C is for de Coubertin*

Why is the Olympic ideal so pervasive? The Games themselves have, practically from the beginning, been fraught with controversy: politics, scandals, poor sportsmanship, cost overruns. Every journalist seems to find something to criticize or yawns at the competitions, calling them bloated or lackluster. Every pundit declares that this time, because of all the fighting between countries and cost overruns, the Olympics are really dead. Consider this summation written by John Robert Tunis:

That the Olympics are … productive of keen competition, new records, immense crowds, profitable weeks for the hotel-keepers and shop-owners of the city in which they are held… But that they have succeeded in becoming a beneficial force in the spreading of peace and good will throughout the world… is not so certain. For, as Mr. George Trevor of the New York Sun said recently…: “The history of the Olympic Games since their arrival in 1896 has been marked by sporadic dissension, bickering, heartburning, and one or two old-fashioned rows.”

John Robert Tunis, Harper’s, August 1928.

And that was back in 1928. Still, the Olympics endure.

The reason that this athletic tournament has lasted for over a hundred years is not because of the sporting achievements, not because countries crow over piles of medals, and not even because they embody tremendous entertainment for the viewing public. The Olympic ideal has lasted because of the dude who pulled together all the fractious national egos to reinstate the modern Games in the first place: Pierre de Coubertin.

Ideas as Audacious as the Moustache

Baron Pierre De Coubertin was born in 1863 and died in 1937; grew up in the Industrial Age and the Victorian Era and lived through war after increasingly larger war; the end of slavery in the U.S., the consolidation of nation states, and women’s suffrage in the First World. He was raised in an aristocratic French family but was intrigued as a young man on with the notion of physical education as a core way to build both moral and physical strength. More importantly, he saw sport as a venue for peace.

It’s a weird notion to believe that sports competition–athletes trying to beat each other to a finish line or pin each other on a wrestling mat–could lead to peace between nations. You can imagine there might be a cessation of hostilities during the Games, but having peace come about from sport? Yet, this is precisely what de Coubertin advocated:

Peace could be the product only of a better world; a better world could be brought about only by better individuals; and better individuals could be developed only by the give and take, the buffering and battering, the stress and strain of free competition.

de Coubertin, quoted in 100 Years of Sports Business

Diversity of Athletes, Diversity of Competition

The Games weren’t created because de Coubertin wanted his team to win or liked to watch people compete, but because he truly believed that bringing the world together for this purpose and this focus might broker a fragile understanding. Every picture that shows a competitor from one nation helping another cements that understanding.

New Zealand’s Hambly helps USA’s D’Agostino finish in Rio 2016. Photo at Slate.com.

These ideas are so pervasive because they still represent the original notion of ” not the triumph but the struggle.” Because de Coubertin thought it was so important to focus on the “taking part,” he established the early requirement that athletes be amateurs rather than professionals. At the same time, he sought out representation and diversity in sport. For example, he criticized the structure of amateur rowing competitions in England, which excluded working-class athletes.

Misguided Visions about Amateurs and Women

Of course, de Coubertin’s focus on amateurism, and the Olympic Committee’s insistence on strict adherence to it, became problematic. By the late 1960s and 1970s, countries with centralized governments bankrolled athletes and provided coaching, facilities, and training methods for free, while athletes in capitalist economies were forced to jump through hoops of pretense to stay “amateurs.” From the outset, de Coubertin had softened his stance, stating that athletes could be paid while competing to make up for their loss of income. Yet, Jim Thorpe was stripped of his medal when it was found he had been paid for paying semi-pro baseball.

The strict adherence to amateur rules led to scandal after scandal until the IOC finally relented, famously, for tennis in 1988 and other sports afterward. The celebrated Dream Team basketball tournament was wildly successful in promoting tons of international goodwill because the professional players, intermixing with the other athletes, far outstripped the value of the tournament. For the U.S., the team is still considered the greatest talent of basketball ever assembled. Global interest in basketball soared, bringing a steady way of international talent in the NBA ever since.

The other foolishness at the core of Victorian de Coubertin’s ideals was his attitude toward women:

An Olympiad with females would be impractical, uninteresting , unaesthetic and improper.

Pierre de Coubertin, in his least shining moment.

The revived Olympics in 1896 did not include women. A Greek woman, Stamata Revithi, became famous for running the marathon course the day after, but despite logging a verified time of five and a half hours, was not allowed to enter the stadium or considered part of the competition.

