Olympics 1896
Olympics 1896

It was on his day 120 years ago that the “greates show on earth”, the modern Olympics, opened in Athens to a ringing cry from Baron Pierre de Coubertin that the important thing in the games was not winning but participating. That might seem a misnomer in today’s day and age, but the spirit still endures.

Quite appropriately, Internet search engine Google on Wednesday reproduced a few doodles of the events that featured, bringing alive a bygone era. The doodle, designed by Olivia Huynh, has four versions, each featuring a different event from the Athens Games.

The 1896 Olympics, held from April 6-15 in the Panathenaic Stadium, saw 241 male athletes from 14 countries competing in nine sports — tennis, fencing, weightlifting, track and field, cycling, shooting, swimming, wrestling and gymnastics.

Intended to revive the traditon of the ancient Olympics which began over 2,700 years ago in Olympia, in southwest Greece, the Athens Games were hugely popular all over Europe.

Since then, the quadrinniel, multi-discipline extravagenza has witnessed several historic moments.

Women took part for the first time in the second edition, held four years later in Paris in 1900 and Hélène de Pourtalès of Switzerland became the first female Olympic champion when she won the gold in sailing.

After a brief hiatus due to World War I, the modern Olympics resumed in 1924 with Paris playing the host once again. A total of 23 disciplines, comprising 17 sports, were part of the Olympic programme.

Legendary Swedish middle and long distance runner Paavo Johannes Nurmi was one of the highlights of the 1924 Olympics, winning five gold medals. Nicknamed the ‘Flying Finn’ Numi emerged champion in the 1500m, 5000m, Invidual and Team Cross Country and 3000m. Numi, however, returned home a bitter man as Finnish officials had refused to enter him for the 10,000m.

The 1936 Games, held in Berlin, the capital of Nazi-ruled Germany. The Nazis saw the Olympics as an opportunity to promote their ideals of racial supremacy.

To outdo the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, the Germans built a new athletics stadium with a seating capacity of 100,000. They also built six gymnasiums and many other smaller sports arenas.

The 1936 Olympics were the first to be televised, and radio broadcasts reached 41 countries. The 1936 Olympics torch relay was the first of its kind, following on from the reintroduction of the Olympic Flame at the 1928 Games. It pioneered the modern convention of moving the flame via a relay system from Greece to the Olympic venue.

The 1932 Games are most remembered for the feats of African-American athlete Jesse Owens who won four gold medals to destroy the myth of Aryan superiority propagated by Hitler.

Owens won the 100 metres, 200 metres, 4×100 meteres and long jump. This performance was not equaled until Carl Lewis won gold in the same events at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Egyptian weightlifter Khadr El Touni also challenged Hitler’s theory of racial superiority by winning gold in the middleweight category. The 20-year-old lifted a total of 387.5 kg leaving two German world champions — Rudolf Ismayr and Adolf Wagner — in the shade.

The Egyptian, who exceeded the total of the German silver medalist by 35 kg, broke the then Olympic and world records. El Touni lifted 15 kg more than the light-heavyweight gold medalist, a feat only he has accomplished.

Fascinated by El Touni’s performance, Adolf Hitler rushed over to greet him. The Fuhrer was so impressed by El Touni’s domination in the middleweight class that he ordered a street to be named after him in Berlin’s Olympic village.

The 1972 Games in Munich were hit by tragedy when 11 Israeli athletes and coaches and a West German police officer were killed by Palestinian terrorists.

The 1976 Montreal Olympics were hit by international politics as the Eastern bloc led by the Soviet Union boycotted the event. The western countries returned the complement in kind by boycotting the 1980 Games in Moscow.

The 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea was overshadowed by a doping controversy. Canada’s Jamaican origin sprinter Ben Johnson created a sensation when he deteated American Carl Lewis to the 100m gold, lowering his own world record to 9.79 seconds in the process. The legendary athlete would later remark that he would have been even faster had he not raised his hand in the air just before he finished the race.

However, it was later found that Johnson’s blood and urine samples contained stanozolol, and he was disqualified three days later. He later admitted having used steroids when he ran his 1988 world record, which caused the IAAF to rescind that record as well. Johnson and coach Charles Francis complained that they used doping in order to remain on an equal footing with the other top athletes on drugs they had to compete against.

In testimony before the Dubin inquiry into drug use, Francis charged that Johnson was only one of many cheaters, and he just happened to get caught.

Later, six of the eight athletes in the 100m final tested positive for banned drugs or were implicated in a drug scandal at some point in their careers including Carl Lewis, who was given the gold medal, Linford Christie, who was moved up to the silver medal and Dennis Mitchell, who was moved up to fourth place.

Later, footage of the race also revealed that Lewis ran out of his lane, at least, two times, which should have resulted in an automatic disqualification.

From the Indian perspective, hockey has by far been the most successful Olympic sport with eight gold medals, including six consecutive ones from 1928 to 1956. Milkha Singh went close to becoming the first Indian to win a medal in track and field when he led the 400m final for around 250 metres before being overtaken. P.T. Usha also went heartbreakingly close in 1984, lolsing out in a nail-biting photo finish for the bronze medal by 1/100th of a second.

Kasaba Jadhav was the first Indian to win an individual medal – a bronze for wrestling – at the 1952 Helsinki Olypmics and from then, it was a long wait till 1996 when weightlifter Karnam Malleswari eventually and tennis legend Leander Pases clinched bronze medals.

Eight years later, Colonel (then major) Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, now the minister of state for information and broadcasting, won a silver in the double trap shooting event at the 2004 Athens Games.

And, shooter Abhinav Bindra became the first Indian to win an individual gold when he emerged champion in the 10m air rifle event at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Star wrestler Sushil Kumar broke further ground by becoming the first Indian to win individual medals in consecutive Olympics (sbronze in 2008 and silver in London 2012).

As athletes all over the world go into the final stages of their preparation for the 2016 Rio Games, the Olympics have transcended the world of sports and have evolved into a potent symbol of human endavour and the triumph of spirit and determination over adversity.

(Ajeyo Basu can be contacted at ajeyo.b@ians.in)

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