100 Years Ago In Stockholm: The Olympics
By Gordon WeissJuly 12, 2012
On the cusp of the Great War, the Stockholm Olympics featured art competitions, an 11-hour wrestling match, and a gold for Australia’s first female Olympic swimming champion.
The 2012 London Olympic Games will feature, among other competitive delights, poetry. Poetry? And sport? Isn't that a little like red wine and fish?
That may be, but it's one way — along with an opening ceremony set to feature sheep and pastoral-themed cricket matches — that the London Organising Committee has chosen to differentiate this great city's staging of the Games from all the vulgar glitter and hoo-ha of Beijing. The Winning Words program, as it has been dubbed, will see poetry displayed prominently throughout the sporting venues.
For example, as the young bicycling blades slice the air, the viewer can balance a vicarious lust for glory with contemplative words from the contemporary poet John Burnside. His lines — "I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel" — from "Bicycling for Ladies", will adorn the velodrome.
Or you might catch snatches of Alfred Tennyson's poem, "Ulysses" — "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield" —daubed on walls and doilies, or flashed across the TV screen along with the scores.
This introduction of poetry into the games is not a first, nor do we have to go back as far as those tiresomely talented ancient Greeks to find an excellent example of art mixed with Olympic ecstasy.
The last Olympics before the outbreak of the Great War (which then caused the Games to be put on hold until 1920) were an eccentric affair by today's standards. Held in Stockholm 100 years ago, the 1912 Olympic Games have long been regarded as one of the greatest examples of the event. Meticulously organised, some 2,500 competitors were welcomed. Descriptions of this last hurrah of genteel Edwardian amateurism read, in parts, like a P.G. Wodehouse novel.
The Stockholm Games featured the future General George Patton, of 'Battle of the Bulge' fame, competing in the first modern pentathlon; an 11-hour Greco-Roman wrestling match between a Finn and a Russian (during which there were stops for lunch, prayer, and toilet); a 320km cycling race; the first death of an Olympic athlete during competition (surprisingly not a long-distance cyclist or wrestler, but a marathon runner); the last of the "private entry" competitors (representing themselves, rather than any nation); and the first use of new-fangled electronic timing, photo finishes, and a public-address system.
One notable competitor, the Japanese marathon runner Shizo Kanakuri, disappeared altogether. Suffering heat exhaustion, he stumbled into a garden party, drank an orange juice, and stayed for an hour. Overcome by shame, he returned to his hotel room, and then boarded a ship for home — all without notifying the race organisers. Considered missing by Swedish authorities for 50 years, he was eventually found and contacted by Swedish TV. Given a chance to complete his run in Sweden, he finally clocked in with a time of 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 8 hours, 32 minutes, and 20.379 seconds. A record, you could say.
To sustain the tone and high ideals of what was still essentially a pastime for the gentle born, the 1912 Games included an art competition for participants, in which hammer-throwers, horsemen, and high-jumpers were invited to reveal their inner voice through short-story writing, painting, architecture, music composition and poetry. This became a Games tradition that continued until 1948.
The Stockholm Games also coincided with the First International Congress of Eugenics, a Darwinian-inspired social theory that posited the ability of humankind to direct its destiny through genetic selection — and action. Popular for the first decades of the 20th century, Eugenics would feed into Hitler's social theories, and provided a boost to Australia's own efforts to resolve the place of its indigenous people through assimilation. Many countries would adopt these beliefs in some form: for example, in 1934, Sweden began its own program of sterilisation of the mentally handicapped.
More benignly, surf culture was deemed an eloquent expression of Eugenic life-enhancing activity. Bondi's breakers seemed to mould men who went "surf-shooting," or body-surfing, into God-like boulders of brawn. The Sydney Mail breathlessly described "the joy of life and the pleasure of healthful living, the stress of combat with the curling breakers, and the sense of victorious struggle, the flashing sunlight, the bright gleam of white sand and foaming water, and the exultant feeling of physical energy actively exerted in the open air..." And other Australian writers of the time were explicit that the new craze for the waves was producing a nation of übermenschen. Women were, at best, handmaidens to the glory.
The founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Coubertin wrote that same year that the Olympics were "the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism with internationalism as a base, loyalty as a means, art for its setting, and female applause as reward".
Back in the early 1900s, Australia still sheltered its female athletes: at Melbourne's Brighton Baths, for example, the only brass band permitted to play at a schoolgirl competition was one with all blind players. And the president of the NSW Ladies Amateur Swimming Association believed that, "a girl who [is] in the habit of exposing herself at public carnivals [is] likely to have her modesty hopelessly blighted."
