The mysterious case of the vanishing women…

We are mid-way through the Rio Olympics. So far, I have watched approximately 10 hours of gymnastics; two Murray matches that have aged me considerably; a few cycling victories; and two rowing golds for Team GB which I observed while getting sweaty on a cross-trainer and feeling very despondent about the intensity of my workout!

Artistic Gymnastics - Women's Team FinalOne woman who has *not* been invisible in Rio! 

A couple of times now, while watching the BBC’s coverage (which is excellent, incidentally – God bless the myriad live streams available!), a short film has been shown on the topic of the ‘greatest Olympians’. It’s narrated by Michael Johnson – himself a contender for that accolade – and features archive footage of great athletes going back decades. Many of the usual suspects feature: Muhammed Ali, Jesse Owens, Usain Bolt, Carl Lewis, Emil Zatopek, Steve Redgrave, Chris Hoy… I could go on.

On my first viewing, I noticed that the athletes were predominantly male. The second time it appeared on the screen, I made a point of counting the number of women who appeared. Out of a total of 21 athletes [working on the basis of presuming an individual was the focus of group shots – e.g. just Steve Redgrave rather than the whole boat crew] just four were female. They consisted of: Fanny Blankers-Koen; Kathy Freeman, Mary Peters & Nadia Comaneci. Only Comaneci and Freeman get name-checked, in contrast with the majority of the male athletes.

The first woman appears 1 minute into the 2min 16s film. Comaneci appears twice – leading me to initially believe five women appeared. Several of the men appear more than once. Some of them even speak. But not the women.

BBC Greatest Olympian?

Looking up the video on the BBC website, it becomes clear that these are apparently Michael Johnson’s choices. In which case, perhaps fair enough – it’s a matter of personal opinion. But that isn’t clear in the video itself. A video that’s being shown at regular intervals on broadcasts being watched by millions of people, including many who may need a bit of inspiration from seeing something of the history of inspirational women that have been part of the Olympics! To be honest, the BBC should know better. Especially after the Sports Personality of the Year debacle from a few years ago.

Even the article that goes with the video makes it clear in its first paragraph that if you measure ‘greatness’ based upon number of medals won, then the top contender is a female gymnast – Larisa Latynina (18 medals, nine of them golds). Did she feature in the video? No. It then goes on to suggest another measure: medals earned over several Olympiads. Again, the ‘greatest’ in this category is a woman – Birgit Fischer who won 8 golds over 6 Olympics in canoeing – admittedly someone I’d never heard of, but did she feature? No, but Steve Redgrave (5 golds in 5 games) did.

In fairness, it does highlight the achievements of Fanny Blankers-Koen (one of only two mothers ever to have won Olympic gold) and Nadia Comaneci (scorer of the first perfect gymnastics score). But there really is so much more that could be said!

So I did my own research. (Hello Google.) I discovered some brilliant un-sung stories, including…

Dawn Fraser (Australia, swimming). Won 8 medals in total (4 gold, 4 silver), in the 1956, 60 & 64 games – including winning the 100m freestyle three times. Only one other woman has done that in swimming. Brilliantly, after playing a series of pranks at the Tokyo games in 64, she was banned from the Olympics by Australia’s national committee, meaning that she didn’t get the chance to defend her title a third time.

Valentina Vezzali (Italy, fencing). Won 7 medals (5 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze) over four Olympics (96, 2000, 04 & 08). With a maximum of two medals available in foil fencing in any one games, that’s pretty impressive.

Elisabeta Lipa-Oleniuc (Romania, rowing). Winning her first gold aged 19 in 1984, she then won a medal at every games up to and including 2004. Twenty years!

Jackie Joyner-Kersee (USA, athletics). Won 6 medals over 4 games – including back-to-back heptathlons in 88 and 92, followed up with long jump bronze in 1996!

Krisztina Egerszegi (Hungary, swimming). 7 medals over 3 Olympics (1988, 92 & 96) and is the only other woman to have won gold in the same swimming event in three consecutive games.

