The story of the Olympics, with a bit of flair
On 27 June 2000, Wendy Craig-Duncan, a marine-biologist on Australia's Great Barrier Reef, carries the Sydney Olympic torch underwater at Agincourt Reef in Australia. (Steve Nutt/ALLSPORT)
Olympic Journey: the Story of the Games, at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, is likely the highest quality, but shortest running, Olympics-themed exhibition in London.
Put together with artefacts from the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, it is a four-part historical tour of the ancient Olympics and their modern rebirth in the late 1800s, including a hall of past torches and a gallery of 16 extraordinary modern athletes profiled along with examples of medals from each modern Games.
Heavy on multimedia, the exhibition begins nearly 3,000 years ago, by at least 776BC, when the Greek empire covered much of Europe and was at war with itself. The ancient Games were established to create a truce among the many warring factions and foster general peace in the kingdom. The gods-fearing athletes competed naked in events such as discus, pankration (a hybrid of boxing and wrestling) and deadly chariot races (animated on the side of a massive urn in the exhibition) to win olive wreaths and prizes like oil. But the Olympics were declared a pagan ritual by Christian Emperor Theodosius in 393AD and banned, giving way to their revitalisation 1,500 years later, and to the next part of the exhibit.
The modern Games room is devoted exclusively to Pierre de Coubertin, the man credited with organising the modern Olympics in the 1890s, again in the name of peace among nations, as well as designing its interlocking ring symbol. An audio slideshow of historic images and some of Coubertin’s own items are on display, such as his personal (and non-athletic) medals of achievement. The next section is a hall of torches from every modern Olympic Games since 1936 -- a range of designs that include some that look like broom sticks (Atlanta, 1996), machetes (Sydney, 2000) and lightsabers (Tokyo, 1964).
The final part of the exhibition includes a collection of every gold, silver and bronze medal of the modern Games, beating the British Museum’s small display of just the medals from London’s three Games (1908, 1948 and 2012). Having all the medals in one place illustrates their evolution and you can learn interesting trivia, like the fact that the first modern Olympics in 1896 lacked gold (silver was first place, bronze second and third place finishers received no medal), and since 1972, host cities have been free to change the design of one medal, usually the silver. The exhibition profiles 16 super Olympians, such as track and field athlete Jesse Owens, a black American who won multiple gold medals at the 1936 Games staged by Hitler, and Charlotte Cooper, a tennis player from Great Britain who in 1900 was the first woman ever to win an Olympic gold medal, each with their own mini-biographical video of gold winning moments and their personal effects like uniforms or sporting gear.
At the very end you have the option of getting your photo taken with a replica of the 2012 torch, which you later download online. The exhibition and staged photo (which costs 15 pounds in the Olympic Park), are both free.
Olympic Journey has received mild criticism for glossing over darker moments of Olympic history (such as the Munich massacre in 1972 and Hitler’s propaganda efforts during the Berlin-hosted Games of 1936), but as the presentation is more theatre than school lesson, staying positive and inspirational seems appropriate. My only complaint is on behalf of would-be visitors who will miss it because its run is so short. It opened the day after the opening ceremonies and closes on the day of the closing ceremonies, 12 August. To those already here or coming soon, sprint over.