tenacious…Olympians of yesteryear if the 2012 games did not already feature an athlete notable for his gallant but ineffectual effort.  An optimistic (albeit small-framed) sculler has already made a name for himself by, well, by not rowing as quickly as his competitors.    Hamadou Djibo Issaka was working as a gardener in the landlocked desert nation of Niger until he received a wild card spot (which nbcolympics.com explains are issued “to ensure all 204 National Olympic Committees can take part even if no athletes have qualified.”)  Although Djibo Issaka only practiced rowing a single scull for 3 months prior to the Olympics he demonstrated his spirit and determination by competing against the finest rowers in the world.  Yesterday, he gamely rowed a 2000 meter course in front of 20,000 cheering spectators.  Although he finished 300 meters behind his closest competitor in the heat, he was pleased not to have fallen out of his boat (which is what happened the first time he got in a scull in a two-week camp last November) and he is enthusiastic about Niger’s future rowing opportunities once they actually get sculls to practice with.

Hamadou Djibo Issaka rowing at the 2012 Olympics

Although he is now known as “the sculling sloth” the 35 year old Djibo Issaka was undaunted by his last place finish.  He will be rowing again on Friday and is looking forward to 2016.  I am glad that the Olympics include all sorts of athletes!  It makes the entire spectacle more exciting and unpredictable.   The gold medal champions embody the Olympics motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (“faster, higher, stronger”), but the amateurs who refuse to give up embody the Olympics creed.   To quote Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

The London Olympics Stadium

The 2012 Olympics are starting tomorrow.  I’m looking forward to watching (and blogging about) some of the esoteric sports which only get their moment of glory every four years—especially the sailing, boating, and shooting sports which are my favorite.  Before we get to the actual Olympics though, we have to get through the opening ceremonies, which are always a huge sloppy mess.  Like costumed mascots, which fascinate and appall the viewer with a unique combination of human and inhuman elements (in fact the 2012 Summer Olympics already feature completely ludicrous mascots) there is something simultaneously evocative and revolting about such international mass spectacles. If you can tolerate the agonizing kitsch and the eye-wateringly lurid spectacle, there are always insights into the host nation and the larger zeitgeist of each era.

The Opening Ceremony of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens

Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony

The principle elements of opening ceremonies generally include pyrotechnics, has-been pop stars, dreadful dance routines, strange performance art, posturing politicians, and crazy costumes.  There is also a moral lesson or story (which is meant to be an undercurrent but which is usually fairly overt) presented in a peculiar opera-like mash of dance, cameo celebrity appearances, and moveable sets.

Like all Americans, I boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics opening

Each host nation always manages to bring its own special horrible thing to the opening ceremony–for example the Beijing opening ceremony featured mass dance routines that would put North Korea to shame.  Tens of thousands of majorettes all marched in place for hours in high heeled boots with big fake smiles that said “they have my family!”

2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony (featuring clapping marching performers)

The overarching message of the Beijing opening ceremony seems to have been that China had a very ancient and superior culture but then fell on hard times (through no fault of its own) before building a brighter & better homogenous society which is poised to take leadership of the world.  During the bombastic (but compelling) performance, the cameras kept cutting to the grandstand filled with world leaders.  Putin stared at the spectacle with icy hatred in his eyes and a hard frown.  George Bush Junior kept slumping over in his seat with disinterest as Laura plucked at his elbow.

Crazy Costumes from the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening Ceremony

At least China still envisions a future in outer space (2008 Beijing Olympics opening Ceremony).

England, of course, is not lacking in dried-up rock stars and supernumerary VIPS, but preliminary reports indicate tomorrow’s opening ceremony will also be a chronological morality tale put together by England’s foremost director. The 2012 Olympics opening ceremony was designed by Danny Boyle, the director of Bollywoodwesque Slumdog Millionaire, zombie horror film 28 Days Later, and heroin-soaked black comedy Trainspotting.  According to The Daily Mirror:

The whole ceremony is based on William Shakespeare’s brilliant play, The Tempest. The title in particular is borrowed from a stirring speech made by the native Caliban to his master Prospero. “Be not afraid,” says Caliban, “for the isle is full of noises. Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.”

In addition to the bard, Boyle apparently intends to pay homage to England’s agrarian past with a comprehensive cavalcade of live farm animals.  The second act will feature the hardships of the industrial revolution and the amorality of England’s colonial ascendancy—which is meant to provide a dark and upsetting counterpoint to the initial bucolic splendor.  Finally modern England will appear as a land of toleration and rock-and-roll!  [Of course all of this could be wrong. Boyle has been trying to keep his program secret, and this information is based on leaks and speculation.]

2010 Spirit Bear? Does anyone else remember this?

This year is already looking exciting in terms of political drama. Putin will not attend since he is angry with Great Britain (as apparently is President Obama, though nobody has yet fathomed why).  An awkward Mitt Romney will be there, trying [and failing] to fit in with actual world leaders.  But the real excitement will focus on the central performance, a train wreck of public art featuring farm animals, Elton John, industrial grime, James Bond, the Spice girls, and medieval kings.  What does that say about the zeitgeist?  Find out tomorrow!

Weary Hecules (Roman, Imperial Period, mid‑ to late 2nd century A.D. Marble)

This blog has often referenced the heroic deeds of Hercules, particularly since the demigod single-handedly killed a shocking number of the titanic monsters born of Echidna (not to mention the fact that he allegedly knew something of Echidna herself).  Yet one of Hercules greatest deeds gets mentioned least often–even though it might have been the most remarkable.  Additionally, according to myth, this prodigious feat was critical to the founding of the Olympic Games!  With the summer Olympics coming up later this year in London, it is time to tell the amazing (and disgusting) tale.