Apart from Joyner-Kersee, I’d not heard of any of these women – yet (on medal tally & longevity) they rank amongst the top 10 female summer Olympians. In comparison, I could probably have told you something about every single one of their male counterparts – those are stories I’ve heard re-told again and again every time the Olympics comes around. Treatment of women in sport is bad enough (I presume everyone’s seen the terrible reporting even in this year’s games?!?), without forgetting the stories of those who went before.

Come on BBC. We know you can do a lot better than this.

Great Olympic women...What Google brings up if you image search ‘great Olympic women’…

The final day of summer…

…and the first day of autumn.

Yesterday felt like the definitive end to the summer in London. Temperatures soared to 28c – but were set to plummet the following day; schools had returned the week before and university students were on the brink of return; and, to top it all off, it was the day the Paralympic Games ended. That end meant the end of six awesome weeks in the capital.

Sure, I was almost inconsolable at the end of the Olympics, but at least there was the Paralympics – and they exceeded all expectations. This time last week I was sat in the stadium watching athletics and it turned out that at least six friends of mine were there at the same time. The Paralympics succeeded where the Olympics had been rather lacking – they were accessible to virtually everyone who wanted to be there.

But I don’t want to see it go.
The Olympic rings had already left St Pancras when I was there last week. Soon the brightly coloured bunting, banners and pavement art will vanish too. Huge lanyards will no longer be must-have fashion accessories – nor will the attractive Games Maker and Ambassador uniforms. But what I fear most isn’t what’s disappearing, but what may return. We Brits love a bit of cynicism, but if this summer’s proved anything it’s that actually, we quite enjoy being positive about life!

Easing us into autumn and this new reality, the first day of autumn had a surprise up its sleeve – for just a few hours, we could have the Olympics back.

Really, I should have spent today putting in some hard graft on the two essays I need to hand in a week today, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to cheer our Olympians, Paralympians and volunteers by way of saying thanks for helping provide us with a summer of epic proportions. Miraculously, I acquired a position on the steps of St Paul’s, giving me a cramped but nonetheless excellent vantage point from which to watch proceedings.

Just going into a Mobot…

A pensive Tom Daley

Gymnasts

The rowers getting all athletic…

It was a beautiful, beautiful thing. Suits jostled with school children and slightly-bemused tourists. The noise of clapping was only dimmed by the inability to simultaneously clap and take photos. Strangers made conversation with each other and we all watched in glee as this family nearly fell off a plinth in their enthusiasm for cheering a relative of theirs who was on one of the floats:

Once home, the Olympic joy continued, as Zhen – one of my students, who’d had the honour of carrying the sign for UAE in the opening ceremony – turned up wearing her opening ceremony outfit. (She’d been at the Mall so had dressed appropriately for the occasion. This also explained why I’d spotted an Edwardian nurse at St Paul’s.) This was the first (and probably only) time I’d got to see the dress up close and can reveal that the faces are in fact taken from photos of Olympic volunteers – every single face is a genuine person. 

Talking of the volunteers, my final words on this epic summer have to go the amazing Games Makers – not least the contribution made by the Kilvert family, three of whom were on the driving team during the games. I loved Jenni’s updates on which colour car she was driving each day and her Dad’s tale of ending up at the Tongan High Commissioner’s house one evening, but her Mum trumped everyone with this photo:
Yes, that is the actual Eddie Izzard.

I’ve told my Mum that she now needs to have her photo taken with someone like Stephen Fry in order to beat Anne in ‘cool Mum points’! Eddie has been an amazing advocate of the Games Makers, encouraging them to wear their uniforms with pride today, no matter what they were up to, and it was great to see – as was his smile after awarding Johnnie Peacock his gold medal last Thursday. Here’s hoping his mission to ensure we say thank-you continues beyond the games…
Goodbye to the summer of 2012. You will never be forgotten.

