With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Olympics Memories

The 2004 Games have evoked Olympics memories that transported me back twenty-five years to my only trip to Greece. It included a stop at a hallowed site: Olympia with its artifacts of the ancient Games.

It looked to me in 1979 as it did on TV this August, when the Greek hosts of 2004 scheduled one event in Olympia for a link-up to symbolically span more than 3,000 years. Ironically, the event at Olympia was the shot put, a competition that was not part of the early Games. Fans wandered the area during the shot put-- the one event where no ticket was needed for admission.

Twenty-three years earlier, another Olympics captured the public's imagination at a time when no Olympiad was scheduled. It came from the showing of the film, Chariots of Fire, a fictional look at the Games of 1924.

I saw it at a benefit showing for the Oregon Track Club. What I'll not forget is how track fans at the theatre-- in Eugene, of all places-- cheered for the Britishers against the Americans. The Britishers were a Scotsman and an English Jew, stars of the film's story. They took the measure of an international field that included U.S. sprinters-- among them the man still remembered by grey-thatched fans as that day's fastest man in the world, Charlie Paddock. The film took the measure of all others by winning the 1981 Academy Award for best picture.

It was a revelation to theatregoers that principle-- that of a runner choosing to keep the Sabbath-- could come between a man and a chance at a gold medal. Just because the film's year was 1924, does not mean high finance in athletics-- so evident today-- was absent. Sir John Gielgud, the only name actor in the film, spoke prejudice when informed student runner, Harold Abrahams, was son of a Jewish financier. "Oh, a money-lender," he commented.

There was no sign of today's omnipresent Nike symbol at the movie's Olympic track field in Paris. Only a billboard that reminded: "Lipton's, Direct from the Tea Garden to the Tea Pot."

There was sudden recognition of long-gone styles in clothes, cars and music for Len Casanova, Oregon Rose Bowl football coach. Cas, who lived through five more Olympiads before his life ended in his 90s, told me, "It hasn't been too long ago for some of us to remember." Sure enough, one of the double winners in those '24 Games was a man familiar to many who later saw him in movies of the 1940s, swinging on vines as Tarzan of the Apes. Johnny Weismuller won gold in the 100 and 400 swimming events. He was upstaged in the medal count by the world's dominant distance runner, Finland's Paavo Nurmi, who won gold in the 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000.

Women were on the fringe of competition in '24. They finally ran track events four years later in Amsterdam, when an American, Betty Robinson, became the first woman ever to win gold in track.

Competitors have grown bigger, stronger and faster with the passing years. But one wonders what it might have been like for Abrahams, Paddock and
Liddell-- the Scotsman who would not run on the Sabbath-- if they'd had starting blocks instead of having to dig starting slots with small spatulas; or if they had run on smooth, modern surfaces instead of cinder and granulated brick.

Rick Bay, Oregon director of athletics at the time, saw an earlier showing of the movie in San Francisco, and had urged me to see it. "It's a
wonderful fantasy about many of the good things we've known in amateur sport," Rick told me. "You'll especially like the musical score." Composer of the music, which also was an Oscar winner, was Vangelis, known by his distinctive Greek name. As one with Greek roots, I two decades later urged the Athens Olympics Committee to use Chariots of Fire, composed by a Hellene, as theme music for their opening ceremony. "Oxi" (no), was the answer from a committee creative enough to have one event at the original site in Olympia, which belied its response to me: "We want to be more contemporary."