The Olympic Games of 1948 were the last games I got really interested in. Fanny Blankers- Koen, the heroic Dutch woman runner captured my imagination, and with a few girl friends we organised our own local Olympic games. The lucky girls who had bikes had a bike race. The rest of us made do with running in our cotton summer dresses. We tucked them into our knickers for the high jump – better named the middling to low jump.
We had a highly competitive three- legged race, and a wheelbarrow race. This is a real team event, with one person holding the legs of the front runner who is moving forward on her two hands. When the Olympics were first revived in the 1850’s by Dr William Penny Brookes at Much Wenlock, a small Shropshire town in England, the wheelbarrow race had an extra degree of difficulty in that the wheelbarrows were blindfold. This refinement was dropped for our less arduous sports event.
In spite of Dr Penny Brookes having often met and greatly influenced Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the Baron neither gave him the credit for his influence, or included the blindfolded wheelbarrow race in his first modern Olympics held first in Greece in 1896 and then in Paris in 1904. In spite of this reckless omission, the Olympics flourished amid the normal squabbles and rivalries we’ve all come to expect, as everyone jockeys for influence, success and medals.
I find it quite ironic that the French baron was so impressed by the English physical education at Rugby School and by its famous headmaster Dr Arnold, that he tried to get the French interested in physical education in all French schools. The patriotic baron put down Britain’s success in winning an empire to their emphasis on sports at school. He must have believed in the Duke of Wellington’s slightly misquoted remark about Waterloo having been won on the playing fields of Eton.
Wellington actually said, as he walked past boys playing on an Eton cricket pitch, ‘there grows the stuff that won Waterloo!’ But since his French compatriots could not be interested in winning their battles on the playing fields of St Cyr or anywhere else at the time, de Coubertin put his efforts into reviving the ancient Greek Olympics.
Myself, I prefer the idea of the modern Olympics, revived in 1996 and held every four years at Nemea in Greece, the site of ancient Greek games. Anyone can enter, and athletes run in white tunics, rather than stark naked like the original Greek athletes. The opening ceremony is held in the magnificent ruins of the temple of Zeus near the stadium. In the golden Mediterranean twilight, families gather and spread themselves under the pine trees, and perch on ruined columns. After a speech by the Mayor of Nemea, Greek warriors in full regalia appear and are met by two women, one in white, personifying Ekecheiria – Peace – the other in black- Nemea, carrying the sacred flame. Choirs sing and the warriors lay down their weapons and a sacred truce is declared.
The gathering then meanders through the vineyards to the nearby stadium where a pyre is lit, a song is sung, and the games declared open. The next day the competitors, not necessarily athletes, go through their paces, all barefoot. (Remember the fuss when the South African, woman runner Zola Budd sprinted down the track barefoot?)
Men, women and children, old and young, compete in their classes down the 90 foot stadium – the other 100 metres hasn’t been excavated yet. Everyone is cheered down the track, and the winner is awarded a crown woven from wild celery. At the end of the day a marathon is held, raced over country where Hercules would have run, and ending in the stadium which Hercules had measured out. The runners emerge from a tunnel at the end of the track, with ancient Greek graffiti carved in it, and run onto the track to be cheered to the race’s end.
Now that sounds like fun. No wheelbarrow race alas, but they can say, as I will say on my deathbed: ‘cursum perficio’ – which can be translated as: ‘I have run the course’, or ‘my journey ends here’. For life is our Olympics, and like the Nemean Olympics, it isn’t so much about winning, but about being there, doing it, loving it, daring it, and making the most of it with laughter and determination. Maybe that’s how it feels for you too…
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
Those who’ve read Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell will know what I mean when I say that our social life is rather like the ladies of Cranford’s. So we were due for dinner with friends, where I knew we would be joining two other sets of friends. I promised my hostess to bring a starter for her, so that we could nibble on them before dinner, and she only had to worry about two courses.
That morning, after a long session of Tai Chi, I dashed off to the supermarket to get blinis, which I’d always been able to buy in frozen packets. They’ve stopped stocking them. Gnashing my teeth, I tried to think of something else on the spot, and settled for crostinis. But back home, it felt like too much trouble, as you can only do the crostinis an hour or so before eating. Back to blinis. I made my own, and smothered in cream cheese, a generous bite of smoked salmon, and a sprinkling of chopped parsley they were as good as the professional ones – and at least I knew what was in them! I forgot to look up Google for a recipe, and Mrs Beeton, who never lets me down on the bread and butter stuff, didn’t have anything on blinis. So I used her pikelet recipe without the sugar, and it was perfect.
It’s just six ounces, or six heaped tablespoons of self raising flour, two eggs, enough milk to make a thick batter, and salt. Whisk everything together, and using a dessertspoon, dribble each little blini into a non-stick frying pan or griddle. Cook one side until bubbles start to rise through the batter, and then turn. They cook very quickly. Put them to cool on a clean cloth.
Using half the amount I made thirty little blinis, and then added some sugar to the rest of the mix and cooked a small pile of pikelets for an indulgent afternoon tea, eaten hot with butter and homemade (not by me) fig and ginger jam.
Food for Thought
Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all Helen Keller 1880 – 1968
Feminist, suffragist, pacifist, socialist, campaigner for the blind, first deaf- blind person to achieve a Bachelor of Arts, writer of 12 books. Beloved by many.