Para-para-paradise

I have a vague recollection that in 1988, I got to hold a Paralympic swimming medal, recently won in the Seoul games. It might be a dream, but it would be a randomly detailed one, so I’m inclined to believe my memory that it belonged to a relative of one of my classmates. It has to be said, that between 1988 and 2008, I paid scant attention to the Paralympics. In fact, when the 2012 Paralympic tickets went on sale, I didn’t bother – though this was less lack of interest, more intense frustration with the LOCOG website…

But at the end of our day in the Olympic Park on Day 1 of the Olympics, I wanted more. Specifically, I wanted to get into the stadium. By the end of the games themselves, I just wanted more of all of it – more of the Park, more insane patriotism, more happiness and more Games Makers. And thus, I was glad that the evening of our Park visit, Gill booked tickets for an evening of Paralympic athletics finals.

Everything was just as it should have been, even before we left St Pancras on the ever-wonderful Javelin train. A comic security guard was ushering passengers up the escalators towards the train while singing (loudly): “Smiling happy people catching trains. Smiling happy people catching trains…” to the tune of the REM classic. Sure, she was out of tune and looked ridiculous, but people were smiling and were happy, and she was simply delightful.

The Games Makers were still wonderful too. Cheery en route into the Park and once there, doing the best to make the world as perfect as it ought to be. In less than 5 minutes, I came across Games Makers holding races for small children, and one who’d lent his loud-hailer to a small person who was now vigorously instructing people to “keep left”.

Beautifully, people were still dressing like loons in honour of Team GB. My only concession had been to wear a blue & white dress (with a red cardi in my bag in case of chilliness), but my goodness, did others go all-out. Like these fine people:

I tried taking a surreptitious photo, but I couldn’t do it justice so I bit the bullet and went had a genuine conversation with them. In doing so, I told them the story of my previous favourite Team GB outfit – the lady Morven and I had the privilege of queuing behind at the Olympic Museum. Voila:

All this was before we’d even entered the stadium. Once we had, things got even better…

There was even more cheesy music. Seriously, I love the fact that the Olympic Park has cheesy tunes pumped into its atmosphere. In the stadium were endless rounds of Coldplay’s Paradise, some Kings of Leon riffing, plenty of Bowie at appropriate Team GB moments, heck, there was even a bit of Tom Jones at the end of the evening.

We were sat just four flags away from the Tongan flag, and got to see a South Pacific gold medal – congratulations to Fiji for their first ever Paralympic gold in the high jump!

Which brings me to the sport, which was utterly awesome in itself. Take the high jump – it was the men’s F42 High Jump, i.e. people who had lost one of their legs. These athletes weren’t jumping, they were hopping, it was simply amazing. The winning height was 1.78m, 7cm taller than I am. Wow. Then there was British victory in the men’s T53 100m – cue vigorous flag waving and the happiest I’ve ever been in singing the national anthem. Oh, not to mention an Irish victory in the men’s T37 15,000m, where McKillop was awarded his gold medal by his mum. Beautiful.

And talking of awarding medals, we were also witness to a wonderful moment of political protest. Politicians often get in on the act of victory ceremonies, we all cheered for Poplar & Limehouse’s MP, but at the announcement of George Osborne MP, there was quite a different reaction. If you haven’t heard what happened, just watch this video:

This crowd was seriously good natured. Heck, immediately prior to this particular ceremony, we had just cheered an athlete throughout the whole two laps he’d had to run after the rest of the race had finished. But this same crowd couldn’t bear the sight of a politician who had been primarily responsible for the disgraceful changes recently made to the DLA (Disability Living Allowance) awarding medals to disabled people. Hypocrisy at its greatest. Obviously, I tweeted about this turn of events, to which someone responded that they hoped the 80,000 people in the stadium would vote accordingly in the next election – thing is, (as I pointed out in a reply) I’m not sure that the people who pay good money to watch Paralympians do their thing are people who would ever dream of voting Tory…

At the end of the night I was sad to leave. I leave you with the words of the tweet I composed in the (extremely friendly) queue for the Javelin home:

Friday Fun for an Olympic Hangover

I thought I’d have tons for Friday Fun this week – but it turns out that in the week following the Olympics, everyone is so desperate for fun that what gets out there ends up being circulated endlessly. Usually this would render items redundant for Fridays, but just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last 7 days, here’s two Team GB beauties.

