Gold Medal Throw Down with a Monk

Olympic spirit has infected my home like a bad case of the flu. I like the Olympics. I’ve enjoyed watching US snowboarders own it, and the figure skating is quite lovely, but my case is pretty light. My husband, on the other hand, is somewhat delirious. The man is obsessed. If the Olympic Games came around more frequently than every two years, it would definitely be time to stage an intervention.

This same guy, who ordinarily couldn’t care less about the world stage of biathlon or wouldn’t devote a moment’s thought to the subtleties of bobsledding technique, has transformed into an expert on all things international sports.

Okay, it does look kind of fun. photo credit: Wyoming_Jackrabbit IMG_1787 via photopin (license)

Nowhere is his illness more apparent than in his newfound (and likely short lived) dedication to the sport of curling. If we can assume the DJ on my preferred morning radio station got her information from a reliable source and that I heard correctly (both pretty big assumptions), then curling is currently the third most popular winter Olympic sport amongst the American viewing public.

Why not? It’s got slippery ice and heavy rocks and some very enthusiastic sweeping, everything a sport needs I should think. It has the nail-biting moments of tension that beg for otherwise responsible sports enthusiasts to stay up late even though they have to be at work the next morning.

hair curlers
Prior to 1998, the only thing that came to mind for most of us when someone mentioned curling. Image courtesy of oga_red, via Pixabay

The sport is loud, too, sometimes called the “roaring game” because of the unique rumble of stone scraping against ice or possibly because of the crazy fanboy shouting coming from my living room.

Some of the interest in Olympic curling may simply be because it’s a relative newcomer to the Games, only included since 1998. Sort of. The sport actually made its Olympic debut with the first Winter Games in 1924, but was then downgraded to an exhibition sport because it lacked an international organization necessary to meet the requirements of the IOC.

Really, despite its recent emergence in the consciousness of Olympic fanatics, curling is an older sport than even its most dedicated historians (and yes, it has some) are willing to speculate. There’s disagreement about whether curling is originally Dutch or Scottish in origin, but the earliest written evidence of the sport, or something like it, comes from Scotland in the form of a legal record book from the 16th century covering the goings on of Paisley Abbey.

Scholars discovered the book in 1976 and quickly turned it over to be examined by curling historian David Smith, who is the kind of dedicated historian that might argue with you about the origin of the sport and would win because, let’s face it, you’d probably be out of your depth.

Pieter Bruegel Winter Landscape
One of the earliest instances of curling caught on canvas, Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap By Dutch painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1565. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When Smith translated the passage of interest from Latin, he found that it described, ever so briefly, a practice run of Brother John Sclater who slid three stones to roar across the ice and felt fairly satisfied he was ready to meet the challenge he’d previously issued to Gavin Hamilton, the new lay governor of the Abbey.

Because the record of the anticipated match appears in Latin legalese, scholars point out that this most likely wasn’t a friendly contest. Rather it’s an example of how an angry 16th century monk issues a throw down. There’s no record of which man won, suggesting that the notary was rooting for the other guy.

I bet it broke his heart to see his favorite curler miss the mark. He’d probably stayed up late to watch the match, biting his nails as the stones roared against the ice and the competitors shouted and swept. He probably had to head to the office bright and early the next morning where he’d put in a full day filling books with Latin legalese. But he didn’t care because he’d caught the fever.

Na na na nana na na. Nana na na…

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.