Tuesday 18 June 2019

Greeks can't hold a torch to the Ancient Irish

YES, I know, I know. History has been defined as a hard core of interpretation surrounded by an accumulated pulp of disreputable facts. Still, I thought the visit to the Temple of Zeus, in the grassy plains of Olympia was a neat touch.

Zeus, as you well know, was the Great God of the Ancient Greeks and his statue used to loom over the village until they did a "Nelson's Pillar" on it. Zeus's emblem was the thunderbolt, so it was apt to stage the shot putt there, the 16lbs for the men and the eight pounds 14 ounces, or four kilos, if you insist, for the women.

Apt too, that the American shot-putter, Adam Nelson, made a fair attempt to transmute the Zeus strike of lightning on the shot putt judges when they quite correctly ruled a foul.

But the celebration of the Ancient Olympics, which began in 776 BC, is commemorating a comparatively modern phenomenon. Surprising but a fact. In comparison with the Tailteann Games it's just the other day. The Tailteann Games, staged at what is now known as Telltown, which is just beyond Navan in the direction of Kells, is a thousand years older than the ancient Greek Games.

No, I haven't confirmed it with competitors of the time. I'm not really that old, even if like George Burns I remember when the air was clean and sex was dirty. The Tailteann Games began in 1829 BC in memory of Queen Tailte, who probably used to live at nearby Tara.

And if you care to check the authoritative History of British Athletics, written by Mel Watman, you will find the following: "The most ancient of all sports festivals were the Tailteann Games, which are thought to have been established as long ago as 1829 BC. Staged in County Meath, Ireland, this annual thirty-day gathering included such events as foot racing and stone throwing and it survived in all its splendour until the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1168 AD."

Mind you, I hereby serve notice that this salute to a British intervention is definitely the last in this column today. The BBC's television coverage of the Athens Games is totally unwatchable. The torrent of xenophobic bilge visited upon them by jingoistic producers must surely be highly embarrassing to many of their proficient commentators, Claire Balding, Steve Rider, Sue Barker, Steve Cram. Virtually all this exclusive coverage of the British competitors is surely exasperating for the average British viewer. And if you harbour a wish to wade in a bit of personal masochism, tune in to the BBC athletics this coming week when I guarantee things will get worse.

RTE? Well, um, seven out of ten, a fair assessment of RTE? On such a major occasion I suppose there is the odd hiccup. Somebody forgetting to close the studio door. Sound commentary disappearing from Olympia.

Personally, I could do with less gymnastics and weight-lifting and much more beach volleyball. Some of us are strange beings, aren't we?

One episode did irritate. Like most, I was impressed with the opening ceremony but the studio trio dismissed it.

Bill O'Herlihy wondered if they would be accused of being philistines. Eamon Coghlan related that he only attended the opening once in his three Olympics. The once was in his last Olympics when he felt he hadn't a chance of doing well. Twice, and understandably, when energy shouldn't be dissipated.

But a former marathon runner, Jerry Kiernan, told us he was utterly bored and wondered if his former Latin and Greek teacher would be disappointed with him. Mr Kiernan was never so bored in all his life, he informed us. Hopefully RTE will relieve him of any future boring tasks of informing us of his utter boredom. And relieve the trauma of the Classics teacher too.

As for all the blather about the feat of Mark Spitz in winning nine gold medals in 1968 and 1972, seven of them in '72, and the bid of Michael Phelps to win more than Spitz. Well, he won't, of course. But Spitz is not the most decorated Olympian ever. Did anyone ever hear of Larysa Latynina of Russia, a gymnast?

Well, Larysa won 18 Olympic medals and that is more than any Olympian ever. She competed first in Melbourne in 1956, then as a mother of a baby girl, she had further success in Rome in 1960 and then, finally in Tokyo in '64 for more wins. Her total was nine gold, five silver and four bronze.

She is still around, the most successful Olympian of all time.

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