Pity the Europeans, upon whom we loosed our salty Pantheon in 1912, including those handmaidens. The medal tally that year of tiny Australia included a respectable two golds, reflecting the popularity and easy swimming conditions in which Australian competitors were bred. It also reflected the talents of two great Australian women athletes, who took advantage of the fact that these were the first games in which women were permitted to swim. Unmoved by any possible blight to their reputations, Fanny Durack, the daughter of an Irish publican, and her good friend Mina Wylie, whose father ran the famous baths in Sydney, had raised money to board a ship for Stockholm at the last minute.
"Fanny was a rebel," says Harry Gordon, honorary official historian to Australia's Olympic Committee, and author of the book Australia and the Olympic Games. "She just did the opposite of what she was told." Spurred on by Wylie at her heels, Fanny took gold for the 100 metres freestyle. She returned to Australia an aquatic heroine, and swimming for women was henceforth loosed from the corset of Edwardian morality.
One notable man matched Fanny's obdurate spirit, but in a very different way. Born in the inner-Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst, Cecil Healy was the founding captain of Manly Surf Life Saving Club, and is generally regarded as one of the great popularisers of surf life as emblematic of Australia's physical culture. In Stockholm Healy showed the true value of silver, in a way that would be unthinkable in the high-pressure atmosphere of modern Olympics.
The famed Hawaiian swimmer and surf boarder, Duke Kahanamoku, had been expected to win the men's 100-metre freestyle race. But team officials confused the timetable, and the Americans failed to show for the semi-finals. Healy carved neatly through the course, the unchallenged winner. Rather than going on to scoop certain gold in the finals, Healy asked the Australian official to intervene, to ensure that the Americans be allowed to compete, despite not having qualified at the semis. The result was that Kahanamoku won gold, and Healy silver. On the winner's dais, the gracious Hawaiian held his challenger's arm aloft.
"It was a sublime gesture of sportsmanship," says Gordon. "It's why I admire Healy so much, and why his fate seems especially tragic."
One more aspect of his legacy was that, at the 1912 Olympic Games, Healy had extended an invitation to Kahanamoku to visit Australia. In 1915 the Hawaiian made Australian surfing history when he cut a 2.6-metre board from sugar pine and demonstrated board riding at Freshwater Beach.
After featuring as a poster-boy for recruitment to the Australian Imperial Force, the postscript to Healy's singular act of Olympic graciousness was a featureless death shared by millions of others. In June 1918, he joined the 19th (Sportsmans) Battalion AIF, and within two months was killed on the Somme during a charge at German trenches. He remains the only Australian Olympic gold medalist (as part of the 4 x 200m relay team) slain on the field of battle.
Several Australian Olympians distinguished themselves in the Great War, and many were maimed. Cecil McVilly, an Olympic rower from the 1912 team, was awarded a Military Cross at the Battle of Messines in June 1917, only to be badly wounded at the Third Battle of Ypres four months later. The lungs of the great Olympic distance freestyler and future Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Frank Beaurepaire, were flooded with gas in France. The swimmer Albert Barry lost a leg in the same theatre.
Most haunting, perhaps, was the story of diminutive Tommy Adrian. Barely 1.5 metres tall, Adrian was the only man to beat the Apollo-like Kahanamoku during his 1915 Australian visit, in a 400-metre dash at the Domain Baths, Woollomooloo. Three years of service in France, and the death of his Manly club mate Cecil Healy shattered the small man's nerves. Having trained 'Boy' Charlton, and en route with his pupil to the 1924 Paris Olympics, Adrian suffered a fit of depression, and attempted suicide. He returned to work in his father's shoe business on Manly Corso, forgotten, or shunned by a public that did not understand the effects of 'shell-shock'.
Stockholm's Games gave little hint of the bloodletting that would follow, and kill many a sportsman.
It will be interesting to see how London's Games organisers use poetry — matching metre for metres and perhaps rhyme to race rhythm. The Olympics Committees of 1912 could not have envisioned the feats athletes would be asked to attempt in the years to come, but the war gave rise to a generation of poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, who looked longingly back to a time when prowess — mainly manly — was measured on the cricket field and inside an Olympic stadium, rather than on the battlefield:
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.
I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats.
And speaking of Fanny Durack, Sarah-Jane Collins explored the place of swimming in Australian's cultural identity, including the pioneering role of Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie, in her piece In the Swim.