John Walsh: Tales of the City

An artists' bitching contest would be just the thing to liven up the London Olympics
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The Independent Online

I've been pondering the Olympic ideal, while we're waiting for the International Olympics Committee to make up its mind where the Games will be held in far-off 2012. Like many people, I thought the world's top sporting event was the last word in fair play and decently manly (and womanly) endeavour. I didn't realise it was all about kicking, biting and cheating.

Did you know the Games got started through a spectacular bit of match-fixing? A chap called Pelops was trying to woo the gorgeous Hippodamia (a name surely rendered etymologically as "Horsewoman"), the daughter of King Oinomaos of Pisa. To win her hand, he had to take part in a chariot-race against the king. The night before the race, Pelops sneaked down to the chariot-park, took the restraining pins out of his opponent's axle and replaced them with wax. When the race was in full swing, the wax melted, the wheels came off and the king was killed. Pelops married his beloved and threw the first Games to celebrate. Among the speeches, did anyone mention that he was a scheming, manipulating, manslaughtering swine? Apparently not.

Ah but the games themselves, you cry, what of them? The nobility of the Olympic ideal was displayed in all its glory in the graceful, manly striving of the original events - the discus, javelin, long jump, pentathlon, wrestling and boxing, the equestrian events, the pankration ... I'm sorry? The pankration? Yes, it does seem to have dropped off the Olympic radar since the Games packed up in AD 393. At the time, it was the most popular and exciting of all Greek games, mainly because there were no rules. Its name means "all-encompassing" and it featured two opponents, scrapping like dogs. A historian in 648 BC described it thus:

"Pankratiasts : must employ backward falls which are not safe for the wrestler ... They must have skill in various methods of strangling; they also wrestle with an opponent's ankle and twist his arm, besides hitting and jumping on him, for all these practices belong to the pankration, only biting and gouging being excepted ..."

See what I mean? The high ideals of sportsmanship, the manly striving for excellence, the devotion to fair play. Pankration was considered the truest test of an athlete's ability. Which means the best athletes were the ones who were best at strangling, walloping, dislocating joints, bone-fracturing, ear-twisting, hair-pulling, testicle-squeezing and kicking your opponent as he lies on the ground. It was a common occurrence for pankratiasts to be killed. This is not quite the edifying picture of clean-limbed, Hellenic competition we have been sold, down the centuries.

I mention it because it's likely to come roaring back into favour any time now. Something called the World Pankration Federation, a collection of extreme martial arts fans, is lobbying to get the game recognised once again as an Olympic sport.

I'm more keen on the prospect of some cultural scrapping at Olympic level. Jude Kelly, the theatre director and chair of the Olympic bid's Culture, Art and Entertainment Committee, has been talking excitedly about the UK launching - should we win the Olympic gig in 2012 - a World Culture Fair, an Olympic Proms, an International Shakespeare Festival. She thinks we should resurrect the practice of giving Olympic medals for artistic brilliance, as they used to do in ancient Greece for exceptional virtuosity on the lyre. The practice was resurrected now and then - did you know Jack B Yeats, the poet's brother, got a gold medal for painting in 1948? - but discontinued in the 1950s.

Surely it's time to bring it back again, only with a harder competitive edge this time. Artists could compete with other artists from around the globe, and win gold, silver and bronze by demolishing them the British way - by patronising them, belittling them, demoralising them, staying up all night and drinking them under the table...

I'd put Tracey Emin, Grayson Perry and the Chapman brothers into the Artists' Boxing Gym right now. Pete Doherty would be unassailable in the Rock Star pentathlon (drink, heroin, burglary, prison, sex with supermodel), while Sir John Tavener would be a racing cert for gold-medal triumph in the Seraphic Mad Composer category.

Sauce for the goose

It's time for some creative aggro in literary circles too. The TLS cleverly spotted that the recent tirade of mutual insults by George Galloway and Christopher Hitchens is in the finest traditions of "flyting." It was practised by Scots Chaucerians like William Dunbar, who thought nothing of comparing his opponent's genitals to a droopy old goose sitting on "ae payre of addled egges." It would be a terrific spectator sport - a competition of extemporised abuse not unlike the stage conflicts of Eminem and his homies in 8 Mile. It would warm up the London Olympics no end. We just need some home-grown talents at ferocious denunciation. Can we sign up Bob Geldof, Will Self, Julie Burchill and Mr Galloway on the home team without delay?

Bob's your nephew

The news that, contrary to reports, Robert Mugabe has not died from heart failure will come as a comfort to some. But what are we to make of the government spokesman who told a newspaper that the old bruiser was "as fit as a teenager"? What a ghastly prospect. You mean, Zimbabwe is being run by someone who sleeps for 12 hours a day, shambles round the family home in a T-shirt saying "Vote for Pedro", eats only Frubes mini-yoghurts and Hula Hoops in evil-smelling flavours and spends the time he should be revising for his exams in trying to download the new Coldplay single from a file-sharing website? Strewth. Aid for Zimbabwe, quick.

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