БƗƗҚ.8 // It was with great effort they could lift their feet from the ground

What is the youngest country to compete in the Olympics?

Well it is springtime and no time here in Boston. The windows in my apartment are finally open with some consistency, but there isn’t much to do about it. (“Some tentative baby steps toward re-opening someday in the future…” is the subject line of an email I just received from my gym). The NBA is near the top of the list of things that I miss right now, and so it’s been a nice consolation to be able to watch The Last Dance on ESPN, a ten-part series about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls of the 90s, which wraps up this evening.

In Episode 5, Michael Jordan and the Dream Team ventured to Barcelona for the 1992 Olympics. While there, they encounter Toni Kukoč (or Kucoke, or Kucock, or Kukitsch, depending on which American is speaking), a star forward in Europe who would eventually join the Bulls in Chicago. Watching Toni stand on the court alongside his Croatian teammates, I had the thought that Croatia couldn’t have been a country for very long when those Olympics started (13 months to the day, it turns out). I was curious if a younger country had ever participated in the Olympics and the answer is yes, a few, including - funny enough - Croatia. 

1992 was the final year that the winter and summer Olympics were hosted in the same year, and Croatia made its Olympic debut not in Barcelona but in Albertville, France on February 8, 1992, at just 228 days old during the opening ceremony. (Slovenia, which became independent the same day as Croatia, was also in Albertville). I could find two younger cases still: Bosnia was part of Yugoslavia during the Albertville Olympics, but participated in the Barcelona Olympics as an independent nation, only 144 days old. Coming in slightly younger was Zimbabwe, who participated in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow only 92 days removed from Rhodesia, the mostly-unrecognized state that was banned from the Olympics after seceding from Great Britain in 1965 in order to preserve the ruling power of the white minority.

But back to Barcelona in 1992. I have to say that for somebody born in ‘87, looking back from ‘20, ‘92 looked pretty good. The aforementioned Balkan states were there for the first time, while the burgeoning war criminals in Belgrade were banned. The Baltic states were back for the first time since 1936, Germany was unified, Yemen was unified, and South Africa was invited back to the Olympics for the first time since 1960. Barcelona was the first Summer Olympics since 1968 that didn’t face a boycott or terrorist attack, and it remains the only Olympics where the most medals were awarded to an entity that wasn’t a country: the 12 non-Baltic former Soviet states competed together as a unified team and edged out the United States in the medal count.

Bosnia’s first Olympic team at the ‘92 Olympics in Barcelona. The siege of Sarajevo began three months prior, and would continue for another 1,300 days. Source:  WalterBiH

1992 seems brimming with the possibility that things might not turn out exactly how they turned out. The Gulf War was over, and the U.S. had demonstrated that they were capable of both building an international coalition and having an exit strategy, neither of which they’ve managed to do again. The words “Bosnia”, “Rwanda”, “Somalia”, and “Chechnya” were not yet defined through the Western gaze of the still-novel concept of a “24 hour news cycle”. Donald Trump was a rich jerkoff hanging out with Jeffrey Epstein at Mar-a-Lago and Joe Biden was an ignorable mid-career politician who had twice unsuccessfully run for president. And I was in elementary school, sitting next to a kid named Luke who had recently been adopted from Lithuania, wondering to myself if there had been breathing holes poked into the box that he had been shipped here in, and just certain that one day I would be like Mike.

MJ looking fresh to death in Barcelona. I was 3 foot 7 inches tall at the time. Source: Reddit

Athletes & Nations

Something I noticed when writing this newsletter is that attributing Olympic medals to countries isn’t always easy. For instance, should the four medals won by athletes from the Tajik SSR be now attributed to Tajikistan, or remain under the jurisdiction of a now-defunct Soviet Olympic Committee? Well, Michael Jordan would say it’s all about the athlete. Jerry Kraus, the Bulls general manager, would say the organization deserves the credit. 

Wikipedia tries to do its own accounting in an article entitled “All-time Olympic Games Medal Table”, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the best content lives at the bottom of the page in the footnotes. Packed in there are all the edge cases that need to be qualified somehow, and reading through them paints a most colorful picture of the early days of competitive international sport:

“Dionysios Kasdaglis, tennisman in 1896, was maybe Egyptian.”

