Happy Olympics Day!
When it comes to sports, some people live for the Super Bowl, others for the World Series. I live for the Olympics. My love of the Games stems from my childhood. Growing up in a small Midwestern town, in an era before computers and 800 TV channels, the Olympics were a window to a big world beyond the 2,200 residents of my hometown. During the Winter Olympics, I could imagine skiing down mountains that looked so different from the flat farmlands that surrounded me. During the Summer Olympics, I visited a major metropolis in another country and dreamed of traveling there.
So tonight I’ll have my usual Olympics Opening Ceremony party, ready to watch the festivities unfold. London becomes the first city to host three Olympics, and its history as a host is rather intriguing, as its first two times were actually by default.
When Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France conceived the Modern Olympics, interest was strongest in Greece, so Athens became the first host in 1896. The Games were hugely successful, and the next Olympics were scheduled for Paris in 1900, de Coubertin’s hometown. However, these games were pretty much a disaster, as they were held as part of the 1900 World Exhibition. In short, they were treated as a sideshow.
Disgusted, de Coubertin had high hopes for 1904, when the games were awarded to the U.S. Chicago was initially named the site, but St. Louis wanted the games to be part of its Louisiana Purchase Exhibition. It was President Theodore Roosevelt who agreed that St. Louis should be the host. Unfortunately, the games were no better than 1900. For all of us movie fans who love “Meet Me in St. Louis,” Judy Garland is not singing about taking the trolley to watch the Olympics.
It was Greece that saved the Olympics movement. The country had planned to stage its own Games on a different four-year cycle – 1898, 1902, 1906, etc. However, it didn’t happen until 1906, and the success of these “interim” Games led to the continuation of the Olympic movement. BTW, this was the only games staged on this cycle.
So for 1908, Rome was initially awarded the games. But the eruption of Mount Vesuvius required funding to be redirected, so London was awarded the Games. It was here that the Opening Ceremony was first held (above). Although intense bickering broke out between various countries and the British, as the British ran and judged all competitions, the Games were considered a success.
Flash forward to 1948. The Olympics have been canceled just three times in its history: 1916, 1940 and 1944, all because of world wars. London took on the difficult task of staging the first Olympics after World War II, with just a few years to plan. England was recovering form the war, and food shortages still abounded.
But the Games came off successfully, presided over by King George VI (for movie fans, it’s Colin Firth in “The King’s Speech”).
My favorite athlete from those Games is worth remembering: Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands (above). In 1936 she was 18 years old and competed in the Berlin Olympics but did not win any medals, although she did meet her idol, U.S. track star Jesse Owens. During the next 12 years she became a dominant figure in women’s track and field, and by the time 1948 came, she held six world records. She also had married, given birth to two children and, at 30, was considered too old to be a sprinter and track star.
She entered four events – the 100 meters, 200 meters, 80 meters hurdles and the 4x100 relay. She would have entered the long jump and high jump, but the schedules conflicted with the foot races.
Still, people were skeptical. A British official carped, “Why is a 30-year-old mother of two running in short pants at the expense of leaving her family?” An angry Fanny told husband/coach Jan, “I’ll show him.”
Indeed she did. She won the 100 meters in impressive style, and then took the hurdles race in a close contest. But the press kept questioning her about her decision to leave her family behind in Amsterdam to compete, and she nearly dropped out of the Games. But Jan convinced her to stay. The result: another gold in the 200 meters and a fourth gold in the relay. She became the first woman to win four golds in track and field in a single Games and only the second person to do this – Jesse Owens, her idol, had won four golds in Berlin.
To this day, no other woman has won four track and field gold medals in a single Games. That’s quite an accomplishment.
This time around, London has had time to prepare for the Games – seven years, to be exact. With luck, the Games will be a huge success, and we’ll toast the success of an athlete like Fanny.