European studies blog

19 August 2016

Olympictures

As the 2016 Olympics draw towards their close, in the spirit of Olympic internationalism and respect between nations, we thought we’d pay a BL European Studies homage to the successes enjoyed by Team GB with images from our historic collections showing some of the sports in which British athletes have won gold this year.

Britain’s very first medal in Rio was a gold – for swimmer Adam Peaty. Clearly he didn’t learn from the clumsy figures in Melchisedech Thevenot’s manual L’art de nager, first published in 1696, some of whom appear to be drowning rather than swimming successfully:

A swimmer doing a form of breaststroke A swimmer kicking one leg in the air

A swimmer spreadeagled in the water A swimmer in a kind of crouching position
Melchisedech Thevenot,  L’art de nager ...Quatrième édition (Paris, 1782)

The last of these looks as if he might have just executed a rather clumsy dive – not something you would find synchro diving winners Jack Laugher and Chris Mears doing. Diving developed as a sport in Sweden and Germany in the early 19th century, and was linked to the development of gymnastics, a sport where Britain won Olympic gold for the first time in Rio. In honour of Max Whitlock’s two winning disciplines, here are some 19th-century German pommel horse and floor exercises:

Examples of 19th-century pommel horse exercises Three examples of 19th-century floor gymnastic exercises
Illustrations from Hermann Robolsky und Adolph Töppe, Abbildungen von Turn-Uebungen (Berlin 1845)

It’s been a good year all round for British tennis, with Andy Murray’s second Wimbledon singles title and successful defence of his 2012 Olympic one. In 18th-century France, his sport would have been jeu de paume, illustrated here, with some of the tools involved in racquet making, from an encyclopaedia of arts and professions:

Pictures of a game of 'jeu de paume' and the necessary equipment
François Alexandre de Garsault, Art du Paumier-Raquetier, et de la paume, from Descriptions des Arts et Métiers, vol. 7 (Paris, 1767) 1811.c.20.(7.)

Tennis is a rather stereotypically British sport, as is anything to do with horses, which brings us to dressage. Many of our books on ‘horse dancing’ are more haute école than modern Olympic dressage, but we think Charlotte Dujardin might recognise these moves from an 18th-century Spanish manual: 

A horse and rider performing the 'half pass' dressage move A horse and rider performing the 'passage' dressage move
Salvador Rodriguez Jordan, Escuela de a cavallo dividida en tres tratados… (Madrid, 1751) 7907.e.

Equestrianism has long been seen as the sport of kings, but if there’s one discipline where Britain has ruled in Rio, it’s cycling. This illustration from a late 19th-century German book suggests that this too was once the pastime of princes, here Ludwig Ferdinand and Alfons of Bavaria, though Britain’s lycra-clad winners – too many to name individually – with their lightweight, high-tech machines, might find it harder going with tweeds, bow ties, boaters and heavy bikes.

Photograph of Princes Ludwig Ferdinand and Alfons of Bavaria standing beside their bicycles
Two Bavarian princes and their bikes, from Der Radfahrsport in Bild und Wort (Munich, 1897) YA.1989.b.4724

Finally (and with apologies to all the wonderful medallists whose sports we’ve had to miss out) a reminder that the modern Olympics were the brainchild of a Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin, and that the first modern Games in 1896 were held, like their ancient predecessors, in Greece – although in Athens, not Olympia, as this souvenir album, with Coubertin’s likeness on the cover, makes clear.

Souvenir album from the 1896 Olympics showing a statue of Coubertin and a view of the stadium
Cover of Anamnēstikon leukōma tōn Olympiakōn Agōnōn tou 1896 (Athens, 1896) 1788.d.3.