“Adolphe Klingelhoeffer was the son of a Brazilian diplomat.”

“Suriname's lone athlete withdrew from [the] 1960 Games due to a scheduling error.”

“Francisco Henríquez de Zubiría, living in Paris in 1900, had Colombian citizenship but has played with French team of tug of war”.

Tug of war?

“South African athletes first participated in the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, when few foreign athletes arrived and the organizers invited participants of the adjacent 1904 World's Fair to compete.”

Wait what?

The last two required some more research and I’ll address them in reverse order.

Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani

Allow me to set the scene: St. Louis was scheduled to host the World’s Fair in 1904 at the same time that Chicago was set to host the third Olympics. St. Louis was worried that everybody would just got to Chicago, so they threatened to host a competing sporting event if Chicago wouldn’t allow St. Louis to host the two events concurrently. Ultimately they got their way, and spectators for both events came to St. Louis alongside a disappointing trickle of international athletes and some 3,000 indigenous people shipped from around the world to be put on display in human zoos at the World’s Fair.

One such event was the Anglo-Boer War Historical Libretto, billed as “the greatest and most realistic military spectacle known in the history of the world”. It included more than 600 people from the British colonies that now comprise South Africa, many of whom found out about the opportunity through an advertisement in Johannesburg’s Rand Daily Mail which promised £4 per month for an opportunity to travel. Among those who journeyed to St. Louis were two Tswana tribesmen, Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani, and a white man named Bertie Harris.

The St. Louis Olympics were largely a bust, so much so that Olympic founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin didn’t even show up, recounting later that he “had a sort of presentiment that the Olympiad would match the mediocrity of the town”. Given the small field of participants, some individuals at the World’s Fair were given the chance to compete in the Olympics. Len, Jan, and Bertie were three of these athletes, and they ended up running in the Olympic marathon alongside a dozen or so Americans, a few Canadians and Greeks, and a Cuban mailman who lost his travel money gambling in New Orleans and hitchhiked the rest of the way to St. Louis. Bertie didn’t finish, Jan placed 12th, and Len placed 9th, despite allegedly losing six or so minutes during the race being chased by a stray dog. Despite not yet being a country, these men went into the history books at the South African athletes. I hope to be corrected if I am wrong, but I am nearly certain that a black person would not compete for South Africa in the Olympics until Barcelona, 98 years later.

1904 Olympic Marathon participants Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani. Source: Missouri History Museum

300 Words on The History of Tug of War as an Olympic Sport

Antwerp 1920. Source: International Olympic Committee

Tug of War was a men’s Olympic sport from 1900-20. The team size was six in 1900, five in 1904, and eight thereafter. Teams had five minutes to pull the other team six feet, otherwise “the team which had pulled the greatest distance was declared the winner”. I think this means that the team which had pulled the furthest when time was called won, but it could also mean that the team which had pulled the closest to six feet at any point during the contest won. I consulted the Tug of War International Federation Rule Book but, despite it’s 66 page length, it does not clarify this point.

Edgar Aaybe went to the 1900 Paris games as a journalist and returned to Denmark with a gold medal after he was called in to replace an injured member of the mixed Swedish/Danish team. The next three tournaments were won by the home county, but don’t chalk it up to home field advantage just yet: half of the 20 teams that ever competed were domestic, as it seems that people were generally not thrilled about taking a steamship across the world to pull a rope for five minutes. Three US teams swept the St. Louis podium in 1904 (beating Greece and the aforementioned South Africa), and the UK did the same in London in 1908, though the U.S. withdrew in protest that year due to the shoes that the group from Liverpool wore. “Enormous shoes,” the The New York Times reported on July 18, 1908, “so heavy, in fact, it was with great effort they could lift their feet from the ground." Sweden won Stockholm 1912 and the UK won the final match in Antwerp in 1920. The tugging grounds in Paris, St. Louis, and Stockholm are still standing.

Referee hand signal commands and infringements. Source: Tug of War International Federation 2018 Rules Manual

Thanks for reading,

-- Grif

P.S. Don’t say I never showed you a Kyrgyz music video made in response to the government’s mishandling of coronavirus