Saturday 13 August 2016

Olympic Alphabet : V is for ...


Every Olympian dreams of winning a gold medal. Of course, silver and bronze medals are also awarded although this has not always been the case even in the modern Olympics, and not at all in the ancient games. Today we look at the various prizes that have been awarded to Olympic victors.

In all the years the modern Olympics has been awarding medals there has only been one that has been designed by an lgbt artist. The medals for the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games of Vancouver 2010 were designed by Corinne Hunt. You can read more about her here.

The Athens Olympics of 2004 revived the ancient tradition of placing an olive wreath on the victor’s head. This was the most common way the ancient Olympic champions, such as those mentioned in a previous article, were crowned.

This crowning ceremony didn’t take place after the event but at the very end of the Olympic festival with all the victors receiving their wreaths at the same sacred ceremony. But each champion was proclaimed to the crowds immediately after winning their event. He received a palm branch and had a ribbon wrapped around his head, arm and leg. The victory olive wreaths were held in the Temple of Hera at Olympia until awarded to the victors.

At the other ancient Greek games they had different wreaths. There were four main pan-Hellenic games, as they are called – the Olympic, Nemean, Pythian and Isthmian Games. Each had a wreath made of plants that were scared to the patron god of their games. The Nemean Games had a victory wreath of wild celery, a plant sacred to Zeus. The Pythian Games had a wreath of bay laurel, sacred to Apollo. The Isthmian Games had a wreath of pine fronds, sacred to Poseidon.

Just like Olympic champions today the ancient victors were idolised, perhaps more so than their modern equivalents. Statues were made at Olympia and in the athlete’s home town, and there are records of some even being exempt from paying taxes for the rest of their life.

The erection of statues has a modern, quirky, equivalent. For the London 2012 Olympics the Royal Mail decided that it would paint red post boxes in the home town of each champion in gold paint. This was originally a temporary way of commemorating the victories of the home nations’ athletes and would have been repainted red some time later. However, the idea was so brilliant, imaginative and so typically British that the British public became very enthusiastic and supportive. The Royal Mail was persuaded (perhaps with very little persuasion) to retain all the gold post boxes for posterity. Each was even given a specially engraved plaque giving the details of the athlete and his/her victory. A new “sport” was even spawned – gold post box visiting! Even my bother got involved.
The photo above shows two gold post boxes (technically, there’s three, because the one on the right is a double post box). This is the only case of three being painted for one athlete, the lgbt community’s very own boxing champion, Nicola Adams. The post box for the other lgbt Olympic champion, equestrian Carl Hester, is also notable in that it is the most southerly of all the gold post boxes, situated on the Channel Island of Sark. The remaining third gold post box, in Bagnall, Staffordshire, commemorates Lee Pearson, the Paralympic equestrian champion who holds the record for the most medals won by any lgbt athlete at the Olympic or Paralympic. He has 10 gold medals, 1 silver and 1 bronze.

One of the leading figures in the gold post box initiative was Royal Mail’s Head of Public Affairs. Appropriately his name is David Gold. Even more appropriately in relation to this blog he is an openly gay man. In fact, he has place in British political history as being the first openly gay man to stand as a Conservative Member of Parliament, which he did in the 2001 General Election. He wasn’t elected.

I read an article a few weeks ago on the “Voice of Vexillology, Flags and Heraldry” blog which suggested that the awarding of medals at the modern Olympics should be extended to the top 5 finishers in each event. This would mirror the 5 rings on the Olympic flag. This would be fine for solo events but for team events the medal podium would be heaving under the weight of so many medal winners. That article’s writer seems to be unaware that all athletes receive participation medals. In a previous Olympic Alphabet article I explained how all of the first 8 finishers in all events also receive diplomas.

It remains to be seen how many medals the lgbt athletes will accumulate at the Rio Olympic and Paralympic games, and how high in the medal table Team LGBT will finish.

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