Long before anyone dreamed up medals for words such as “slopestyle” and “halfpipe,” there was an Olympic medal for words.
From 1912 through 1948, Stockholm through London, Olympic medals were handed out in literature, music, painting, sculpture and architecture – all submissions to be inspired by sport.
The first Olympic medal in literature went to Georges Hohrod and M. Eschbach for a remarkably flowery poem they called Ode to Sport.
“O Sport,” it began, “pleasures of the Gods, essence of life, you appeared suddenly in the midst of the grey clearing which writhes with the drudgery of modern existence, like the radiant messenger of a past age, when mankind still smiled …”
On and on it went, praising health and fairness and honour and peace and, most of all, inspiration.
The poem might well have been the first example of cheating in the Olympics – “Georges Hohrod and M. Eschbach” were really just pseudonyms for Pierre Fredy, Baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern Games – but he felt it would be unfair of him to submit anything under his real name.
Besides, the sentiments, sappy then and sappy today, still hold up. The Olympics may be completely out of control when it comes to cost – Sochi is coming in at more than $50-billion – but they remain priceless when it comes to owning, and often breaking, the hearts of those who bear witness.
Think of Chloé Dufour-Lapointe, winner of the silver medal in freestyle ski moguls, as she burst into tears when asked about her family at a small press conference. And how the gold-medal winner, her sister Justine, dabbed Chloé’s eyes with a tissue while Chloé continued to try and speak.
Think, too, of the look of stricken hurt that passed over the face of older sister Maxime, who finished 12th, as a callous photographer shouted out “Just the winners!” during a family photo shoot.
Heartwarming and heartbreaking in a heartbeat.
There is so much more to the Olympic spirit than medals. As Baron de Coubertin himself once said: “The important thing in life is not to triumph but to compete.”
Perhaps as moving as any victory or loss at the XXII Winter Games this month was the moment when Canadian cross-country ski coach Justin Wadsworth helped Russian competitor Anton Gafarov with his broken ski. Well out of the race, Gafarov wanted only to finish before the home crowd, but his left ski had been destroyed in a crash.
Wadsworth brought him a spare ski and helped set him on track again so he could finish with “some dignity,” rather than having to walk across the finish.
It brought back memories of Turin in 2006, when Canada’s Sara Renner was leading the pack in the women’s cross-country sprint relay and her pole snapped. A stranger stepped out of the woods and handed her his. She took it, took off and, with Beckie Scott, went on to win the silver medal.
The man who had handed over his pole was Norway’s coach, Bjonar Haakensmoen. The team he coached finished fourth – just out of the medals because of his incredible gesture. There was never any question, he later told reporters. It was just the right thing to do.
Acts of incredible and selfless kindness are not unknown to a Games where, as that pitiful Nike Inc. ad once so wrongly put it: “You don’t win silver, you lose gold.”
In Seoul, during the 1988 Summer Games, Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux was on pace for exactly that, a silver medal, when high winds caused other sailors to capsize. Lemieux abandoned his race to help rescue two injured sailors – and was later given a special medal for the heroic and selfless act.
Sometimes, the moments are precious but so small they are barely noticed.
Last Wednesday, at Bolshoi Arena, the victorious Canadian men’s hockey team stood discreetly back and waited while the plucky Latvians, losers 2-1 in the greatest game their country had ever played, saluted and thanked the crowd for cheering them on. The Latvians finished, the Canadians then took their turn.
High-definition TV has made the Olympics even more personal, capturing single tears working down a skier’s cheek, showing the Swiss players dancing in sync on their bench after they scored their single goal against the powerful Canadian women. At one and the same moment, TV was able to show the women on the victorious Canadian women’s curling team high-fiving each other while, directly behind, the red-eyed and tearful Great Britain team members are hugging and comforting each other.
Words cannot show that; television can.
That the Olympics can profoundly inspire has never been in doubt.
Canadians remember Joannie Rochette skating to that 2010 bronze medal in Vancouver just four days after the sudden death of her mother. Jesse Owens won four gold medals racing in a place and time, Berlin in 1936, where he plainly was not welcome. Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila ran the 1960 marathon barefoot in Rome – and won. In Nagano in 1998, Austrian skier Hermann Maier crashed so badly in the downhill that those watching thought he might have been killed, yet he came back and win both the super G and giant slalom races.
And then there was Derek Redmond in the 1992 Barcelona Games. The British runner was halfway through the semi-final in his specialty, the 400 metres, when he tore his hamstring.
Barely able to move, he was determined to finish even if it meant crawling. As he crept along, his father, Jim, came out of the stands and onto the track, throwing a big arm around his son and helping him limp to the finish. Many believe it to be the most emotional and inspirational moment in Olympic history.
And it had nothing whatsoever to do with a medal.
Perhaps this is why, shortly before his death in 1937, Baron de Coubertin said: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning, but taking part.”
Perhaps this is what he meant when, under a fake name, he penned a syrupy ode that mentioned a time “when mankind still smiled.”
All these years later, the Sochi Games brought more smiles to both mankind and womankind.