“Games wide open” The spirit and the creed of the Olympics

Dr T Deepamanjuri Devi
Paris will once again become the centre of the world. With the slogan - “Games Wide Open”, Paris will host the Olympic Games or the Games of the XXXIII Olympiad from Friday, 26 July, 2024 to Sunday, 11 August 2024. With the goal of representing a more responsible, inclusive and equal series of spectacular games, the Paris Games will also see the debut of break-dancing as an Olympic event and it will be the final Olympic Games held during the time of Thomas Bach as the President of IOC. Interestingly, for the first time in the history of the Olympic Games, an equal number of men and women will compete in the various events which is a great achievement if we remember that when in 1900, women took part in the Olympics for the first time, they constituted only 2.2% of the total number of participants. It is said that there will be 152 medal events for women, while 157 will be for men and 20 will be mixed-gender events in the 2024 Olympics.
Going back to the first Olympic Games, whether played in Athens in 776 BC, or the modern one that Coubertin founded in 1894, women were nowhere in the picture. In fact, it was said that if any married woman was found watching the Olympics in ancient Greece, she would be taken away on top of a hill and pushed down from there as punishment. There was the story of a trainer, a widowed mother - Pherenike, who defied all the rules to train and witness her son succeed in the games. She forgot her gender and came down the aisle. Embracing her son, congratulating him, shouting and crying with joy, her actions made the spectators realize it was a she and NOT a he who was with the Olympic champion. She was captured. The jury however decided that she should be released without punishment on the ground that she and her family members had contributed immensely in the sporting events of the Olympics by producing so many champions for the Greeks. She later came to be nicknamed as the “Good Father Woman”, while it became a tradition for all the trainers who entered the stadium to strip naked to prove that they were men!
When Pierre de Coubertin introduced modern Olympics in 1894, he was not supportive of women’s participation in the events of the Olympic. In fact, he was against the inclusion of women in sports and regarded the same as “unaesthetic, unacceptable, and unthinkable” - an opinion he carried with him till his last breath. The first Olympic Games’ Organizers under the urging of its founder decided to adopt its motto- Citius, Altius, Forties(Faster, Higher, Stronger). Coubertin thought that the motto would give athletes the motivation to give their best during the competitions in the sporting events. In both the Ancient Greece Olympiad and the modern Olympics, the games of the Olympics were a celebration of masculinity and virility, and a demonstration of strength and bravery of men. As said earlier, women were nowhere in the picture as active participants.
But were women all silent when so many restrictions were put against them for such a long period of time? Not at all! Women were not silent neither in Ancient Greece nor in  Coubertin’s time. It is said that sixteen women in Athens were responsible for the Heraean Games which was held every four years like the Olympiad. Only unmarried girls were competitors for the footrace in the event. In modern times also Alice Milliat, a versatile and accomplished sportswoman as well as a committed feminist helped organize the first women Olympic games in Paris in 1922. Having founded the FSFI (Federation Sportive Feminine Internationale), she challenged Coubertin’s approach to sports, and till her retirement, she was fighting for the extensive inclusion of women in the International Olympics. Since 1900, women were allowed to take part in the games but only five events were open for them - that too in the games which were of interest to the high class. Alice was an unsung hero at that time, but her continuous support and fight for equality in the Olympics for men and women had given rise to awareness of gender rights in international sporting events like the Olympics. Now we can see its full result in the 2024 Paris Games.
Coming back to the motto of the Olympics, on July 20, 2021, the Session of the International Olympic Committee approved a change in the Olympics motto that recognized the unifying power of sport and the importance of solidarity. President Bach linked the previous motto and the newly added one- Together - to express the role of solidarity that”…fuels our mission to make the world a better place through sport, we can only go faster, we can only aim higher, we can only become stronger by standing together-in solidarity…”  There is also ‘the creed’ of the Olympics which says, “…the important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight: the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well…” The creed and the motto together embody an ideal that Coubertin believed in - that is, giving one’s best and striving for personal excellence were worthwhile goals. And where better to do this than through the pursuit of sports and participation in the Olympics? While this is an important life lesson that is still equally valid today, not just for athletes but for everyone, what was problematic is that the founders of the Olympics thought only men had the bravery or the brain while women were just ‘wild beings’ who needed to be tamed at home under the master-ship of a man in her life - father first, husband second and then the son became her destined masters in Ancient Greek and the similar philosophy was the guiding principle of the modern Olympics as well.
