Olympic Games Tokyo, Stearns County Fair Sauk Centre

Stearns County Fair. (July 28, 2012)

The 2020 Summer Olympics and Stearns County Fair are both in progress this weekend.

One is an annual agricultural and commerce show, the other is half of a four-year Olympiad; but they’re not entirely different.

The COVID-19 pandemic shut both down last year, for example.

Rescheduling Tokyo 2020 and cancelling what would have been the 118th Stearns County Fair disappointed a lot of folks, but I think it made sense.

COVID-19 was becoming a global pandemic in January of 2020.

Can’t say that I blame Tokyo officials for saying that they could keep athletes and visitors safe, though. My culture has variations on ‘the show must go on’ — and sometimes it makes sense.

But the International Olympic Committee said ‘not now, maybe next year.’

Can’t say that I blame them, either.

I had quite a bit to say this week, mostly about Olympic history, so here a list of headings:

Feel free to skip ahead. Or go get a cup of coffee, watch whatever Olympic event’s on, or take a walk. I should still be here when you get back.

The Games Must Go On! Usually

President Gerald Ford getting swine flu vaccination, 1976Sure, Zika didn’t block the 2016 Rio de Janeiro games; and H1N1/swine flu didn’t stop Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympics.

On the other hand, we knew how the Zika virus was transmitted in 2016; and had been studying it since the 1940s.

Swine flu was and is a serious disease, but the 2009-2010 H1N1 outbreak wasn’t nearly as deadly as the one starting in 1918.

COVID-19, in contrast, hadn’t been identified and almost certainly didn’t exist before late 2019; and by early 2020 we could tell that, on average, someone catching it was more likely to die than someone who got the H1N1 flu.

Besides, we weren’t sure exactly how the SARS-CoV-2 virus spread. And having no COVID-19 vaccine at the time didn’t make an international get-together seem like a good idea.1

Even, so, the International Olympic Committee had historic precedent for ignoring obvious and avoidable hazards:

“…Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them…
…Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred….”
(“Charge of the Light Brigade,” Tennyson (1854) via VictorianWeb.org)

The last I heard, we’re still not sure why the Light Brigade charged the wrong target; and that’s another topic.

Three Distinct ‘First’ Olympics

Olympiad of the Republic, Paris: Olympics of the French Revolution. (1796))
(From Musée de la Révolution française, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(First Olympiad of the Republic, Paris. (1796))

Today’s Olympics began in 1859, when Evangelos Zappas paid the bills for an Olympics revival in Athens. Athletes came from Greece and the Ottoman Empire. Folks liked the games, so the ‘Zappas Olympics’ were on again in 1870 and 1875.

Or they started in 1850, with the Wenlock Olympian Games in Shropshire, England.

Then again, I could say that Charles-Gilbert Romme’s L’Olympiade de la République revived Olympian glories in 1796 — and made them metric. His idea was celebrating the First Republic’s first four years.

But Romme was more than a sports promoter.

Charles-Gilbert Romme had been elected to the revolutionary Legislative Assembly as a Girondist. After moving on to the National Convention, Romme joined the Montagnards. Somewhere along the line he voted for Louis XVI’s execution.

Girondist? Montagnard? Think Whig and Tory, Republican and Democrat: political parties, important at the time.

Then Romme said rioting sans-culottes — blue collar workers in Revolution-speak — had reasonable demands. Anti-Montagnard activists disagreed, so Romme was sent to the guillotine. Or would have been.2

I’ve seen two versions of what happened. One says he stabbed himself outside the courtroom and died with “I die for the republic” on his lips. Another says he was guillotined. I suppose he could have been guillotined postmortem, and I’m drifting off-topic.

Romme missed the L’Olympiade de la République opening ceremonies by about a year.

Another ‘First’ Olympics

'Zappas Olympics' opening ceremonies. (1896)
(From Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Summer Olympics opening ceremony, Panathenaic Stadium, Athens. (1896))

Another ‘first modern Olympics’ was in 1896, when Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s International Olympic Committee sponsored their first Olympic games, back in Athens.

And Let’s Not Forget the Cotswold Olimpicks!

'Cotswold Games' woodcut, from the cover of Annalia Dubrensia.'(1636)But the Cotswold Olimpick Games, near Chipping Campden, England, predates them all. They started in 1612.


That’s how Robert Dover, he’s the chap who started the games, spelled it in 1612.