Women were reluctantly admitted in Paris 1900 yet still banned from track and field because of their fragility. They played tennis, croquet, sailed, and rode horseback rather than throw the discus. French countrywomen of de Coubertin were so affronted that they created their own Women’s Olympiad under the organization of Alice Milliat and the International Women’s Sports Federation (FSFI). Apparently, the French are exceptionally talented at creating international symbolic events!

Rings, Doves, Poem, and Song: Symbols at the Core of the Movement

Eventually, women were admitted, though the fight for equality lives on. Even as late as London 2012, organizers thought women boxers should fight in skirts allegedly because some viewers couldn’t distinguish the women from the men. (Really?) That suggestion was shot down because of its symbolism of unequal treatment. Because, at its core, the Olympics was created by de Coubertin as a symbol, and he thought the pagentry and visions of the Games were as lasting as the competitions themselves. He wrote an award-winning poem, persuaded the Greeks to center the first games in Athens to reflect the ancient legacy, and wrote the Olympic motto.

De Coubertin proposed the Olympic motto, heard from his friend Domincan Fra Henri Didion. Photo at LayDominico.com.

Olympic organizers ever since have added rituals: the torch relay, lighting of the flame, the Olympic hymn, the athletes’ entry into the stadium grouped by country at the Opening and in friendly disorganized harmony at the Closing. The Olympic theme songs used by ABC and NBC are just as linked as are famous commercials by Jackie Joyner-Kersee (“red toenails”) and Mark Spitz (“milk is for everybody”).

Ultimately, de Coubertin translated the excitement he felt watching players on a rugby field and an archaeologist excavating the city of Olympia into a worldwide movement, pulling together detractors and self-interested parties into a disorganized but proud group of humans, willing to attempt to put aside national differences for a little while. And while we’ll all have to wait another year to hear the themes and see the performances, it’s fitting to the Olympic ideal that they will go on.

I predict that after our weeks of isolation and year of challenges, all of us will be thrilled to see Tokyo 2021 bring together the youth of world for the glory of sport and the ideals of global cooperation.

Day 3 of my A to Z challenge

*Some alphabetic systems suggest I should list “de Coubertin” under “D,” but the Library of Congress lists him as “Coubertin, Pierre de” which makes him a “C.”

Plus, I just learned you can get to the Library of Congress online …. *fanning self.*

B is for Badminton

England’s Sam Parsons perfecting the through-the-legs badminton shot. Still photo from this highly-recommended Youtube medley of amazing badminton shots.

At some point, most of us have played badminton in some form, likely as children, batting the shuttlecock over the net, into the net, or into a tree. That stately version, like most games that are pastimes rather than sports, bears little resemblance to the speedy free-for-all that is Olympic badminton.

As the second choice in my A to Z challenge, my 26 days of blogging about the Olympics, I openly warn you, gentle reader, that I prefer to look towards the “little sports.” Too much of American Olympic conversation centers on the big six–basketball, swimming, gymnastics, diving, sprints, and beach volleyball. While I won’t ignore those topics entirely, you should not expect to see a post about the Dream Team or the Perfect Ten.

Instead let us turn our attention to things we know less about–canoeing perhaps, keirin, field hockey, epee… oh, here we go… BADMINTON.

A to Z challenge, day 2

The English Sport that Probably Came from Asia

If your history of badminton only has one sentence, it probably says: Badminton was invented in 1873 when the duke of Beaufort introduced the game at his country estate in Badminton. Credit is always given to the wealthy and prominent. I’ve always found it hard to believe that the 4th Earl of Sandwich was really the first person who thought to put meat between pieces of bread. That was fiction.

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A is for Archery

Justin Huish, gold medal Archery 1996
Justin Huish won gold in Individual and Team Archery, Atlanta 1996. Photo by Getty Images.

I am missing my sports! Plus, I have no desire to write about the C word (you know, C-19, which is an unlucky number anyway.)

So I came across this A to Z Challenge–just today! looking for inspiration. It’s always amazing to stumble upon these entire segments of the writing community. Everybody seemed to know about this already, since there were 400+ bloggers signed up. A 26-day challenge will be a great way to spend the next few weeks, when we all have to stay inside anyway.

