A Tented Olympics

So there we were, a host of nations  and their picnics, sat in orderly rows in orderly stands, munching sandwiches and biscuits and swigging cups of tea, watching the greatest athletes of our time strut their stuff.

Behind us a Babel gaggle of languages prattled happily away.  Suddenly my husband hollered at the top of his most football-fan voice “Come on, Netherlands!”

“Yes, that’s right.” grinned a pair just behind us in neon orange skin-tight body suits with Dutch accents. “Come on, Netherlands!”

The Dutch boat was lagging. Phil has an impeccable sense of international etiquette.

So then everyone starts cheering the Dutch along, and they didn’t win, but they made a fine fist of it.

The Thames strolls by Eton Dorney lake, which was created by Eton College as a still water practise lake, and a Thames ferry forms part of the flotilla of transport options for those travelling from Windsor to the Olympic Games.

And round the lake are white tents: the lake is tented.

That word dates back to the sixteenth century. Way back in its etymological ancestry lies the middle English tenten, which comes from the French attente. It means to wait on; to attend.

Because just as with the Olympics, tents have been an integral part of ‘waiting on’ other countries for centuries.

What is more, they were tents shaped very like the ones designed for hospitality of nations at Dorney. Where had I seen tents like that before, I puzzled?

Get on that Olympic ferry, and pay the ferryman enough, and he might just take you the fifteen minute journey to Runnymede.

Ah, King John, King John. I cannot think he was thrilled to walk into his tent in June 1215, on the banks of the Thames. He had bungled: lost the Barons their lands in France and  squabbled with Pope Innocent III. But the barons could not spare him because there was no apparent successor to take his place, and vacuums were notoriously hazardous in those far-off days.

Days before he walked into his tent at Runnymede, they had marched into London and strong-armed him into agreeing to the Articles of the Barons.

Runnymede was a coup for the barons.

But that isn’t where those tented images came from.

No: they came from an English king who did not tolerate being told what to do at all.

June 1520. And Cardinal Wolsey had a bright idea.

Relations with European states were looking shaky to say the least. There were two emerging superpowers: that of the Holy Roman Emperor  Charles V, and then there were the French under Francis I.

So Wolsey had everyone sail over to Calais, and troop about ten miles to a lovely little valley in Balinghem, and pitch tents of unparalleled splendour. Henry VIII’s tent, shaped much like the Olympic hospitality tents, was reputedly spun with silk and gold thread.

The splendour of the delegation – with 500 horsemen and 3,000 footsoldiers –  may have stroked Henry’s ego, but the outcome of the athletics ‘friendly’ between the two monarchs did not.

Picture source here

For after the banqueting and dancing there was jousting. And Henry lost to Francis consistently.

The English king resorted to putting in a substitute. The Earl of Devonshire fared better. The French king lost three lances while the Earl lost two and managed to break the French king’s nose.

The English went home and declared war on the French shortly afterwards, drawn in by a pact with Charles V.

So, that worked well.

Today our tented lake is surrounded by excitement and goodwill. Diplomacy is a sideline: excellence in athletics the main focus. Those swathed tents of the past are just ghosts, and the Ancient Greek idea of truce has come full circle.

Our only adversary is the rain.

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32 thoughts on “A Tented Olympics

  1. How wonderful, an outing to watch the best.

    I do love how brave the Dutch are in those orange outfits. We loved them like that during the Soccer World Cup in 2010 here, but it was a bit colder so they tended towards better cover-up stuff, though still Orange.

    1. It did, largely. We had a few spots half way through the morning and the umbrellas came out. But then the clouds shuffled onwards and the sun came out…lots of thunder, though!

  2. I so envy you which is strange for me who always carps about all things Olympian. There is something delightful about spending time on the water’s edge watching boats and people. I rowed at school and our boat house was on Runnymede..

    1. It was lovely, Roger….if you have to go and see an Olympic sport that’s the one to choose. The wildlife was going nuts – swallows, ducks, the odd grumpy pike, and black headed gulls. Cool, sparkling, invigorating. So: you rowed at Runnymede….now it is I who envy you….

  3. Oh, the egos of men – I think a “jousting friendly” is an oxymoron in a man’s world. All that willy waving is laughable until it leads to war. (Mind you, some women are not much better.)

  4. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful again! I love a “tented” affair, and will now have the rest of the story to tell next time I am closeted in one.

    I keep trying to catch the women’s slalom kayaking and can’t as yet find it. A dear friend’s cousin is there from the States. Caroline Queen. Don’t you love the name? Enjoy, Kate. Enjoy.

  5. We watched some of the rowing highlights from Eton Dorney yesterday . . . the commentators commented on how the rain did not cause everyone in the stands to open their brollies.

    1. I opened my brolly. I was tactful, though. And I asked the people behind me if it was ok. But the rain could not decide whether to start or not, and brollies were soon history.

  6. Dear Kate, to be reading a post from someone who’s right there in the tented area and watching the orange and hearing the Babel of languages. Ah, thank you for sharing. Peace.

  7. You’ve emphasized a point I’ve been making since the Opening ceremonies. GB has brilliantly acknowledged history in even small details. I’ve been appreciative of this and can’t help but make the comparison that in the U.S. there is unending emphasis on constant innovation and I long for more depth and less superficiality! I am going to use your observation about the tents to further strengthen my point…surely someone I know will want to hear my opinion! LOL! And I’d definitely be standing with Phil, I think…I don’t have enough competitive spirit…I want everyone to have a good time! D

  8. It could be said that Hennery harrived with evil in tent? And Runnymede is a Baron place? (Someone had to say it!)
    I wish I could see the rowing live. It is a really exciting speckled potato sport.

  9. Even more envious 🙂 Thank you for the history lesson! A division of the tea plantation in Ooty,that my husband worked in was named Runnymede!! The estate was Gelendale!

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