Sunday Monitor

Games they played


The Olympic Games 2020 came to an end today. The event commenced with widespread protests in Japan where the number of Covid-19 cases was rising. Decades later, the year’s games will be part of the Olympic history. Will Luciano Wernicke put the pandemic games on the list of his Olympics chronicles? Perhaps. But for now, the anecdotes which he has ferreted out from over a century of the Games are incredible.
Wernicke’s new book, The Most Incredible Olympic Stories, traverses the journey of the international event from 1896, when the Games were reborn in Athens 15 centuries after its abolition, to 2016 through wars, political upheavals, terrorism, stories of grit and galore as well as defeat.
As the Games resumed in 1896, the Ottoman Empire, or the modern-day Turkey, created history by becoming a nation to singularly boycott the event. It was the same event that witnessed the glorious performance of a 10-year-old Greek gymnast, Dimitrios Loundras.
When the world was struggling to salvage dreams from the wreckage of the two major wars in the early part of the 20th century, the Olympics torch showed a flicker of hope. “Though Berlin 1916, Tokyo 1940 and London 1944 are listed as Olympic editions, there was no place for sports competition amidst bullets, bombs and deaths. The event developed on the English soil was the first since the end of hostilities in 1945,” writes Wernicke.
The London Olympics 1948 post-World War II was a struggle and yet it provided the succour that the world was so in need. However, it was not free from political interventions as the host country was still seething at Germany’s devastating actions. Germany was not invited, again after 1920, as Londoners refused to play host to a country that ravaged their land and pride. The official reason remained that the country did not have a local government to send the official invitation to. Japan too was written off the list of participants.
As the hungry nation fought against adversities to feed the over 4,000 athletes, the participating countries came to its rescue by supplying ration and keeping the spirits of the sportspersons high. It was at the same event that India’s barefooted footballers put up a brave fight against the advantaged opponents from France and the audience had a chance to witness the ‘naked’ truth, literally, about Pakistani swimmer Jaffar Ali Shah.
The Olympics had endured the aftermath of wars and lived the nightmare of terrorism. In the 1972 edition in Munich, a group of radical Palestinians sneaked into the venue and went on a rampage, killing two Israeli athletes and taking hostage nine others. The game was suspended for a day and for the remaining part of the event, the flag was flown half mast as a sign of mourning.
While Werwicke writes about the chequered history of the Games, he does not forget some of the amusing as well as emotional, yet obscure, incidents. In the Rome 1960 chapter of the Games, a South American athlete earned the moniker ‘sleeping beauty’ after he miscalculated the time of the competition and slept through it. In Helsinki 1952, a son would win gold in a track-and-field event and dedicate it to his father who had sacrificed his Olympics dream to be with his family during the birth of his children.
Wernicke, an Argentine sports journalist, tells the Olympics stories in simple words with subtle emotions. These are not mere tales but a way of understanding the journey of the Games better and need to be preserved for generations to come.


– Sunday Monitor

Book: The Most Incredible Olympic Stories; Author: Luciano Wernicke; Publisher: Niyogi Books;
Price: Rs 595

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