Monday, August 6, 2012

Amateur Hour

In a piece for the Paris Review entitled "Hacks Britannia: Reviving an Olympic Tradition of Crapness," his critique of filmmaker Danny Boyle's chaotic and puzzling opening ceremony of the London Olympics, Rafil Kroll-Zaidi cites some quirkily charming Olympic history.

“At the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, to which Britain did not send a delegation but at which it did earn two medals by virtue of owning Ireland, the first-place finisher in the marathon, a New York City bricklayer, was disqualified for having covered eleven miles of the course by automobile. The runner-up, a British-Bostonian brazier competing for America, whose trainers had administered him strychnine and brandy and egg whites and who had been borne along by officials for part of the race, was declared the victor . . . .

"[O]ther marathon runners included a five-foot Cuban postman who supposedly, as if in a children’s book, stopped to eat apples in an orchard, fell ill, fell asleep, then got back up and placed fourth. Two tribesmen from Orange Free State, who were part of an ethnographic sideshow at the World’s Fair, to which the Olympics were themselves a sideshow, finished respectably, though one was chased far off course by dogs. More than half the entrants failed to complete the race.”

Sounds like a good deal of plain fun, although it wasn't all glamor, mind you. Those were the days before NBC, in an era before the Olympics became a bit of extended cheesecake (or beefcake, as the case may be) . . . 

 Frederick Winters, USA (silver, 1904)

. . . when weightlifters dressed like retrograde elves, when men were men and smelled like it, and all the girls were ladies who never got endorsement deals.

Following suit and in step with the temper of the times, the 1908 Olympics in London featured an equally unruly marathon. Dorando Pietri, the first to finish, was dehydrated and beginning to black out as he neared the finish line, having just completed another marathon a few days earlier. Nearing the stadium finish, he took a wrong turn and the judges made him turn back. When he collapsed, the judges helped him to his feet. Two hundred meters from the finish, Pietri fell four more times, was lifted to his feet by the judges and a doctor each time, until he staggered across the line completely exhausted. 

He crossed the line first, but the final 500 meters had taken over 10 minutes. The American team protested and the American runnerup was named the winner. The instant replay showed that Pietri had in fact received considerable assistance at the finish line from a guy in a straw boater with a megaphone. As it happened, London played host that year because Mount Vesuvius had erupted outside Rome, where the Games were initially scheduled. One can only surmise how a patriotic Roman mob would have dealt with an American protesting the obvious triumph of their compatriot Pietri, whose name would doubtless today adorn the historical record of first places.
Dorando Pietri (London, 1908)
The 1908 London marathon merely followed a tradition for scandal and melodrama. In the initial Olympic Games in Athens (1896), Spyridon Belokas, who finished third, was later disqualified for having travelled a fair part of the course by carriage. In the 1900 Paris games, course markings were so poor that confused athletes ran randomly through most of central Paris; American Arthur Newton finished fifth but insisted, quite plausibly, that nobody had overtaken him all day; his compatriot Richard Grant said he had been deliberately run over by a cyclist as he was about to catch the race leaders. In St Louis in 1904, the "runner-up" admitted that he had actually retired at the nine-mile mark and travelled most of the remaining distance in a car. He was banned from sport for life and allowed to return the following year. Still, that year's winner (John Hicks, the brandy-and-strychnine adherent) made less than a photo finish, though there is a photo of him finishing.

Not entirely cricket?

The Olympics, like the Grand Tours of cycling, were once contests among gifted amateurs with day jobs. The Tour de France boasts amateurs like Octave Lapize, best remembered for cursing Tour offiicals to their faces while mounted on his bicycle in the midst of a stage. In the 1910 Tour, one of the first to include mountain stages, Lapize spotted some Tour officials while pedalling his way up the brutal Col du Tourmalet and shouted, "Vous êtes des assassins! Oui, des assassins!" That particular stage was 326 kilometers (200+ miles) along unpaved roads on single-gear bicycles and featured seven categorized climbs, a feat that elevates amateurism to a form of insanity.
Octave Lapize
Considering the history of amateur sporting events, considering as well that the word "amateur" refers to one who participates for the love of the sport, it's hard not to regret the professionalization and logo-ization and corporatization of the whole affair. It's impossible to feel much transported by, say, the U.S. men's basketball team, a roster of pros like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant. An 83-point victory over Nigeria, a 47-point win over Tunisia, a 40-point shellacking of the UK - all these seem eminently forgettable, less athletic feats than just more triumphalist piling on. 

What is more memorable is that 5-point (99-94) squeaker over Lithuania in a game which favored the U.S. by nearly 35 points. The American pros trailed the Lithuanians by two points with less than six minutes. Only a 15-4 point run gave the U.S. a game-finishing lead and averted a second humiliation reminiscent of Lithuania's 2004 win at Athens. It seems only human to wish the  Lithuanians had won.

Which goes to prove that Olympic outcomes aren't entirely predictable, but they're more predictable and far less stirring than in the days when the Games were truly human drama under an amateur regime. I can't identify with professional athletes for the same reason I can't envy the wealthy (presuming they are not in every case the same) - they are too far elevated above my own more modest endowments. The gods are not bound by the same rules of either gravity or morality as are us mortals.

The Games will return to their former glory days when roller derby becomes an Olympic event - roller derby, a sport that elevates amateurism to joyous, utterly formless art.


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