I’d use today’s “Olympic” spelling, but I’m an American who was born during the Truman administration.

My guess is that “Olimpick” was a correct spelling for someone born in Norfolk, East Anglia, when Elizabeth I was queen.

I like English, my cradle tongue.

But I sympathize with anyone who tries to learn our spelling conventions.

That tangle is what happened when a Germanic language got modified by Vikings who spoke their version of French. After which, from around 1400 to 1600, we got the Great Vowel Shift; and those were just two high points in the story of English.

Or maybe the Great Vowel Shift ran from 1400 to 1800.3 There’s consensus that it happened. When, how and why it happened is still debated.

The First Olympian Olympics

Locations for major ancient Greek games
(From Sport in the Ancient Greek World, Joukowsky Institute, Brown University; used w/o permission.)

So, recapping, the modern Olympics started in 1612, 1796, 1850, 1859, and/or 1896.

Or maybe some other year, depending on who you’re listening to; and when you say the “modern” era starts.

If you thought the Great Vowel Shift was debatable, then you haven’t seen historians discuss historiography, timeframes and labels.

Basically, Tokyo 2020 is part of a tradition going back maybe four centuries: counting from when Europeans got excited about one of the four Panhellenic Games. Five, if you count the games in Athens.

At any rate, the big four were at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea and Isthmia: that last apparently a temple of Poseidon that got its name from the Isthmus of Corinth.

The games were in honor of Zeus, or maybe Hera; Apollo; Heracles, who isn’t or isn’t quite Hercules; and Poseidon. They ran on a four, two and six year rotation.

An Olympiad is four years long. It’s a unit of time dating from archaic Greece, but not officially used until the Hellenistic period, which was after the Greek Golden Age, and that’s another topic.4

If all that sounds complicated, I agree.

Olympia and a Puzzle with Pieces Missing

Olympia sanctuary; archaic, classical, Hellenistic and Roman periods; by N. Kaltsas. (2004)
(From N. Kaltsa, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Sanctuary at Olympia, archaic to Roman periods.)

Each Olympiad started at — where else? — Olympia, just south of Mount Kronos.

Historians and archaeologists agree that folks have been living at Olympia since 1500 B.C. and started worshiping Zeus around 1000 B.C., or maybe they’ve been there since 1000 B.C. and built a Zeus sanctuary a few centuries later. Probably.

We’re pretty sure that the Altis, the Olympian sacred precinct, was a quadrangle or a grove, dedicated to Zeus, Hera, Herakles: or maybe it’s what folks called a pavilion or marquee, back in the day.5

We’d almost certainly know more about Olympia’s story, if the Late Bronze Age collapse hadn’t happened.

Catastrophe, Survival and Reconstruction

Finn Bjørklid's map; showing migrations, known battles and burned cities during the Late Bronze Age collapse.
(From N. Kaltsa, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Known and inferred movements, battles and destroyed cities. (ca. 1200 B.C.))

Something bad happened about 32 centuries back.

Then, 27 and a half centuries back, give or take a few decades, Homer composed the Iliad: an epic poem describing what we call the Trojan War. Up until maybe a century back, Western scholars assumed that the Iliad described a real war.

Since then, assorted scholars have decided that the Troy didn’t exist, the Trojan War never happened and Homer wasn’t a real person.

Folks like Schliemann deflated the ‘Troy didn’t exist’ notion, but I gather that Homer’s identity is still up for grabs.6

As for the Trojan War —

Myth and Memory

Johann Georg Trautmann's 'Blick auf das brennende Troja'/'The Burning of Troy.' (18th century)
(From Johann Georg Trautmann, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

I’ll grant that the Trojan War, as described in Homer’s Iliad, is part of Greek mythology; and that we don’t have documentary evidence that Homer was Homer.

Detail of 'The Apotheosis of Washington,' United States Capitol rotunda; Constantino Brumidi. (1865)But I see an 18th century war, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Paul Bunyan as part of American mythology.

And, although I know Paul Bunyan didn’t really have a blue ox, I’m convinced that Minnesota exists and that what I call the American Revolution happened.7

I don’t have a problem thinking that maybe Homer’s Trojan War, which could easily have happened around the time of what we call the Late Bronze Age collapse, was based on actual events.

Loosely based, maybe. Along the lines of today’s ‘based on actual events’ movies.

