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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The greatest show on earth is here


In a 1992 Collier’s Encyclopaedia article, Chris Wood says to forget soccer’s World Cup, baseball’s World Series, even the Super Bowl; that “Only one event truly fulfils the grandiose claim of being ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’: the Olympic Games!”

You cannot dispute his observation when you consider the mass of stars from different countries parading every four years and fortnightly battling for medals in dozens of sports as the rest of the world watches.

It’s only at the Olympic Games that national flags of hitherto struggling and unknown nations such as Ethiopia dance spectacularly in the sky; like when Abebe Bikila became the first black African to win an Olympic gold medal. Those who were in the stadium will never forget that delightful day in Rome in 1960, when they saw the small man running barefoot cross the finishing line of the Olympic marathon 200 yards ahead of his nearest competitor.

At the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, the first officially recognised female track and field star, Mildred “‘Babe” Didrikson of Texas, set a world record in the high jump and 80-meter hurdles, and won the gold medal in the javelin on her first throw.

How about that electrifying moment during the men’s 400meter semi-final in Barcelona in 1992 when British runner Derek Redmond got injured mid-race but limped on with determination, and fearing that his son might give up due to the terrible pain, his father jumped from the stands, evaded security and aided his weeping son to the finish line while the crowds ecstatically cheered themselves hoarse.

At the Olympics, emotions never before known gush when those who arrived with great expectations return home empty-handed and heartbroken while surprise medal scoopers become instant celebrities.

From early 1986 in Athens – Greece, the Olympic Games, previously largely a Greek affair, were given a facelift by successful French thinker and educator, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, into what is the modern Olympic Games.

A dark cloud has many times descended upon the Games but not overshadowed the euphoria surrounding them. In Germany in 1972, Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Olympic team members from Israel while 63 countries withdrew from the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. In South Korea in 1988, Canadian runner Ben Johnson set a new world record of 9.79secs in the finals of the 100-metre race.

Moments later, a drug test revealed his use of steroids. He was stripped of his gold medal and record and returned home disgraced. These are only a few of several stains but it’s better to dwell on the definitive moments.

These are best captured in the evolution of the competition. According to Encarta Encyclopaedia, the Olympic Games began in ancient Greece in 776 BC and were celebrated every four years at Olympia in the sanctuary of Zeus, the god of the skies and god of all Greek gods.

Only “honourable men of Greek descent” would come from all over and pay tribute to Zeus by vying with one another “in the splendour of their equipment and the proficiency of their athletic feats.”
The order of events is fuzzy but it’s said that the festival started with sacrifices and on the second day spectators packed into the stadium “enclosed by sloping banks of earth” to watch men wrestle and box each other.

“In the first of these sports, the object was to throw the antagonist to the ground three times” but with time the fights became violent as blows rained with fluid brutality until the vanquished acknowledged defeat.

Then there was horse racing - very popular but a preserve of the rich who could afford a good horse; and then pentathlon: a combination of wrestling, discus throwing, hurling the javelin, long jumping, and splinting. The closing sport was a “race run in armour.”

Unlike today, the winners would “live for the rest of their lives at public expense” after being decorated with wreaths from a sacred olive tree and marching around in glory while the crowd roared and sang the works of the great poets of the day.

After 1170 years, the adorable games were suppressed by the Roman emperor Theodosius until their revival in 1896. Greek millionaire George Averoff supported the cause with some fine Drachmas that helped erect an imposing arena on the foundations of the old Panathenaic Stadium.

That memorable day of the first modern games in 1896 started the popular marathon race, covering 26 miles 385 yards in honour of the ancient Greek splinter Pheidippides, who galloped from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory against the Persians.

The man behind the real revival, Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937) wanted to promote friendship among nations; something connected to his famous statement: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part…the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”

Since that day in 1896 in Athens, Greece, when America’s James Connolly entered records for winning the first race of the modern games, the world has witnessed and continues to see sports personalities fighting well and ugly if that’s what it takes to win that little thing called medal.

It was the greatest honour for any Greek worth his salt to win at Olympia. And generally all Greeks loved contests and conquests and were consistently driven by one thing –to win. This mentality is now embedded in the psyche of every performer at wherever the Olympics are.

It explains why a 22-year-old African American, Jesse Owens, squashed a long-held Nazi racist ideology that whites are racially superior by winning four gold medals in track and field at the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany. An angry Hitler unwittingly cultivated him cult status when he refused to recognise Owens’s four gold medals because he was black.

It’s the same craving for victory associated with the Olympics that saw “underdog” Nigeria upset “super” Brazil in the semi-final before going on to win gold in the final against Argentina. Viewers will never forget the thrilling exploits of then young Nwanko Kanu with his little figure and sharp ‘French cut’ hairstyle.

The year was 1996 that the first 100 years of international modern Olympic Games were celebrated during which a couple of new sports, such as softball and women’s soccer, were introduced.

This day honoured the ancient Greek games and slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The man who in his best days was known to dance like a butterfly in the ring and sting like a bee, oh yes, Olympic gold medallist and former heavy weight boxing champ Muhammad Ali, lit the Olympic torch.

For the 29th edition of the prestigious Olympic Games which kicked off in Beijing, China on Friday, the same torch was lit in Olympia in March and after being received in Beijing, began on its trip through six continents covering 137,000 km. This is the longest distance of any Olympic torch relay, according to, since this ritual started at the 1936 Olympics in Germany.

China has done everything including putting up appearances to make sure the games go well. The New York Times reported in July that in the west gate of the Temple of Heaven and along the Olympic marathon in Beijing, the government built “a 10-foot-tall brick wall” to hide ugly buildings. For a developed and technology-suave country like China, it was laughable and worse than the quick and quack road patch-ups in the name of Kampala city beautification shortly before Chogm.

Truly, Chris Wood was right when he called the Olympic Games the greatest show on earth. However faint the hope, Ugandans will be watching to see if one of our boys in China achieves or come closer to achieving what John Akii-Bua famously did at the 1972 “Olympics of serenity” in Munich, Germany.

--Sunday Monitor, August 10, 2008