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The Tokyo 2020(1) Olympics are starting! So we wanted to find out a little more about what the Olympics are, and why they work the way they do. We talk to Dr. Matt Hodler, a historian of sport, to learn more about this big sporting event.

Guest bio: Matt Hodler

Matt Hodler is an Assistant Professor in Sport Media & Communication at the University of Rhode Island.

Transcript

MAGGIE:
To be an Olympian, you have to run 100 meters in about 10 seconds. On your marks, get set, go.

ABBY:
Did I make it in 10 seconds?

MAGGIE:
No, you’re five seconds too slow.

ABBY:
Oh, my Olympic dreams crushed before they ever get started. Well, my Olympic dreams might have never taken off. But for a lot of people, their Olympic dreams are just starting.

MAGGIE:
We wanted to know more about the history of this huge sporting event. So that’s our topic on today’s episode of Big If True, where I, Maggie,

ABBY:
and I, Abby,

MAGGIE:
explore the truth about big things.

ABBY:
The Olympics that are happening this year, in fact, this week have been full of complications and controversy. For one thing they’re being called the 2020 Olympics, but it is 2021.

MAGGIE:
Thanks, COVID.

ABBY:
And there have been a lot of other things that haven’t gone the way people wanted or hoped. But these Olympics are not the first Olympics to be controversial.

MAGGIE:
So here’s our quiz question to test your knowledge.

ABBY:
What food made a flying appearance at the London Olympics in 2012 as a form of protest?

MAGGIE:
A. barbecue sauce, B. potatoes, C. cake and D. chicken.

ABBY:
We’ll tell you the answer near the end of the show. Today, our guest is somebody who studies the Olympics and their history.

HODLER:
My name is Dr. Matt Hodler. I am a Assistant Professor of Sport Media and Communications at the University of Rhode Island.

MAGGIE:
When did the Olympics start?

HODLER:
The first, the modern Olympics, which is what we kind of celebrate now, started in 1896. Those were the first Olympic games ever, and they are generally credited with a French aristocrat name Baron Pierre de Coupertin who kind of helped reinstitute them in the late 1800s. and got their first start in Athens in 1896.

MAGGIE:
That’s cool. Why do the Olympics exist?

HODLER:
That’s a good question. So the Baron de Coupertin, the guy that kind of gets credited for reinventing them after the ancient games, and those ancient game started in like 776 BCE. Like in the late 1800s, there was like this massive European kind of interest in all things Greece, and Greek. And so one of the things that came out of it was sports. And Baron de Coupertin loved sports, thought it’d be a great way to make the French people more powerful and more stronger, especially after they lost the war to Germany in the middle of the 19th century. And so he thought sports would be a nice way to to to learn these things. And then he also, it’s not just purely nationalism, he also thought it’d be a good way for young people to kind of meet each other. And at its best might be a way for folks to kind of learn more about each other, and possibly avoid war in the future would be a very charitable reading of what his, what he wanted.

ABBY:
That didn’t work out so well.

HODLER:
Doesn’t seem to have, does it?

MAGGIE:
Why are the Olympics held every four years?

HODLER:
Well, that’s a really good question. I honestly, part of me doesn’t really believe the answer to this question. But the International Olympic Committee, the folks that invented that, that are in charge of it, say that it’s indirect honor of the ancient games, which most people agree happened every four years. But remember, the Summer Games and the Winter Games are staggered now. So when I was young, when I was really young, when I was your age, they used to be every four years. So the Winter Olympics, the Summer Olympics were the same time. But since the early 90s, it’s been every two years. So like, the 2018 Olympics, we’re in the winter games, were in South Korea.

MAGGIE:
That’s cool. I like South Korea, it sounds fun. What countries get to compete in the Olympics,

HODLER:
Any nation that is deemed to be in good standing with the International Olympic Committee is able to compete. So at the last summer games in 2016, there was 207 nations. And, and I think they’re expecting about that same for the 2021 games, although, while that’s up in the air, as we know, because of what’s going on the world with the pandemic.

ABBY:
So on that, I remember reading somewhere recently that Russia has been banned from the Olympics, but there are still going to be Russian athletes at the Games, right?

