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The world has never seen the likes of the modern Olympic Games, which may not be saying very much because it hasn't seen the likes of the halftime show at the Orange Bowl, either. And, contrary to popular opinion, the Olympics are not the world's biggest sporting event. Although 7,000 athletes will forgather at Munich next month, the annual Vasaloppet cross-country ski race in Sweden draws more than 8,000 participants, as does the mass swim across the Sea of Galilee, which is also held every year. Nor are the Olympics necessarily the best sporting event. But the Olympics are undeniably the most misunderstood.
The Games tend to be regarded as a sacred festival featuring boffo brotherhood-of-man numbers; socko extravaganzas featuring the flags of all nations, thousands of terrified doves and a butane flame; and whammo feats of physical skill. The Olympics have become somehow levitated, so that, like the events on a Tiepolo ceiling, they unfold accompanied by cherubs (all bearing the features of Avery Brundage) high above the smoke of factory chimneys, the stench of open drains, the ringing of cash registers, shouts from the street—and the manifold sins and follies of man.
The spiritual essence of the Olympics is said to eternally spring from the hallowed soil of ancient Greece. The operative ideals of the Olympics are said to be everlastingly based in The Olympic Creed—"The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part...."
In a manner of speaking.
THE OXONIAN & THE MAN IN PLANT NO. 40
A strapping young Englishman first learned of the events to be held in Athens while strolling along the Strand in London during the winter of 1896. A sign was posted in the corner of the window of a shop owned by a travel agent, Thomas Cook, and the young fellow paused to read it. He saw that it urged passersby to drop their cares and book passage for Greece in order to view and perhaps, for the exceedingly spry, to participate in the first Olympic Games of the modern era.
The young chap—George Stuart Robertson by name, a whimsical though brilliant student at Oxford—decided he would indeed go to Athens to compete as an Olympian. Many years later, when he had lived to be 91, a wrinkled, twinkling and wise old soul widely celebrated for his art criticism, Sir George Robertson reminisced about his decision: "Oh, it all seemed a bit of a lark. The Greek Classics were my proper field at Oxford, so I could hardly resist a go at the Olympics, could I?"
By boat and by train, he journeyed to Athens. There he met the King of Greece, George I, of whom he recalled, "Nice chap. Sense of humor. Poor fellow. Assassinated at Salonika, wasn't he?" Robertson also met the Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the revived Games. The baron has been all but canonized for this achievement in the years since, but Sir George could only remember of him, "Funny little man, the baron."
George Robertson was a hammer thrower at Oxford—"a proper hammer with a wooden handle and a leaden head, not some confounded ball on a string like they throw now." Alas, the Olympics of 1896 had no competition for hammer throwers, so he entered the shotput, where he finished fourth, and the discus throw, where he finished sixth. He also participated in tennis where, he said, "I had a bit of a pit-a-pat." All things considered, George Robertson found the Games quite tasteful. "There wasn't any prancing about with banners and nonsense like that," he said.
At the closing ceremonies George Robertson leaped to his feet at a secret signal from King George I and recited to the crowd an ode in Aeolic Greek that he had composed himself. The Games Committee had refused him permission to read his ode, but young Robertson had conspired with the king to let him do it. "Oh, the king was awfully bucked by it all," recalled George Robertson. Indeed, the king gave him an olive branch and a laurel wreath and a pin which he took from his own tie. The pin was encrusted with sapphires and diamonds.