We have a bad (or awesome) case of Olympic fever at our house this week. It’s not a terrible bug to have except for the fatigue. The late nights are definitely starting to wear on me, but it’s only a couple weeks every four years. And when I’m faced with the decision to either go to bed or to watch one more gymnastics apparatus or swim race, well, the choice is obvious.
The swimming is by far the hardest for me to turn off because I’ve always been a swimmer myself. I like to think I just missed qualifying for the US team (by 15 to 20 years and at least 10,000 hours in the pool). Okay so my strokes are inefficient (just means I work harder and burn more calories, right?) and my flip turns would make Rowdy Gaines guffaw, but still, I have always enjoyed my time in the pool.
As a teenager and into my early twenties while working at summer camps, I kept up my lifeguarding certification, completing the entire American Red Cross course twice as well as participating in refresher courses and in-service trainings. So even though I’m pretty sure I couldn’t out-swim Missy Franklin, if she were to cramp up in the water and need assistance, I could probably rescue her (and if she panicked and tried to drown me, I could totally break her nose and pull us both to safety. Thank you, Red Cross!)
And if the Olympics ever included an event in which athletes had to swim with their head out of the water supporting 150 pounds of dead weight on a large red buoy through the water and then up and over a rescue board, perhaps I could have been a contender. Alas, the Olympic Games have never included such a competition.
Or so I thought. But then what is a practical historian to do when she’s awake in the middle of the night in between events, waiting for the commentators to complete their super-informative interviews in which they ask hard-hitting questions like: “So, do you like Justin Bieber?” The answer to that question is that she Googles eliminated Olympic sports (as for the Bieber question, shockingly, I don’t hate him).
It turns out the 1900 Paris games featured a 200 m obstacle swimming event. True it included neither large red buoys nor rescue boards, but had it occurred 100 years later under the day’s official Red Cross guidelines, I’ve no doubt it would have. During the race, male swimmers (women didn’t compete in Olympic swimming events until 1912 because it’s hard to swim fast in an ankle length dress) climbed over a pole, over a row of boats, and under a second row of boats all while contending with the current of the River Seine. Gold was claimed by (probably not surprisingly) Australian swimmer Frederick Lane. I’m not sure why the event was discontinued after its brilliant debut. Maybe it just wasn’t Olympic-y enough.
And though the event never appeared in the games again (lucky for Lane who forever remains the Olympic record holder), a similar event does continue on the worldwide stage. Resurrected in 1955 again in Paris (though not in the Seine), a similar competitive event was organized by the Fédération Internationale de Sauvetage Aquatique or FIS (originally founded in 1910 with 18 member nations dedicated to water safety and rescue). The event, designed to encourage and celebrate the improvement of aquatic lifesaving skills, continued (somewhat sporadically) in pools throughout the world, until the organization merged with the World Life Saving organization (WLS), which focused largely on ocean and beach safety. In 1993, the International Life Saving Federation (ILSF) formed from the merger and the Lifesaving World Championship was born.
The event now occurs regularly every two years and one source I found claims that the ILSF supports the only worldwide athletic competition that truly serve a humanitarian purpose. That’s pretty noble, but I’m not sure it’s really true. But to defend my argument I’m afraid I’ll have to reference The Beatles.
You see I recently got into some small bit of trouble on Facebook by complaining about the inclusion of Paul McCartney’s “Hey Jude” performance at the opening ceremonies in London. I should stress that I have nothing against Paul McCartney or The Beatles. I appreciate their many contributions to the world of music (I mean they’re no Bieber or anything, but folks seem to like their music well enough) and I sing along to most of their collection just like everyone else. I just happen to hate that one song in particular because it doesn’t end definitively and so it sticks in my head. Badly. For days (or even weeks) at a time.
Seriously, I am only prolonging the agony by writing about it, but it’s worth mentioning because in the midst of the (mostly) friendly FB discussion/argument, I asked what the theme of the song had to do with the Olympic Games anyway. My brilliant (and occasionally snarky) niece replied: “In a world that lives in the midst of constant struggle and conflict, the Olympics serves as an opportunity to lay all of that aside and to come together through sport, thus it ‘take[s] a sad song and make[s] it better’” Okay, I can’t (or won’t because really it will only further drag out the incessant na na na’s in my head) argue with that. But then through that lens, Olympic competition sounds pretty humanitarian, doesn’t it?
So maybe 200 m obstacle swimming is pretty Olympic-y after all. I know I’d stay up to watch it.