HODLER:
Yeah, this is where it gets really, really complicated. So the Olympics, we say nations, but it’s really Olympic Committees within each nation. So it’s not the United States, technically that that like Katie Ledecky, is gonna swim for or Simone Manuel is gonna swim for. It’s the United States Olympic Committee. And these organizations are not really associated with the nation. Technically, there’s at least they’re not supposed to be in the government. So you have these weird gaps of countries that might not be technically nations in some places, like Palestine has an Olympic Committee. Puerto Rico has an eight, has an Olympic team, even though they’re one of the territories of the United States. So, and then the way that they punish Russia, is by looking at what the Russian olympic committee did. And saying that their national status is getting revoked. But they still get to have the, their own Olympians. And I think they’re going to go by that same thing they did 2016 or 2018, the Olympians formerly of Russia, or something kind of like Prince like the artist formerly known as Prince.

MAGGIE:
Where are the Olympics held?

HODLER:
This, this upcoming one in late July is going to be in Tokyo, Japan. The 2022 Winter Olympics are going to be in Beijing, China, which is the first time ever that a city hosted the Summer Olympics and the Winter Olympics. And they’re rotating hosts. So generally speaking, it’s a different nation every every two or four years depending on how you measure it, or different city. And historically, most of the most of most hosts in the Northern Hemisphere and in Europe, and London, is the only city that’s hosted three times but Los Angeles because of 2028. There’s gonna be the Summer Olympics in Paris, because in 2024, in Summer Olympics will also become three time hosts.

MAGGIE:
Has an Olympics ever not been held?

HODLER:
Before last summer’s postponement, it had been mostly for the world, for the world’s war. So World War One in 1916, was supposed to be in Berlin. And there’s only Summer Olympics back then. And so that got canceled. And then in 1940, and ’44, both the winter and the Summer Olympics are canceled because of World War Two.

MAGGIE:
I can see why Berlin didn’t work out. Let’s just talk about the Summer Olympics since it’s a Summer Olympics year. How many sports are there in the Summer Olympics now?

HODLER:
So the Olympics coming up, they’re scheduled to have 37 sports officially. And like we say sports like swimming counts as one sport but they have all sorts of events, right? Like there’s multiple different butterfly, individual medleys; track and field the same way. There’s multiple different events in there. Some of the new sports stuff coming up, next, there’s this thing called sports climbing, which they are rock climbing up a false wall, and seeing how fast they can do the rock climbing. There’s also going to be a three on three basketball tournament for the first time ever. And there’s a men and women competing in every every Olympic sport, this will be the third straight Summer Olympics where there’s that.

MAGGIE:
How many were there to start with?

HODLER:
At the Athens games in 1896, there was nine only nine sports but 43 events. And the first sports were swimming, wrestling, track and field, sailing, rowing, fencing, gymnastics, shooting, tennis and weightlifting. They had 311 athletes from 13 different countries. But according to most historians, least that I’ve read, almost 75% of the athletes in the first Olympics were from Greece. So it wasn’t a huge international event. They only had men competing at the first Olympics. There were 10s of 1000 spectators of those first Olympics. So it was really popular even back then. And a lot of folks celebrated the fact that there were so many people there and like that it was the biggest peaceful gathering of people. So outside of war in the modern era, so since the 1700s, which I always find kind of hopeful, especially with how cynical I am about the Olympics project. The 2016 Summer Games in Rio, which were the first ones ever in South America had over 11,000 athletes 207 nations, and the Winter Games are always smaller than the Summer Games had under 2000. Just under 2000 athletes from 92 nations.

ABBY:
Why is there such a big difference in the number of athletes between the summer and the winter games?

HODLER:
That’s a good question. I think mostly because the summer the the Winter Olympics are so dependent on geography of like, like you have to be able to be have access to a mountain to the ski, access to snow and ice. And so that really limits which nations can actually do the practicing and the sports that are part of the culture.

MAGGIE:
What do you have to do to go to the Olympics as a competitor?

HODLER:
Practice. They do a lot of practicing. It depends on the sport like tech- like it actually does depend on the sport like which how you get selected for the team. My sport when I swam, I swam in college and my a lot of my research is about swimming, has an Olympic trials and it’s generally depending on the year, it’s between four to six weeks ahead of the Olympics and you have to finish in the top two in the event. So if you don’t finish first or second, you don’t get to go to the Olympics. Track and field, the same thing. And for track and field, it’s top three. So track and field is a little bit bigger of a sport. But for like USA Basketball or USA Gymnastics, there’s a selection process where like the USA Olympic Committee and the Gymnastics Federation, or this or the Basketball Federation, select the team based on a number of criteria.

