Olympics detective uncovers podium roots
By Paul Mayne
January 19, 2006
The now well-entrenched notion that winners should stand proudly above a cheering crowd while receiving medals is an idea that was born just up the road in Hamilton.
But that fact is only now emerging following a long and fascinating bit of detection work by one of Western's top scholars.
Professor Emeritus Robert Barney, founding director of Western's International Centre for Olympic Studies, certainly didn't think a simple eight-word sentence would send him on a fact-finding mission across Canada and the U.S., culminating in a 25-page paper in the International Journal of Olympic Studies.
But that's what happened.
The journey began in Los Angeles while Barney was looking for background information about the 1932 Games. Reading letters between organizers of the '32 Summer Games (L.A.) and Winter Games (Lake Placid) and IOC President Henri Baillet-Latour, Barney noticed banter about how the medals would be presented.
Baillet-Latour told organizers to create a raised platform so he could present medals as athletes stood on it. Until then, dignitaries such as kings and queens stood above athletes and gave out medals.
The Los Angeles organizer was confused and sought clarification.
"When I was reading the second letter back from Baillet-Latour, my eye got the one end of this sentence," says Barney. "The phrase was 'It worked very well in Hamilton last year'. That's all he said - no elaboration."
And so the detective work began.
In 1930, the first British Empire Games (now Commonwealth Games) was held in Hamilton. Melville Marks Robinson, a Hamilton Spectator reporter, was the Games organizer.
"He wanted to organize what would be a sort of mini-Olympics, and he pulls it off," says Barney. "He had the parade of athletes and the reciting of the oath, just like the Olympics."
But his unique contribution was a podium built for the oath, and subsequently used for the public victory recognition ceremony for the athletes, without the presentation of medals, however. They were presented at the end of Games.
Coincidentally, Robinson had taken part in the 1928 Olympics. He invited Baillet-Latour to enjoy his Empire Games.
"He (Baillet-Latour) had a seat right in the front row," says Barney, "He saw the podium at work with the oath and the presentation of the awards; that's why he said 'it worked very well in Hamilton last year'. That's when the medal protocol that we use today changed."
Barney's challenge was to prove Robinson was the source. Theoretically, as organizer, Robinson would have been responsible for every nuance of the Games. But records of the organizing committee burned in a fire in the late 1930s.
"I've put it out all over the world and no one's challenged me. But I still think you'd have to give him the credit," says Barney.
That said, Barney had another question: Where did Robinson get his idea?
One Barney theory goes to the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. Robinson, honorary manager of Canada's track & field team, received a commemorative medal. On the back appear two athletes holding a flame and standing on what looks like a podium.
"I know he had the medal. He saw it, I think, and something clicked in his mind.
"Who would have suspected the idea of the podium came from Canada," says Barney.
Western scholars have good reason to be interested in the matter - one the podiums used in the 1984 Olympic Games (11 were used) has a home in the International Centre for Olympic Studies.
An American businessman and collector of Olympic artifacts, Jim Greensfelder, was at Western to hear Barney discuss the podium's Canadian connection.
Greensfelder was so inspired he purchased a podium for his collection and Cincinnati office. Until retirement, Greensfelder called Barney with a question:
"You were the inspiration for this (podium), would you like to have this for your centre," recalls Barney. "Would I like to have it? You betcha."
Barney has since put the podium discovery to bed, but gives every indication of continuing his love of learning more about the Olympics. The next Canadian innovation? We'll have to wait and see.
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