In order to atone for murdering his family while under a divine curse, Hercules was sentenced to complete a list of mighty labors.  Eurystheus, the sniveling king who chose the tasks, selected deeds presumed to be impossible (and fatal)–but Hercules completed the first four with ease.  Eurystheus therefore decided to think of something demeaning and disgusting for Hercules’ fifth task.  Augeas, king of Elis, had the greatest herds and flocks of livestock in all of Greece.  By day his many horses, cows, goats, pigs, and sheep would graze and forage.  At night herdsmen would round up the animals and return them to Augeas’ immense stables.  All of these animals left quite a mess behind them and the stables had never been cleaned.  Eurystheus decided that mucking out endless tons of dung would win no glory for Hercules.  The petty king demanded that Hercules accomplish the task within a year–an impossibly short time for the horrible chore.

Ancient Roman Mosaic of Hercules cleaning the Augean Stables (Apologies for the graphic nudity)

Hercules however had a plan.  He presented himself to King Augeas and promised to clean the stables within a single day–provided the King would recompense him with one tenth of his livestock.  Augeas laughingly acceded to the crazy offer knowing that no man could clean the stables in years.  Hercules however was not merely a man.  He punched giant holes in opposite walls of the stables and then diverted a mighty river through the breach.  The ordure was rinsed from the stables in less than a day.

King Augeas was not rich because of his generosity or fairness.  He proclaimed that the river had done the work and denied payment to Hercules.  When Hercules returned to Eurystheus, the latter decreed that the labors were not meant for profit and Hercules would not receive credit for cleaning the Augean stables (there is probably a lesson about dealing with powerful people in there).  The heroic labor was a wash–literally and figuratively. Hercules kept the incident in the back of his head though as he slogged his way to the edge of the Earth and down into the underworld.  When the twelve labors were complete he returned to Augeas’ kingdom to make war on the greedy king.  Hercules first killed Augeas’s twin nephews, Cteatus and Eurytus, demigods born of Molione (Augeas’ sister) and Poseidon.  He dragged the warrior twins from a chariot and smashed them to death.  Then Hercules’ soldiers (the Tirtynthians) sacked Augeas’s city and put the inhabitants to death.  Finally Hercules ripped Augeas to pieces (there is probably another lesson about dealing with powerful people in that grim postscript).

To celebrate the victory and the completion of his labors, Hercules instituted a peaceful athletic contest which grew into the Olympic games (although some classical sources state the Olympics were started by Zeus after his victory over the titan Cronus).  Irrespective, it is worth relating the story whenever the Olympics roll around (especially if you have already grown tired of the stupid London Olympics mascots).  I also find myself envious of Hercules’ easy ability to clean up messes whenever I find myself facing a daunting pile of…tasks.

Ancient Greek Amphora depicting a foot race.

Anyway as a bonus for those who are inclined to literature, here is a section of Ode X of the ancient Greek poet Pindar’s Olympic Odes.  Pindar here describes Hercule’s violent war on Augeas (the remainder of the ode can be read here).

Conquests by toil unearn’d to few belong:
Action’s the sovereign good, the light of life.
But me Jove’s Hallow’d Rites the athletic strife
And matchless Games in solemn song
Bid blazon; which the potent Hercules
Stablish’d by Pelops’ ancient tomb;
What time the godlike Cteatus to his doom
He sent, though sprung from him that rules the seas,

Him with bold Eurytus, the largess due
Thus from reluctant Augeas to compel.
Them on their journey in Cleones’s dell
Th’avenging chief from ambush slew.
Just retribution! His Tirtynthian host,
Surprised in Elis’ close defiles,
Molione’s o’erwheening sons by wiles
Had crush’d; and all of his choicest chiefs were lost.

That guest-beguiling king the wrath of Heaven
Soon reach’d.  He saw the sceptre of his sway,
To sword and flame his wealth and country given,
Saw his Epeian kingdom pass away,
Sunk in Destruction’s gulf! ‘Tis hard indeed
The conflict with a mightier foe to close;
And wit forsakes whom Fate hath doom’d to bleed.
Himself a captive thus, the last of those
Whose loyalty his fault and fortune shared,
‘Scaped not the dire revenge Herculean rage prepared.

In our continuing exploration of the uneasy world of mascots, it’s time to meet Wenlock and Mandeville, mascots for the 2012 London Olympics.  Hmm, oh dear…  They each have a camera for an eye, which seems eerily appropriate given England’s dystopian fascination with Orwellian surveillance equipment.  They do not have mouths, probably so that they are unable to scream.  Understanding their back story makes them no less disquieting:  according to their creators, they are steel nuggets handicrafted by an eccentric grandfather and then given life by children’s love for sports.

“The mascot will help us engage with children which is what I believe passionately in,” London organising committee chairman Sebastian Coe told Reuters.

“The message we were getting was that children didn’t want fluffy toys, they didn’t want them to be human but they did want them rooted in an interesting story. “By linking young people to the values of sport, Wenlock and Mandeville will help inspire kids to strive to be the best they can be.”

Um, what?  Toy designers know how easily children can be (mis)lead during marketing research. You have to watch their hands and eyes in order to find out their real answers. Or maybe I’m wrong and English children really do like mouthless, handless, soulless one-eyed robot-monsters.

Come on English designers! Just slap a bearskin on a bulldog and head for the pub.  Everyone would be happy and you would have an enduring winner instead of the travesties which Wenlock and Mandeville so clearly are.  As an added bonus, here are some alternate ideas for 2012 London Olympics mascots:

Trafalgar the pigeon (by Danny Ihns)

The lion and the unicorn from the UK coat of arms (as re-envisioned by Woodrow Phoenix)

‘Dodgee – the Olympic Hoodie’ (created by Aaron Robinson)

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