Olympic oddities: Music, poetry, and town planning

If there ever is a posthumous Olympic medal awarded for intransigence, then the ghost of David George Brownlow Cecil Burghley, sixth marquess of Exeter, gold medal winner at the 1928 Olympics and chairman of the organising and executive committees of the 1948 London Games, will surely float on the podium.

“I must point out to you that the International Olympic Committee have laid down that a country should be named by that which it is known in the host country. For instance, Spain appears as Spain, not España. Your country is known as Éire.”

Thus it was that Ireland’s team of competitors, still widely regarded in Britain as Free-staters, had to go under a banner reading “Éire” rather than calling themselves “Ireland” at the opening ceremony of the XIV Olympiad.

A more convivial atmosphere will greet the Irish team at the 2012 Olympics when London hosts the Games for an historic third time.

On Friday, the Olympic Council of Ireland will honour the 11 surviving Irish Olympians from the last London Olympics, known as the “Austerity Games” because food, petrol and building rationing was still in place in Britain three years after the end of the Second World War.

The 1948 Games were also the last to feature more esoteric and exotic competitions that included art and poetry.

The inclusion of art and literature was part of the vision of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who sought to bind “mind with muscle” when he founded the Olympic Games of the modern era. He had a battle on his hands. While the first athletic competitions got under way in Athens in 1896, it was not until the Stockholm Games in 1912 that medals were awarded for architecture, sculpture, painting, music, and literature.

In that year, the Russian-born Walter Winans became the only competitor to win medals in both sporting and cultural competitions in the same Olympiad. In the 1912 games he took silver for the United States in shooting and also won the gold medal for sculpture.

Gold, silver, and bronze medals were awarded for town planning from 1928. At the notorious 1936 Olympics in Berlin, two of the three gold medals for town planning went to Germany. The country’s winning streak included a number of cultural contests, taking gold for relief sculpture as well as all three medals for songs for soloist or choir, with or without instrumental accompaniment. Germany also won gold for lyric writing and silver for epic, while Austria took gold and bronze for architecture.

We produced two cultural Olympians. Jack Butler Yeats, younger brother of the poet WB, holds the distinction of being Ireland’s first medallist after Independence.

At the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris — when the team was called Ireland, not the Irish Free State — Yeats’s painting The Liffey Swim won a silver medal in the arts and culture section. At the same Games, Oliver St John Gogarty took the bronze medal for poetry.

Irish Olympians still hold one unbroken record — in the eight Olympiads between 1900 and 1932, an Irish-born athlete won the hammer competition seven times, something that not even the narcotically enhanced Soviet competitors could match in later years.

The 1906 Games in Athens saw the first political protest when long jump silver medallist Peter O’Connor scaled a 20ft pole to wave an Érin Go Bragh flag in protest at the union jack, which had been hoisted in honour of his achievement.

The London 2012 Games are unlikely to exhibit such eccentricities, but the next Winter Olympics will feature curling — a mixture of ice skating and housework — which has made a comeback in recent years. It made its Olympic debut in 1924 but was not made an official medal sport again until 1998. You have two years to get out the sweeping brush and start practicing for the 2014 Winter Olympics in the city of Sochi in Russia.


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