Unsporting behaviour

As the London Olympics draws closer, Robert Hume recalls a time when the games weren’t so PC

OVER the next few weeks the pace of qualifying for the Irish Olympic team will become ever more frenzied, as world championships are held in the remaining sports: cycling and equestrian. A team of approximately 40 athletes is expected in due course.

The Organising Committee for London 2012 states unequivocally that the Olympics must:

‘eliminate discrimination relating to age, disability, gender, race...’

There is certainly a good age range within the Irish team: Olive Loughnane, 36, will be competing in the 20km race walking; and Annalise Murphy, 21, in the sailing. As far as disability is concerned, the Irish team has 54 paralympic athletes.

As for gender, at the time of writing this piece, 19 men and 13 women have qualified.

Yet, over the years, these Olympic ideals have not always been respected.


Everyone had expected the flame, heralding the opening of the games, to be carried by Sydney Wooderson. This small, quiet, unassuming man, a solicitor’s clerk from London, was known as ‘The Mighty Atom.’ He was a world record holder at 880 yards and one mile, 5000 metres European champion in 1948, and national cross-country champion. An obvious choice. But Wooderson was almost 34-years-old, bald, gangly and wore glasses.

The organisers wanted an image of youth and vitality. So they picked John Mark, a relatively unknown 22-year-old Cambridge student, purely for his good looks.

Spectators were appalled that Wooderson had been sidelined.


Until the Rome Olympics of 1960, no disabled athletes could take part. The first Paralympics was the brainchild of Ludwig Guttmann and Antonia Maglio, Director of the Spinal Centre in Rome. A wide range of competitive sports was arranged, all considered suitable for athletes with spinal cord injuries.

Supported by the Italian Institute for Disabled Workers (INAIL) and the Italian Olympic Committee, the event marked a tremendous step forward in sport for athletes with a disability.

But remember that in 1960:

nThe Paralympics were only for athletes in wheelchairs. Today a much wider variety of disabled athletes are catered for, including amputees, and those suffering from Cerebral Palsy, intellectual disability and visual impairment.

* There were no lifts where the disabled athletes were housed in the Olympic village, so the Italian army had to carry them up and down the stairs.

* The Paralympic events took place separately to the rest of the Olympics, from September 18-25, six days after the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games.

Following this, a succession of cities refused to host the Paralympics, claiming they lacked suitable facilities. Instead they were staged in other venues in the host country. Not until the Soeul Olympics in 1988 were they staged together.


In 1896 the marathon runner Melpomene was excluded from taking part in the Olympics in Athens because she was a woman.

Undiscouraged, she warmed up for the race out of sight, ran the race and arrived at the stadium about an hour and a half after Spiridon Louis won the race. Barred from entry into the stadium, she ran her final lap around the outside of the building, finishing in approximately four and a half hours. In the following Olympics, held in Paris in 1900, women were allowed to participate for the first time.


On the first day of the 1936 Berlin Olympics — the first to be televised to the world — Hitler shook hands with some of the winning athletes. Next day he did not shake hands with the black American athlete, Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals. It is often claimed that Hitler deliberately snubbed Owens because he had shown the Fuhrer’s theories of Aryan superiority to be false.

This is a myth. Olympic officials had told Hitler that he either had to congratulate all the winners or none at all. Hitler opted for none.

The man who actually snubbed Owens was Franklin D Roosevelt, president of a still-segregated US. Recognition only came in 1955 when President Eisenhower belatedly named Owens ‘Ambassador for Sport.’

The Jewish high jumper, Gretel Bergmann, was one of Germany’s star athletes in the mid-1930s. On June 30, 1936, one month before the opening of the Berlin Olympics, she equalled the German record by jumping 1.60 metres.

The US threatened to boycott the Olympics because of Hitler’s racial policies. An Olympics without the USA was unthinkable, so Hitler was keen to give the appearance that Jewish athletes were welcome in the German team.

But on July 16, 1936, when the US team were safely on their way, the German Olympic Committee sent Gretel a letter saying that due to her recent poor performances, she was not good enough to represent Germany.!

Gretel’s story is told in Clearing the Bar: One Girl’s Olympic Dream by Robert Hume (Stone Publishing House, 2012)

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