I am coming late to the party, so forgive me if I don’t follow guidelines. I gather that I’m supposed to publish every day and use letters of the alphabet. The obvious next question is what kind of theme would make sense for me? If you’ve read some of my stuff or know me, you might think…. something historical, obscure math problems, Shakespeare (I considered that, though there weren’t any X’s or Z’s… maybe next year), chocolate, curious science… but then, of course, it was OBVIOUS!

The Olympics! It’s my passion; I wrote a book about ’em. I had blocked Tokyo 2020 off on my calendar and was counting the days until rumors began rumbling about postponement, which of course was necessary. Can’t practice if you can’t even go outside. Still, I was in a funk for a week. However, now I can count down until July 23, 2021 instead. Meanwhile… A is obviously for Archery… so here are a few interesting tidbits to start off the month.

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Mom Always Said Wash Your Hands

Today is a perfect time to honor our healthcare professionals, celebrate international women’s month, and remind you to lather up. Consider it a threefer. All hail to midwives, nurses, and mom.

Poster from Foodsafetynews.com. October 15, 2016 was Global Handwashing Day, though we might have missed that.

Aqueducts and Aquamaniles APlenty

Contrary to some beliefs, bathing and hand-washing is not a historically recent phenomenon, but was a practice widely dispersed across many cultures for centuries. The Romans, Greeks, Mesoamericans, and Japanese all incorporated bathing into their daily routines. Even into the Dark Ages, where food was eaten mainly with the hands, it was customary to rinse off before dining. Special ewers were provided for noble feasters, but even commoners might prepare a hand-washing solution with herbs, like making tea.

Pour faire eaue a laver mains sur table mectez boulir de la sauge, puis coulez l’eaue et faictes reffroidier jusques a plus que tiedes. Ou vous mectez comme dessus camomille et marjolaine, ou vous mectez du rommarin, et cuire avec l’escorche d’orenge. Et aussi feuilles de lorier y sont bonnes.

To make water for washing hands at the table. Boil sage, strain the water and let cool to a little more than tepid. Or take camomille and marjoram in stead [of sage], or rosemary, and boil with orange peel. Bay leaves are also good.

From Coquinaria, A Recipe for Washing Hands
A medieval aquamanile, for rinsing hands before dinner. Photo at Coquanilia.
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Gimme Shelter, Gimme Testing Data

On Day 2 of our Alameda County Shelter-in-place order, I am creating graphs, mostly for my sanity. Today’s topic is data, in particular, Covid-19 testing data. If you’re a data geek like me, this is for you.

I have blathered on for days (?or is it weeks? I’ve lost track…days seem like weeks) that our biggest problem right now is lack of testing. We don’t know what we don’t know. Because the U.S. didn’t roll out testing capacity early on, people who feel sick or at risk for Covid haven’t been able to get tested. We’ve heard that for weeks and are still hearing it. Because people who know they’re sick can’t get tested, we have no idea who is sick and how many would test positive. Without knowing that, everyone has to STOP moving. That’s the problem right now.

Yes, it’s definitely a problem that hospitals are starting to become overwhelmed and might become swamped. It’s definitely a problem that travel is cancelled and that there is a black market for toilet paper and sanitizers. (Anybody know where we can get some ramen? That turns out to be a big concern in our house.) It’s an even bigger problem that we don’t know how long this will last, and we won’t know until there’s a robust testing structure in place. South Korea put in an excellent testing structure early on, and they seem to be moving into a better part of the pandemic curve. We can learn something from their experience, and we can learn something looking at data.

The Most Important Data Is Under-Reported

The problem has been a lack of good data, and good testing data is still hit and miss. In a world that’s used to hitting the “refresh” button every minute and seeing numbers update, having data that is only reported every few days or not at all is killer to the psyche. Up until about a week ago, data on how many people were being tested was nearly impossible to find. This was due partly because few had been tested; I might also speculate that some didn’t want the public to know just how few that was.

I can illustrate this by looking at Daily Case data compared with Daily Testing data. Here is the number of cases in California, shown per day and total to date. By the way, note that the red bars (daily cases) are linked to numbers on the left side and the purple line (cases to date) linked to the right side. Showing data on different axes is important because if you show cumulative and daily on the same graph, the cumulative would make the daily increases too small to see. You would have no sense of the underlying infection curve.

Graph of California Covid cases
Graph by kajmeister based on data sources in COVID Tracking project.
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