And now, a little French Olympic nostalgia…

London 2012 logo

In honor of the London Olympics – yes, I am sorely aware that Paris bid for the 2012 Games and did not make it – I decided to travel down my very own Olympics memory lane…

Born in 1952, when the Summer Games were held in Helsinki, Finland, I am an Olympic year baby. This is probably why I have always liked the Olympics.

Elisabeth Donato 8/3/2012

The first thing about the Olympic Games of which I became aware is that they originated in the 8th century BC, in Ancient Greece. Naked male athletes would compete in sporting events (footraces, chariot races, boxing and discus throw, to name a few) during a period of Olympic Truce. By the 4th century AD, the games were gone.

Elisabeth Donato 8/3/2012

As a Frenchie, I am proud that it was a Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who revived the Games, making it possible for the first modern Olympics to be held in Athens in 1896. This is likely why French is one of the two official languages of the Olympic Games (the other is English). If the Games are held in a nation whose official language is not French or English, announcements are also made in the language of that country.

I have no recollection of the 1956 and 1960 Summer Games, held respectively in Melbourne, Australia (although the equestrian events were held in Stockholm, Sweden), and Rome, Italy. But, by 1964, the year of the Tokyo Summer Olympics, I was fully aware of what was going on.

What I immediately realized was that France was lousy at nearly every sport. In 1964, my country rounded up six bronze, eight silver, and only one gold medal. And – hold on to your hats – the gold was won by a horse, Lutteur B., whose rider was Pierre Jonquères d’Oriola (who passed away last year at the age of 91). Legend has it that, since France won this medal on the last day of the Olympics, it took some time to find a recording of the French national anthem for the awards ceremony!

RFF12-22.jpgYes, it was tough to be a citizen of a country that never got that many medals. But France is actually decent in a few Olympic events: fencing, cycling, canoeing, and judo. I recall the names of athletes on whom France really counted to bring a gold medal home during my youth – folks like Alain Mosconi, Kiki Caron (both swimmers) and Guy Drut, among others. However, they often failed to come through.

Elisabeth Donato - 02/08/12

In the meantime, France was envious of the USA (banner year: 1984, Los Angeles – 174 medals, 83 gold), the USSR (banner year: 1980, Moscow – 195 medals, 80 gold, but that was the year of the US boycott) and the Eastern Bloc countries, who always seemed to win it all.

I never knew the names of the Russian and Eastern Bloc athletes, who we knew were on serious steroids (remember those huge East German female swimmers?), but everybody knew the Americans: Mark Spitz, Carl Lewis, Jackie Joyner Kersee, Mary-Lou Retton and Michael Phelps.

Michael PhelpsThe Summer Olympics have been a big part of my life, and I still remember with horror and an immense sadness the terrible massacre that took place at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

I hope that the human race will ensure that the Olympic Games remain a peaceful and joyous event. Remember, «Le plus important n’est pas de gagner mais de participer» – “The important thing is not winning, but taking part”.

Then again, may France (and the US, of course!) win many gold medals!

What about you – who do you want to bring the gold home?

Image Credits:
1. London 2012 logo, by Ben Sutherland on Flickr 
2. Lancelotti Discobolus, by Jastrow on Wikipedia 
3. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, by unknown on Wikipedia 
4. Réseau Ferré, by Xavier M on Flickr
5. Tony Estanguet, by  unknown on Wikipedia 
6. Michael Phelps, by marcopako on Flickr 

About the Contributor

Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan

I am a native of France, and a retired French university professor living in the USA. I return to France every year and love discovering new places I have not yet visited. I am interested in issues of bilingualism and expatriate identity. I enjoy good food, great books, and all kinds of music.

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