Looking Back, After 32 Centuries

British Museum Room 55, the Cyrus Cylinder at leftThink of it this way. Let’s say that WWIII happened in the late 1960s.

It didn’t, I’m just setting up an imaginary situation to illustrate speculation about the earliest Olympics.

Anyway, let’s say my hypothetical WWIII started after the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. As a result, the 1972 Munich Olympics didn’t happen, and survivors spent several centuries rebuilding their societies.

Some even managed to preserve their most valuable records.

Then, around 2450, someone told an epic tale set in New York City: a story of star-crossed lovers, dark legacies and lost hope. Not unlike “West Side Story” and “Romeo and Juliet.”

Except that the storyteller’s New York City was pronounced Nyooyork Shahar, as the mythical metropolis was called in the era’s civilized language.

Fast-forward to the year 5221. The best and brightest scholars — if you don’t believe that, just ask them — say that Nyooyork Shahar never existed. And they’ll be right. Sort of.

Nyooyork Shahar’s fate didn’t depend on an adolescent romance, trial by combat wasn’t part of the city’s judicial system; but it was, nonetheless, a real city.

And that’s almost, but not quite, another topic.

A point I’ve been making is that myth and fiction intersect reality. And an earliest known recorded event may not be the earliest event of its kind.

So as I see it, the ancient Olympics started in 776 B.C. — assuming that the traditional date is correct, and that the traditional ‘first Olympics’ really were the first.

“Mukanuh” and Linear B

Underwood & Underwood's 'The Lion Gate at Mycenae' stereo photograph. (1897)
(From Underwood & Underwood, via Google Art Project, used w/o permission.)
(Mycenae’s Lion gate, after excavation and before partial reconstruction. (1897))

The Mycenaean civilization flourished from around Hammurabi’s time to when Wu Yi of Shang defeated Bi, or maybe when Di Xin allegedly torched his own palace, with him inside.

Mycenaeans — I’m guessing that’s not what they called themselves.

“Mycenaean” comes from Greek Mykenai via Latin. Mykenai AKA Mycenae, a place near today’s Mykines and an important city in its day.

Since writing on an Amenhotep III-era statue mentions “Mukanuh” and some Linear B text lines up with names in Homer’s epic, it’s a fair bet that the Mycenaeans and Minoans — who used Linear A and almost certainly called themselves something else — were related.

Or used similar writing systems, at any rate.

Mycenaean civilization and Linear B stopped being current after the Late Bronze Age collapse. Folks in Mycenae/Greece didn’t start writing again until a few centuries later, when they apparently adapted a Phoenician alphabet.8

And that’s when the first Olympics happened. Traditionally.

Olympics, the First Millennium

the Kleophrades Painter's 'athletes running' black-figured Panathenaic amphora. (ca. 500 B.C.)Koroibos, AKA Coroebus, of Elis won the stadion race in 776 B.C. — that’s what Eusebius said, at any rate, a half-millennium later.

We get our word “stadium” from stadion, and traditions like the hundred yard dash and hundred meter sprint.

That race was the first, last and only event in the 776 B.C. Olympics.

Event organizers added a pentathlon in 708 B.C., which I figure inspired forecasts of doom and gloom for the games.

Not only was the pentathlon something ‘we’ve never done before,’ but it favored athletes who could do more than run a hundred yards.

I gather that experts of the day agreed in viewing specialist-athletes as better than those who could do more than one thing well.

But the Olympics kept going until nearly the end of the third century A.D., with maybe a mini-revival after that.9 We’re not entirely sure, since the Roman Empire had started fraying by that time. And that’s yet another topic.

Where was I? Let me see.

2020 Summer Olympics. Stearns County Fair. Zika, swine flu and COVID-19. Cotswold Olimpick Games and the French Revolution. Homer, Linear B, the Late Bronze Age collapse, Olympic origins and the Roman Empire.


The Stearns County Fair’s origins go back to — maybe an annual regional get-together somewhere north of Mesopotamia. I don’t know, and I sure don’t have time to try tracing the roots of trade fairs and agricultural shows.

So I’ll take a quick look at the Champagne fairs.

Fairs, the Black Death and Minnesota

Illustration of a Champagne fair. (1898)
(From Armand Colin & Cie, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(19th century illustration of a 13th century Champagne fair.)