Women athletes later proved that neither was bravery gender limited nor the spirit of games could have physical boundaries or the bodily limitations. The rise in the number of women participants, the increasing rates of their success stories and the success of the Paralympics show that all humans have the equal spirit to thrive for excellence and neither the physical deformities nor the gender boundaries could stop those subdued to express that spirit for long. What we all need is ‘getting a chance’ to do that.
Here in this part of Asia, India has always been a nation of sports enthusiasts. She fielded 124 athletes in the Tokyo 2020 who brought seven medals-one gold, two silver and four bronze. Expected to field a similar number of athletes in 2024 Paris de tour as well, 10,500 athletes are expected to take part this time from all over the world. Our own Mirabai Chanu, PV Sindhu and Lovlina Borgohain, shooter Anjum Moudgil, are among many other hopefuls of getting a medal for India this Olympics and also to end the gold medal drought for India.
From among the states of India, Manipur has been described as ‘the powerhouse of sports’. MK Binodini describes the important contribution of Maharaj Churachand Singh in the development of sports in Manipur, in her book- The Maharaja’s Household (Thanks to R.K Nimai Sir for recommending the book!). In fact, the writer's daughter feels that this bringing of modern sports in Manipur was the “greatest achievement” of the Maharaja. The maharaja himself was a well known sportsperson who laid down “…wide and comprehensive year round sports policies”. There were regulations well charted out to provide jobs according to qualifications. There was the tradition of games and sports already in Manipur. Manipur gave the world the game of polo. As part of this tradition, we all know how religious festivals and celebrations are incomplete without Mukna and Lamjel. It is also the continuation of the combative spirit of pana-wise competition of our olden days when we were all warriors.
When there was this tradition and culture of sports already present there and when there was such rulers as Maharaj Churachand Singh, and sports enthusiast and trainer like Oja Ibomcha Singh, it was not a surprise when Mary Kom brought for India the bronze in 2012 London Olympics boxing 51 kg flyweight category when women boxing was first introduced in the Olympics. In She Dared, Sports journalists - Abhishek Dubey and Sanjeeb Mukherjee present us an Unbreakable Mary, who was one of as many as 38 international medalists Coach L. Ibomcha has managed to produce through his own effort to create a wave of modern boxing in Manipur in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Oja Ibomcha was a strong believer in the power of women of Manipur. He believed that the Manipuri women had the necessary strength of mind and will power to excel in boxing. It is said that Oja Ibomcha went from school to school searching for talents not only in boxing but also in Kung Fu, Taekwondo, etc. He wanted to bring a ‘revolution’ in games and sports. For this, he tried approaching the parents of talented children trying to convince them how through participation in sports, one could change one’s own future as well as the future of the nation. The oja was responsible for the success stories of not only Mary Kom, but also of such legends as Sarita, Dingko, Narjit, Suresh, and Suranjoy among others.
What is interesting to note here is that women were neither encouraged nor were they part of the sporting traditions of Manipur in earlier times. But when there was a chance given to them to compete and excel, they did not lag behind. The Manipuri society has always been a relatively open society where room for individualism is always there within the structure. So when sports was introduced in the school curriculum, gender did not come so much on the way as a stumbling block when students wanted to join games and sports, which however does not mean that women sports persons have no problem at all. Some gender related and women specific issues were/are there. But it could not stop women from joining games. The Manipuri society may appear to have many contradictions in its character. This contradiction however is a healthy admixture of structural forces and individual agencies giving each other room for change, balance, survival and growth together.
Manipur has thus inherited a fertile soil of structural and traditional value system to become ‘powerhouse of sports’ in India and the world in spite of her being small in size and limited in population. This again proves wrong the post-modern ideas that there is no social structure anymore and individuals are totally free agents. While talented individuals are a must, success of a player is not just the product of an individual effort. There are a lot of ‘unseen hands’ behind the scenes. Examples can be the need of crowd/lottery fundings, team of experts - coaches, physios, nutritionists, combined with years of planning, training and discipline. Besides, the competitions are between nation states. Billion dollar infrastructures and a global community network are a must for the individual players to compete and prove their talents. Individual success cannot be achieved without necessary structural support. Sports events like the Olympics are indicative of the interplay between individual agencies and the structural forces - how one is needed for the other to go ‘Faster, Higher and Stronger’  and that too only when we are ‘Together’ and in solidarity.