Forget the Greeks, British ideals undergird the modern Olympics

From rowing to fencing to equestrian to sailing, the London Games represent a return to many sports' roots. More broadly, the Olympic ideal is founded on ideas that emerged in England nearly two centuries ago.  

By , Staff writer

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    A huge crowd watches British rowers compete to earn bronze in the men's rowing eight in Dorney, England, at the 2012 Summer Olympics Wednesday.
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At Eton Dorney, there is no controversy about empty seats at Olympic venues. Here, the stands are not nearly big enough, and the overflow crowd spills a third of a mile down the course – bare-chested men made canvases for the Union Jack and picnickers lounging contentedly on the wide sweep of grass, sipping plastic flutes of champagne. 

This is rowing, and this is Britain. So this is a carnival.

Every morning, American pairs rower Silas Stafford gets goosebumps getting off the bus. The stands are packed and the crowd is buzzing well before the racing even starts.

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“You’ll never see stands like this at any other [rowing] event anywhere,” he says.

Eight years ago, Athens said the Olympic Games came home. But until the Olympics reintroduce chariot racing, Britain might have a stronger claim to the slogan. While the Winter Olympics emerged from the sporting festivals and traditions of turn-of-the-century Scandinavia, the Summer Olympics – and the Olympic movement that spawned them – truly trace their origins to England.

For many sports – rowing, fencing, equestrian, sailing, tennis, and soccer, to name a handful – the London Olympics mark a return to their roots. But more deeply, the core Olympic ideals of fair play, moral character, and sport’s capacity to make better men were first cultivated in the English boarding schools and universities of the 19th century.

“In a sense, the Olympic Games are coming home tonight,” Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, said at the opening ceremony. “This great, sports-loving country is widely recognized as the birthplace of modern sport. It was here that the concepts of sportsmanship and fair play were first codified into clear rules and regulations. It was here that sport was included as an educational tool in the school curriculum.”

Yet Britain is home, too, of some of the anachronisms of the Olympic movement, critics add. It was the British notion of “amateurism” – defined specifically to exclude the working class – that defined the Olympics for more than 80 years, before it dissolved amid its own contradictions. But that ingrained sense of classism within the IOC remains, some say, making it a cabal of barons and “his royal highnesses” that is, in effect, a shadow government answerable to no one.

For the most part, though, the historical resonances here have all been positive. When the toll of Big Ben rolls over bikinied beach volleyballers playing in the prime minister’s backyard and American star Carli Lloyd can cherish the hope of playing for a gold medal at perhaps the most hallowed soccer ground in the world, the theater that is the Olympics has found an even grander stage.

Surely Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympic Games, would approve.

It was a visit to England’s Rugby School, where physical education was seen as an integral part of students’ moral and intellectual growth, that led a young de Coubertin to the conviction that “organized sport can create moral and social strength.”

“The British approach to sport,” said Rogge, “had a profound influence on Pierre de Coubertin, our founder, as he developed the framework for the modern Olympic movement.”

Today, Britain’s effect on the Olympic athletes is far more intimate.

“It’s just cool waking up in Britain,” says Stafford. “Rowing is on the news every night, and there’s a lot of history here.”

That qualifies as understatement. Every year, as many as 250,000 spectators line the Thames in London to watch eight-man crews from Oxford and Cambridge Universities compete – a race so old and revered, it is known only as the Boat Race. It dates to 1829.

Ten years later, the Henley Royal Regatta began – a series of knockout races for the best crews in the world. Older than the Olympic Games themselves, Henley “is the pinnacle of racing,” says Mitch Tamkin, a former US junior rower who has come to London to watch the rowing.

The sport’s deep roots in England are as obvious as the Olympic venue itself, England’s premier boarding school, Eton College. The centuries-old school built the artificial lake between 1996 and 2006 at a cost of £17 million – $27 million at today’s exchange rates.

“To have rowing at Eton is truly amazing,” says Tamkin. “It’s absolutely perfect.”

That sentiment spreads far beyond Eton Dorney.

  • Road cyclists make a left turn in front Queen Elizabeth’s house (Buckingham Palace) and cross the finish line on The Mall (rhymes with “pal,” please). If they hit Trafalgar Square, they’ve gone too far. If they win a medal, in the time trial, they get their medals in Hampton Court Palace, built for Henry VIII (of "The Tudors" fame, of course.)
  • Archers loose their arrows at Lord’s Cricket Ground, widely seen as the home of cricket.
  • US fencer and amateur historian Tim Morehouse discovered that Queen Elizabeth still has a royal duelist to defend her honor and calls the London Games “a homecoming for fencing.”
  • The Olympic soccer finals are slated for Wembley, a palatial stadium steeped in history. “Winning the gold medal anywhere is huge, but winning in such a historic place would just be phenomenal,” said Lloyd, a USA midfielder, at a pre-Olympic media summit.
  • Beach volleyball players jump, spike, and dig at Horse Guards Parade – the venue for Britain’s historic Trooping of the Colours, a lavish military parade held in honor of the queen. Spectators in the top row of the temporary stadium’s south stand can even peer into the back garden of No. 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s residence. 

Yet perhaps nowhere is the London effect more noticeable than in tennis. In Athens and Beijing, the tennis facilities appeared to have been delivered shrink-wrapped in a fleet of cargo containers. The most common color was concrete gray, and the only reason to linger on the grounds between matches was if you needed a trip to the loo.

In London, Wimbledon itself is a reason to go to tennis – regardless of the tennis. Not all the players are thrilled, mind you. The state of the courts is comparatively poor because the grand slam tournament just ended last month and groundskeepers didn’t have time to regrow a healthy lawn. “I understand that it is hard to make new courts after three weeks, but they are not as good” as during the Wimbledon tournament, said Agnieszka Radwanska, who made the Wimbledon final but lost in the first round in the Olympics.

Roger Federer, too, admitted that it would feel weird to wear Swiss red instead of the Wimbledon all whites.

For fans, though, Olympic tennis at the All England Club is a once-in-a-lifetime treat – the grounds a riot of lavender and Henman Hill buzzing. Says Sally Roblin, a London resident who also comes to the Wimbledon Championships, “it’s fantastic.” 

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