Taking Olympic history to Manchester

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To Manchester for an address to the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society for the Kilburn Lecture on ‘The Future of the Olympic Games’. The learned society is Britain’s second oldest, after the Royal Society, having been instituted in 1781. John Dalton, the father of modern chemistry, was one of its important past members. My NBF Peter Barnes (I had to explain to him that the acronym meant new best friend) picked me up at the airport and whisked me to Manchester Metropolitan University, and within 45 minutes I had changed into evening clothes and was facing a jolly gathering of bearded professors, smiling ladies and an all-round appreciative audience who laughed at my jokes and were extremely generous with their applause. I spoke for 45 minutes and had an intelligent question and answer period of 15 minutes — one gentleman asked me why Lindsay Lohan hadn’t come with me, and I told him that, alas, she was most likely in jail and incapable of travel.

A lively dinner followed and the wine flowed, as did the vodka later on in the university’s bar. Oh, I almost forgot. A three quarters of an hour speech is quite long, and although I had six months to prepare it, I had only begun to write it down three days before. But I knew my subject by heart and, after a few fervent prayers, I was pretty certain I’d somehow wing it. What also helped were two double whiskys just before going up on the podium. One more double would have meant disaster with a capital D, a single double would have meant close but no cigar. But as I said, the society’s members were very friendly, many of them are Spectator readers, and one gentleman even knew about my ships and those of my father.

I began with a short history of the Games, which first took place in 776 BC. I mentioned Arrachion, the famous Pankration athlete who won his third medal posthumously because just as he expired he broke the toe of his opponent, who surrendered. Of course, in AD 339, the Games were abolished because they had become too corrupt. Nero hadn’t helped by disqualifying all entrants and winning the chariot race unopposed. I then ran through my favourite moments of the modern Olympics, Bob Mathias winning the Decathlon in 1948 as a 17-year-old Californian of Greek extraction, and with his Apollo-like looks repeating it four years later; Emil Zátopek’s triple victory in 1952, the 5,000, the 10,000 and the Marathon; the German Armin Hary winning the 100 meters in Rome in 1960; my friend Tony Madigan beating Cassius Clay — aka Muhammad Ali — in the boxing semi-finals in Rome and being robbed by a split decision; the barefooted Ethiopian sergeant Abebe Bikila smiling his way through the Borghese Gardens and down the Via Veneto and receiving the greatest cheers from the Roman crowd.

After the death of Avery Brundage as head of the IOC, the rot set in quicker than you can say vermin. Juan Antonio Samaranch allowed the Games to be politicised and, far worse, permitted such phony countries as the Gulf states to purchase athletes. (All Qatar runners look like Ethiopians and Kenyans, because they are, but they carry Qatari passports.) The Americans boycotted the Moscow Games because — just imagine — the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan! The 1984 Los Angeles games were so commercial — ditto the Atlanta ones in 1996 — they would make a Moroccan bazaar-owner red with shame. The Athens ones bankrupted a country that saw ministers and entrepreneurs give out construction contracts whose kickbacks would make an Indonesian blanch with envy: 12 billion big ones were spent, 5 per cent of the country’s economy, with most of the stadiums now empty and unused, the moolah safely hidden away in the Cayman Islands. The IOC’s executive board, now headed by a Belgian who looks and acts like those faceless men of the Brussels mafia that calls itself the EU, has now added insult to injury of the Olympic idea by removing the ancient sport of wrestling, which is a bit like removing kissing from the art of love.

Under the terrible Samaranch, who commercialised the games beyond recognition, silly games one plays on the beach were brought into the Olympics. Other made-up sports such as BMX cycling, roller-skating, rhythmic gymnastics, ping-pong and synchronised swimming, things that belong in circuses, are secure while the oldest sport of all is about to go the way of sportsmanship and good manners. The son of Samaranch, also Juan Antonio, a man who is an Eagle club member and competes in the Taki Cup each year, is a member of the executive board of the IOC and vice-president of the modern pentathlon association, a sport in which only 26 countries participated in the London Olympics last year. By contrast, there were wrestling medallists from 29 countries, with wrestlers from 71 countries engaging in the sport with only 53 taking part in the pentathlon. The Belgian Rogge should charter a private plane — I’ll pay for it — fly to Olympia, walk up the mountain above Delphi, and throw himself off it. He and Samaranch senior ruined the games. Samaranch senior is already in Hell. His Belgian successor should do the honourable thing for the first time in his miserable life.