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War Minus the Shooting

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Amongst the many last-minute jitters in the run-up to the London Games, one of the most noteworthy has been the failure of security giant G4S to supply sufficient guards and stewards. Into the breach has stepped the British Army, which has made 3,500 troops available on top of the 10,500 already committed. Many of them will be missing their summer leave before heading straight back to Afghanistan.

Other military controversies include the positioning of surface to air missiles on tower blocks -- a last-minute attempt by residents of one such edifice to challenge the policy was rejected by the courts -- and the Navy's biggest warship, HMS Ocean, slipping ominously up the Thames.

Some have expressed the view that the presence of all these soldiers will scarcely be conducive to a relaxed atmosphere. But aside from the general approachableness of the average British 'squaddie,' the Olympics have always been, to borrow George Orwell's phrase about soccer, "war minus the shooting."

The associations with the military stretch all the way back to the Ancient Games at Olympia, where one of the main events was the hoplitodromos, a race consisting of two lengths of the 192 metre stadium run in armour. Chariot racing was a thoroughly marital affair too, as was javelin throwing, which in those days involved tying a cord to the fingers and wrapping it around the shaft of the weapon. When it was launched, the cord would unwind at terrific speed, imparting a spin to the projectile that allowed it to sail further than the best throwers can manage today.

Aside from individual events, the Games as a whole were connected with war, in that the constituent disciplines were seen as excellent training for the battlefield. They were also viewed as a way of safely channelling the competitive instincts that would otherwise have led to fighting. Athletic contests allowed the representatives of one part of the Greek world to triumph over the others without actually killing them (although deaths were fairly common in the pankration, a nasty form of all-out combat). And holding the Games at all required the various city states to suspend their squabbling for a while. Travellers to Olympia were guaranteed safe passage via a sacred truce that was usually scrupulously observed.

Military thinking played an important role in the genesis of the Modern Olympics too. Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the movement, was first motivated to organise athletic competitions by the poor showing of his countrymen during the Franco-Prussian War. He felt that French manhood had been found wanting and concluded that exercise was the way to toughen it up. De Coubertin also devised a special sport for the Games with a military scenario in mind. The Modern Pentathlon was based on the fantasy of a 19th century soldier trapped behind enemy lines, who had to successively duel, swim, ride, run and shoot his way out of his predicament. Two of the sport's best known practitioners were soldiers: future U.S. General George Patton, who came fifth in the Stockholm Games of 1912, and Soviet Major Boris 'Dis-' Onischenko, who was kicked out of Montreal '76 for concealing an electronic device in his sword handle that allowed him to register a hit at the push of a button.

When you look at the Olympics through the right lenses, you start to see army influences everywhere. Fencing is obviously rooted in warfare, as is archery. That there is a connection between the martial arts and organised fighting almost goes without saying. Dressage originated as a system for training cavalrymen, while the gymnastic disciplines of Pommel and Vaulting Horse began with members of the same profession showing off on their mounts. The Marathon commemorates an epic run by a herald to deliver news of the Greek victory of the Persians at the battle of the same name in 490 BCE and the shot put began with medieval soldiers exercising with cannonballs. Even table tennis, for goodness sake, was invented by British Army officers in India mucking about with cigar box lids and champagne corks.

So if you spot a few figures in army fatigues at the London Games, worry not. Their presence is entirely appropriate.

David Goldblatt and Johnny Acton are co-authors of How to Watch the Olympics
The Essential Guide to the Rules, Statistics, Heroes, and Zeroes of Every Sport
.

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