About half Georges Perec’s ‘W’ consists of a description of an island, the titular W, on which the residents care only about Sport. Living to compete and competing in order to live, W’s residents are reduced to a brutal and cruel existence in which comfort is only guaranteed to a handful of parasitic bureaucrats that build their power on the perfect young bodies of the island’s athletes. Given Perec’s biography, ‘W’ is easily read as a critique of fascism and the Nazi state.
Perec’s model for the competitions on ‘W’ were the Olympics. As is well known, the Olympic Games were a site of massive international controversy when they were held in Hitler’s Germany in 1936. This collision of sport, spectacle, and power grounded the force of Perec’s novel.
However, only a few decades earlier, the Olympics were less spectacle than farce. In the 1904 Summer Games in St. Louis, more than half of the athletes were American and many events had no non-American competitors. Besides the officially sanctioned Olympic Events, the 1904 Games featured competitions like a local YMCA swim meet.
The most absurd event was the Marathon. Here are some facts culled from Wikipedia:
- The first to arrive was Frederick Lorz, who actually was just trotting back to the finish line to retrieve his clothes, after dropping out after nine miles. When the officials thought he had won the race, Lorz played along with his practical joke until he was found out shortly after the medal ceremony and was banned for a year by the AAU for this stunt, later winning the 1905 Boston Marathon.
- Thomas Hicks (a Briton running for the United States) was the first to cross the finish-line legally, after having received several doses of strychnine sulfate mixed with brandy from his trainers. He was supported by his trainers when he crossed the finish, but is still considered the winner. Hicks had to be carried off the track, and possibly would have died in the stadium, had he not been treated by several doctors.
- A Cuban postman named Felix Carbajal joined the marathon. He had to run in street clothes that he cut around the legs to make them look like shorts. He stopped off in an orchard en route to have a snack on some apples, which turned out to be rotten. The rotten apples caused him to have to lie down and take a nap. Despite falling ill to apples he finished in fourth place.
– The marathon included the first two black Africans to compete in the Olympics; two Tswana tribesmen named Len Tau (real name: Len Taunyane) and Yamasani (real name: Jan Mashiani). But they weren’t there to compete in the Olympics, they were actually the sideshow. They had been brought over by the exposition as part of the Boer War exhibit (both were really students from Orange Free State in South Africa, but this fact was not made known to the public). Len Tau finished ninth and Yamasani came in twelfth. This was a disappointment, as many observers were sure Len Tau could have done better if he had not been chased nearly a mile off course by aggressive dogs.