2012 Bison Books paperback edition

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Thorpe's Big Centennial & London 2012

Opening Day: July 27, 2012. The Brits are getting pumped for the 2012 Olympic Games. It's the third London Olympiad after 1908 and 1948 and they've built a brand-new stadium (see photo above), of course. And, with a sense of history more acute than most of us, they've got the largest BBC radio network, Radio 2, already busy at work on an ambitious series of six Olympic-themed documentaries called Radio Ballads, to be broadcast during the Games a year from now. 

The segments will, according to Manchester-based interviewer Vince Hunt, tell the story of the Olympics, ancient and modern, from 776 B.C. through to London 2012, via the 1936 Berlin Olympics, 1972 Munich tragedy and the 1976, '80 and '84 boycotts as well as the 1908 marathon fiasco. They will also, by the way, coincide with the centennial of Jim Thorpe's 1912 triumph in Stockholm when he won the pentathlon and decathlon by huge margins. When the King of Sweden lauded him as "the most wonderful athlete in the world" -- the first international celebrity athlete super-star.

The project strikes this American as a (good) throwback to FDR's 1930s Works Progress Administration (WPA), when artists, acrobats, writers, and more were sent out (by the government) across the U.S. to create new work, everything from plays to national park structures. Hunt was dispatched (by his government-funded BBC) to the U.S. to talk to and record -- phone call audio not good enough -- Olympic athletes and me. 

A pretty remarkable musician himself, Hunt is a deceptively low-key interviewer. By the time we got to the symbiotic link between the early modern Olympics (1912) and nationalism, we were deep into the Big Muddy of World War I, fame, and the end of the American frontier.

Back in the U.K., said Hunt, "for our programmes to become Ballads, we play our interviews to songwriters who are then inspired by the stories they hear to write songs. We have revived a technique from the 1950s devised by the songwriter and theatre producer Ewan MacColl [and our own Peggy Seeger, MacColl's wife at the time] Our first series for the BBC in 2006 can be found here: www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/radioballads." The end result will be what one reviewer has called a "radio kaleidoscope" of interview clips, sound effects, and the ballads. 

Original songs commissioned to mark an important event? What a concept! Alan Lomax in reverse. I'll be interested to see what the Brits make of Thorpe's story. His life is an American opera: high peaks of ecstatic triumph alternating with abrupt plunges into despair and sorrow. Rich material for a song marking the centennial of the first sports performance to thrill the entire world.