London 2012: Celebrating the Amateur Athlete in Poetry

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Aaron Schachter: I'm Aaron Schachter and this is "The World". We are one week into the 2012 Summer Olympics in London and what a week it's been. China and the United States continue to battle it out in the race for the most medals. On the American side we've seen US swimmer Micheal Phelps become the most decorated Olympian of all time and we watched Gabby Douglas wow the world by winning gold in the Women's All Around Gymnastics competition. This weekend, attention turns to London's Olympic stadium which has been pretty quiet since the opening ceremony. Our man in London is Alex Gallafent and he joins me now. Alex, we've got the track and field events kicking into high gear this weekend. I imagine everyone is eagerly anticipating seeing the fastest man and fastest woman in the world get crowned.

Alex Gallafent: The race for the crown of fastest man on earth is particularly enticing. That's on Sunday evening. It's all about two Jamaicans: Usain Bolt, he won the gold in Beijing an unbelievably fast four years ago, but there's a young pretender, another Jamaican, Yohan Blake. Will he take the crown?

Schachter: What else is getting you excited this weekend?

Gallafent: In Britain, the big event this weekend is the Women's Heptathlon. One of the favorites is the British athlete Jessica Ennis and she's now a huge star in the UK and the roar she got this morning as the heptathlon got underway was just incredible.

Schachter: Now, Alex, it's, of course, no big deal that one Great Britain's most popular athletes is a woman, but that's not the case in many parts of the world. In fact, these games have seen the debut of women from countries that haven't sent female athletes before.

Gallafent: That's right. And today we saw the first woman ever to compete for Saudi Arabia at the Olympic Games. She's a sixteen year-old judo player named Wojdan Shahrkhani and she has been on quite a journey to get here. Before the games, Saudi authorities tried to block any women from taking part in the Olympics for the Saudi team. Then the International Olympic Committee pressured the Saudis into changing their minds. But then it looked like Shahrkhani might not compete at all because judo's governing body said she couldn't wear a head covering for safety reasons.

Schachter: And she had to wear a head covering for religious reasons, but she did compete.

Gallafent: Right. Then she wore a safety cap which was a compromise, but then she was quickly beaten by an opponent from Puerto Rico. But she was there.

Schachter: Alex, it's good to see that gender barriers are beginning to break down in Olympic sports, but there will always be controversies.

Gallafent: They are as certain as gold medals. Actually there's a fun story about a brouhaha I wanted to share with you. It's about the 400 meters final that took place at the 1908 Games which were also held in London — four runners, one British and three American. The British hosts set all the rules and they provided all the race officials and they set the track up without lanes or strings separating runners. Now, during the race one of the Americans, the favorite, as he ran he moved in front of the British runner, like into his lane, although there weren't any lanes. And as the Olympic historian Janie Hampton told me, the partisan British crowd did not like that.

Janie Hampton: They booed their fury, and after much argument with the American officials the British signaled a foul.

Gallafent: The American favorite was disqualified and so the plan was to rerun the race without him a few days later with the remaining three. But the American team thought this was all a nefarious British conspiracy and they just refused to run again.

Hampton: So Halswelle, representing Great Britain, entered the 400 meters final on his own. He ran as fast as he could against himself and he won the gold medal.

Schachter: You nasty Brits.

Gallafent: It was 1908, Aaron. Let it go.

Schachter: Finally, Alex, I believe you have some more Olympic themed poetry, which we've talked about earlier in the week, to share with us.

Gallafent: Yeah, and with all the Olympian performances coming up over the weekend, incredible feats of athleticism, I thought it would be fun to pay homage to the amateur athletes out there. And this is part of a poem called "Great North". It refers to a wet and windy cross-country race in the north of England. It's by the poet Colette Bryce and it's read by Claire Redcliffe [SP].

Claire Redcliffe:

Usain Bolt
we are not,
by a long shot.

Wired to our iPods,
we are your average, middle-aged bipeds:
half-trained, stiff-hinged, pegging up the course,
as likely overtaken by a pantomime horse.

On, to the finish and vitality,
fleeing those intimations of mortality.

Schachter: We've got more Olympic poetry online at theworld.org. Alex Gallafent, as always, thank you so much.

Gallafent: Thanks, Aaron.