The Champagne fairs started as local agricultural and stock fairs in the region between Paris and Brussels. They grew into a regular annual cycle of six major get togethers. During the 1100s and 1200s, they were as big a deal as, say, Amazon.com and Twitter.

The Champagne fairs weren’t just about selling grain and livestock. Folks came to trade textiles, dye, spices: whatever folks in one place had that was wanted elsewhere. Besides commerce, they swapped stories, ideas and whatever was news that year.

Then the Little Ice Age and Black Death, along with France developing a central government and an uptick in Europe’s endemic wars turned the Champagne fairs from a ‘must go’ to a ‘remember when.’

But people still had goods to trade and and stories to share, so other fair circuits grew.

and Europe’s fair circuits shifted to other places.10

Stearns County Fair

(4H rocketry exhibit at the Stearns County Fair. (2012))

The first Stearns County, Minnesota, Fair was held in 1871, in St. Cloud. In October.

Folks came to the 1871 fair, despite rain and snow; and returned the next year.

I gather that fair organizers then tried moving the county fair to Sauk Centre, where the weather wasn’t much better.

Then we went a few years without fairs. I gather that financial issues were in play.

At any rate, Stearns was a county without a fair from 1871 to 1903. That’s when we got a new fair association, someone bought 28 acres in Sauk Centre, and the new fairgrounds and race track opened: on July 3, 1903.

And the Stearns County Fair has been here ever since.11 Except last year. I mentioned COVID-19 earlier.

More Weather

Minnesota Air Quality Index Map. (3:00 p.m. CDT July 29, 2021)
(From Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, via MPR, used w/o permission.)

Pigs at the Stearns County Fair. (2012)Having the Stearns County Fair in July, now July and early August, strikes me as a good idea.

That puts our county fair before the Minnesota State Fair, and pretty much guarantees that we won’t have snow during our event.

And that said, this is the Upper Midwest. Like the old joke says, this is Minnesota. “We don’t have climate. We have weather.”

But, although there hasn’t been an official recorded July snowfall in my state since the National Weather Service set up shop here, there’s a story about a Fourth of July snowfall. The story’s unofficial, but based on credible sources, and that’s yet again another topic.

My guess is that folks in the Arrowhead region, at least, have had July snowfalls.

Maybe here, too.

But not most years. This time around, we’ve been dealing with heat and air quality advisories. The latter explains why Thursday afternoon’s sky was a slightly brownish yellow. We set an Air Quality Index record that day.12 On the whole, I’d almost prefer snow.

None of which has much to do with the Stearns County fair, where we still show off our best livestock and — nowadays — rockets.

Going for the Gold, Within Reason

Carl Hassmann's 'The Almightier' illustration for Puck. (May 15, 1907)Today’s Olympics, officially at any rate, are for amateur athletes.

Aside from their medals, I gather that there’s little to no financial payoff for their years of hard work.

No immediate payoff, at least.

My culture, at least, has options for winners to cash in on their fame; including but not limited to product endorsements and celebrity appearances.

I don’t have a problem with that, or with their willingness to put so much time and effort into some athletic event.

On the other hand, do I see a problem with focusing too much on being the world’s best amateur athlete, or even on having the best pig or rocket at the Stearns County Fair.

It comes down to priorities.

I’m focused on writing, for example; and have been since childhood. But I haven’t put writing ahead of family, and happily haven’t had opportunity to put either ahead of God.

As I see it, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a competent athlete, writer, or farmer; or with wanting to be the best.

God made a world that’s jam-packed with beauty and wonders, so I figure appreciating and enjoying them makes sense. Within reason. (Genesis 1:31; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 32, 41, 74, 283, 341, 2500)

Appreciating them so much that I think Olympic medals, prize pigs or anything else is more important than God? That’s a problem.

I’m a Catholic, so I call that sort of daft prioritizing “idolatry.” And a very bad idea. (Catechism, 2112-2113)

I’ve talked about that, and other stuff, before. Often:

1 Diseases and decisions:

2 Assorted first Olympics:

3 The Cotswold Olimpicks and my language’s recent history, briefly:

4 Olympics, background:

5 South of Mount Kronos:

6 Catastrophic collapse, a poet and an archaeologist:

7 Mythical names:

8 Mycenae, scripts and people:

9 Remembering a millennium of big-time athletics:

10 Before the Stearns County Fair:

11 My part of world:

12 Minnesota’s climate weather:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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