Firstly, Mo Farah running away from things. A simple concept that’s managing to have a little bit of longevity. One of my favourites only appeared a couple of days ago:

Lest we forget, Boris was alternative Olympic entertainment…
Secondly, a good ‘un in the long tradition of nice people lip-synching to cracking tunes – Team GB’s Don’t Stop Me Now. Even if you’ve seen it before, watch it again. I guarantee it’ll make you smile. 

Returning to Boris, did you manage to miss his dancing to the Spice Girls during the closing ceremony? I did – I was too busy composing some witty Twitter banter. But fret not, someone out there (within minutes) had created a gif so you could treasure the memory:

It’s also worth sharing what was without doubt the best part of the closing festivities. Britain got back into its natural cynical state during the ceremony, but I think even the biggest moaners had a smile on their face once Eric Idle appeared: 

Finally, a little bit of fun from the real star of the last few weeks – the glorious city of London. Specifically, its transport network. Someone’s been having a bit more fun with stickers on the tube – remember Stickers on the Central Line? I think most of these have originated from that source. But peruse ‘Fake Subway Signs in London’ and chuckle. This was a particular favourite:

I hope this goes some way to easing your Olympic grieving process… 

Farewell XXXth Olympiad

In the words of some people on Twitter on Sunday night:
“If we don’t give Rio the flag, we can keep the Olympics…”
“Noooooo! Don’t put the flame out!”

Not going to lie, the end of the closing ceremony found me curled up in a ball on my sofa trying not to cry. In fact, I must have appeared so forlorn that my houseguest was prompted to check that I was ok. Yesterday, the whole capital was clearly in mourning. All you could hear all over the place was talk of how sad it was. I even had mixed emotions at the sight of Olympic lanes opening up again (they’d prevent pedestrians crossing the road at a major junction near the flat which had been doing my head in).

I’m keeping the Olympic flame burning within me though. Thanks to being sequestered in wifi-free rural France last week, I missed 8 days of Olympic action which I’m now re-living courtesy of iPlayer. [Useful note: all Olympic coverage will stay available online till January. Blissful.] Also, my return to the church office this morning was brightened by the discovery of an Olympic themed gift:

That would be a Team Tonga wristband and pin badge. I’ve no idea how my friend Fiona acquired them, but I’m delighted – especially as I’d been rather jealous of one Games Maker I know who was given a Tongan badge after driving some Tongan dignitary around. (Fiona was a Games Maker whose job, I think, was sitting with people having dope tests, so logic would suggest she must have babysat one of the three Tongan athletes…)

Plus, a visit to the Olympic stadium for Paralympic athletics is less than three weeks away – I honestly can’t wait to get back into the park and finally get inside the stadium.

I may have only experienced half the Olympics, but it’s something I’ll never forget – from the trip to the Olympic Park, to watching the opening and closing ceremonies with fun people. In fact, a running theme of the Olympics was watching it in the presence of house guests (4 in 6 days) and friends. It began with my sister (and her Olympic themed gifts) and continued with a birthday party during which the TV had to be on for cycling and gymnastics (only during the Olympics would I think it appropriate for a guest to arrive and ask for the TV to be turned on). A Texan guest joined me in disbelief at Team GB’s  gymnastic silver-turned-bronze debacle and every morning with Morven began with rowing – in fact, it’s a miracle we ever got to the Harry Potter studios (more anon) given the draw of the coverage. Morven and I also paid a visit to the Royal Opera House for the Olympic Museum exhibition and the now obligatory Olympic Torch photo:

A final house guest – immediately prior to and post France – tried to convince me that Beach Volleyball was something other than a gratuitous opportunity to watch scantily clad women throwing themselves around some sand. (I’m still not convinced, but then I never actually watched any…) But he did successfully get me hooked on the final moments of a Team GB women’s basketball game – did you know that the final two minutes of a match can actually last twenty? Incredible. Yes, the closing ceremony had moments of utter ridiculousness, but there’s nothing quite like watching it in the company of someone with a similar sense of humour and sharing the best bits of each other’s Twitter streams. Their reaction to Eric Idle’s appearance was worth sitting through the entire 3 hour performance. 
And now it’s over. How long till we can have it back?!?