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The Olympic Oath at Games Through the Ages

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South Korean Olympic figure skating champion Yuna Kim kindles the Olympic flame. Photo: David J. Phillip/AP

The Olympic Oath sworn by athletes, judges and coaches at Pyeongchang 2018 was altered in a move which bears a resemblance with the revised ritual introduced at the Commonwealth Games at Glasgow 2014.

In South Korea, all three participated together rather than speaking their words separately.

The “athlete,” South Korea’s skater Mo Tae-bum, took the lead by saying: “We promise to take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules and in the spirit of fair play.

“We all commit ourselves to sport without doping and cheating.

“We do this, for the glory of sport, for the honor of our teams and in respect for the fundamental principles of Olympism.”

The change was agreed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Executive Board back in September and after the revelations of doping at Sochi 2014, the words had even greater resonance in Pyeongchang.

It is the latest major revision to the Olympic Oath since it was first introduced at the 1920 Antwerp Games, some four years before the first Winter Olympics.

The idea is thought to have come from Baron Pierre de Coubertin himself. He was IOC President in the early part of the 20th century when the question of amateur status was a burning issue. He circulated questionnaires on the matter to different countries and received replies which he described as “madly contradictory.”

In a letter to to Charles Simon of the “French Federation Gymnastique and Sportive”, Coubertin suggested that “one need only recall the concern of the ancients that only athletes beyond reproach should participate in the Olympiads.”

Matters soon came to a head. American Jim Thorpe was stripped of pentathlon and decathlon gold medals won in Stockholm at the 1912 Games. His crime was infringing strict rules on amateurism then in force by playing baseball for money.

Thorpe had been one of the great stars of the Games and although there was a degree of sympathy, he was harshly dealt with.

“How can one think that for an instant, that if he had been called upon to swear upon his country’s flag, he would have run the risk of swearing a false oath?” wrote Coubertin.

War meant there would be no Games in 1916 but when Olympic competition resumed in 1920, Belgian fencer Victor Boin became the first person to take the athlete’s oath.

He did so grasping his national flag, in this case the Belgian tricolor.

“The reviver of the modern Olympic Games paid me the honor of selecting me to take the Olympic Oath in the name of all competitors – it was the first time it had been done,” said Boin later.

Boin competed in three Olympic Games in water polo and swimming as well as fencing, and described them as “the most precious memories of my youth, a love of competition in an atmosphere of fair play.”

In 1924, a winter sports week was held in the French resort of Chamonix. Only in retrospect would the IOC call them Olympic Winter Games. Even so, an Olympic style oath was spoken by Camille Mandrillon, the French flag bearer.

He gave an “Olympic” salute and held his right arm in a raised position as he did so. He wore military uniform as many competitors did at the time. Later in the week, Mandrillon won gold in an event called the “military ski patrol”, a combination of skiing and shooting which was a forerunner of biathlon.

In 1932, the Games were held in the small American town of Lake Placid for the first time. The oath was taken by speed skater Jack Shea who went on to win two gold medals.

“We swear that we will take part in the Olympic Games in loyal competition, respecting the regulations which govern them and desirous of participating in them in the true spirit of sportsmanship for the honor of our country and for the glory of sport,” he said.

Shea remained involved with sport for the rest of his life and started a family dynasty. His son Jim and grandson Jim Jr both competed in the Winter Games.

Jim Jr competed in skeleton and was chosen to speak the oath in 2002 when the Games were held in Salt Lake City. Just as his grandfather had done 80 years before, he followed participation in this ritual with a gold medal.

Sadly, his grandfather did not live to see either of these events. He had died in a car crash only a few weeks before the Games began.

By this time the World Anti Doping Agency had been established. The wording of the oath was changed to include a significant new clause.

“Committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs,” it reads.

An oath for judges and referees had also become part of the ceremony. This was introduced in 1972 and the first to speak the new oath was ski jumping official Fumio Azaki at Sapporo.

“In the name of all the judges and officials, I promise that we shall officiate in these Olympic Games with complete impartiality, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them in the true spirit of sportsmanship,” he read.

Women have taken part in the Winter Games since the start, but it was not until 1956 that they were invited to take the Olympic Oath. Italian skier Giuliana Chenal Minuzzo had won downhill bronze in 1952 and was selected to read in front of the crowds at Cortina D’Ampezzo four years later.

At the next Games in 1960, American figure skater Carol Heiss spoke the oath in Squaw Valley. Heiss went on to win gold but it would be another 32 years before a woman took this prominent role again at a Winter Games.

French skater Suraya Bonaly spoke the oath in Albertville in 1992. The next woman chosen was Canadian ice hockey star Hayley Wickenheiser at Vancouver 2010. The oath taker represents the other athletes and for her it was the prelude to a more lengthy spell speaking on their behalf as an athlete member of the IOC.

It had also been in Canada that a female judge took the “fair play” pledge at a Winter Games for the first time. As a competitor Suzanne Morrow-Francis had won a figure skating bronze in the pairs in 1948, and returned as an official to speak the oath at Calgary 1988.

Some subsequent cities alternated men and women in the ritual.

The newest of the oaths has only once been taken at a Winter Games. The oath taken by a coach was introduced in the wake of lengthy discussions about the “entourage” – those who surround an athlete both in preparation and competition. It was introduced at the 2010 Youth Olympics and later transplanted to the Olympic Games.

“In the name of all the coaches and other members of the athletes’ entourage, I promise that we shall commit ourselves to ensuring that the spirit of sportsmanship and fair play is fully adhered to and upheld in accordance with the fundamental principles of Olympism,” the pledge reads.

It means Alpine skiing coach Anastasia Popkova from Russia, who delivered the words at Sochi 2014, might therefore have a unique place in Olympic records.

The protocol now calls for the oath taker to hold the Olympic flag, but until the 1980s this was done holding a portion of a national flag.

The last to do so were two great American speed skaters. Terry McDermott, a 1964 gold medalist, did so for the judges while Eric Heiden, destined to be an even more successful competitor with five gold medals, grasped the stars and stripes as he spoke on behalf of his fellow athletes.

By the time skier Bojan Krizaj followed suit at the Kosovo Stadium in Sarajevo, it was the Olympic flag that he held. He spoke Slovenian but competed in the Games as a Yugoslav.

The oath is usually taken in the mother tongue of the host nation, but in 1994, the Norwegians broke with tradition in Lillehammer. Nordic skier Vegard Ulvang and speed skating judge Kari Karing both spoke the words in impeccable English.

It is most usual for one athlete to be chosen but for the last Olympic Games on Korean soil in 1988, two athletes spoke in unison. Unusually they used a ceremonial Olympic flag edged with decoration. This had been presented to the IOC by the Koreans in 1985 and is now used for the handover ceremony at every Summer Games.

The oath is now also a key part of the Youth Olympic Games and few will forget the young Austrian skier Christina Ager.

She briefly forgot her lines at Innsbruck 2012 and inadvertently let out an expletive. There was at least a happy postscript to her embarrassing moment. She won gold and bronze medals later in the week.

By Philip Barker

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz

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