MAGGIE:
We know that in the ancient Olympics, all you got for winning was a leaf crown; where did the medals come from?

HODLER:
So one thing is, it’s important to remember that those ancient games happened a long, long, long time ago, for 1000 years, almost. So they started in 776 BCE, and then they lasted till the third or fourth century of the Common Era, which is a long, I mean, that’s what’s, four times as long as United States has been around as a as a country if you mark it from when the Declaration of Independence happened, right. So it’s a really long time. And so we’re still learning a lot about it, because there’s a lot of like, evidence and sources coming about. And they didn’t only get a leaf crown. A lot of those winners got money and gifts, chariots, places to live, horses, other things. But like that celebration of that leaf crown, a lot of scholars like me argue that it was a way to kind of gate keep from working class athletes. And so we celebrate this amateurism, which may be if either one of you follows college sports, you might be hearing a lot of arguments about this right now. But through like talking about how great they were way back when. But to get to your actual question about the medals. The first, so like the first Olympics in 1896, in the first modern Olympics, the winners got silver medals actually. And second place got bronze and third place didn’t get anything other than like, probably a good handshake or something. or a pat on the back. And then the gold, silver and bronze like that we know of now started in 1904, which was the third official, modern Olympics and each host– so you asked like, Where do they come from? Technically, like each host city kind of designs their own and over the last few decades, so they’ve kind of become really related to their their local area. So my my favorite one for the Beijing Olympic Games, where the second half of it is like this big circle of jade. So the gold medal with a big circle of jade, because jade is so important in China or so significant in China. But you can look at like you actually you might like this, even go to the Olympic website and look at all their pictures of all the past medals from 1896 all the way to 2021. And you can see how they have like little special touches.

MAGGIE:
The Olympics seem like a big achievement for both individuals and countries. Are there downsides to the Olympics?

HODLER:
They are incredible achievement for individual athletes, many of whom worked for years, like with support of their loved ones in their family and friends, just to make the team, so just to make the team is an accomplishment, especially in a nation as big as the United States and we have over 300 million people in this country so just be able to make it is a big deal. And I love watching those athletes compete like I get, you get to watch people play badminton, weightlifting, field hockey, soccer, like all in one day. But in the Winter Olympics are fun too, because I don’t know anything about the, I don’t know how to do anything like biathlon or ski jumping. But it’s fun to watch that too, once. But you’re right. There are a lot of downsides to the Olympics. It’s, it’s a lot of its environmental. So like it’s it’s really not great for the environment to to basically bulldoze whole parts of cities and then rebuild part of cities, so in non sustaining ways. We’re also flying people from all over the world into one place which is just terrible for pollution. It’s also about like, who bears the costs. So like taxpayers end up paying a lot of the costs for these things, even though taxpayers don’t really have a lot of say in how new in how they’re built. And a lot of local businesses and people get displaced for a short period of time. So one of my favorite stories that exactly like kind of demonstrates how the Olympics often benefits large corporations over local corporations. Do you like French fries? Yeah, of course, who doesn’t like French fries. So McDonald’s is a sponsor of the Olympics. And in the London 2012 Olympics, which was probably right around when you were born, you probably don’t remember it, I assume. The official, one of the official sponsors of the Olympic Games, was McDonald’s french fries. And so they had this area in London, where only McDonald’s french fries could be sold. And if you’ve been, or you know anything about London or Great Britain, they really like their chips. They’re they’re like local French chip shops. And so this local group, to protest this embargoed area where they would only let McDonald’s french fries were like the official sponsors. They developed this catapult and they would catapult local french fries into the area as a way to protest. Which I love that idea of protesting that way.

MAGGIE:
Hey, there’s the answer to our quiz question. London restaurant owners threw chips, which are fried potatoes, in protest at the London Olympics.

ABBY:
If you watch the Olympics this year, write to us and tell us which sport you enjoyed watching the most. You can write to us at bigiftrue@abbymullen.org.

MAGGIE:
You can also take a look at our show notes where we’ve included videos of some of our favorite Olympic moments. You can find that at bigiftrue.abbymullen.org.

ABBY:
And whether you watch or not, we hope you’ve learned a lot about this sporting event on

MAGGIE:
Big if True.

ABBY:
Big if True is produced by me Abby and Maggie. Special thanks to our guest this week, Matt Hodler. Our theme music is as always composed by Andrew Cote, and thank you most of all to you for listening. If you wouldn’t mind, take a few minutes to leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform.

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