As a centre of classical learning, Oxford has long had a special tie to the Olympics, says John Garth.

Mexico, 1968. The world watches as athletes of 108 nations file in. Past or future Oxford students step forward for Britain, including David Hemery (St Catherine’s) who will win gold in the men’s 400m hurdles; and also for Sierra Leone, New Zealand, the United States, and Norway (King Harald no less, Balliol). The flame from the Olympian grove is plunged into the cauldron high on the ramparts and, on cue, 10,000 pigeons are released. These are dizzying heights for all present.

Literally so for the pigeons. It is 2240m above sea level and, as Jock Mullard of Keble remembers: “Many had difficulty flying and returned rapidly to earth; we spent many happy minutes capturing pigeons.” Epic and slightly shambolic, the scene recalls both the classicism and the amateurism in which the Olympics were revived in the nineteenth century. These themes, worth savouring as Britain prepares to host the ever bigger and brasher Olympics, are intertwined in the story of how Oxford and Oxonians have been involved in the modern Games.

The thread begins with the Olympic victory odes of Pindar, best-preserved of the chief poets of ancient Greece. In 1749, Christ Church alumnus Gilbert West produced an edition to which he prefaced A Dissertation on the Olympick Games – a pioneering history rescued from long neglect in last year’s Thinking the Olympics: The Classical Tradition and the Modern Games (eds. Barbara Goff and Michael Simpson for Bristol Classical Press). Echoing Euripides and Galen, West blasted professionalism in sport; instead he vaunted its moral and physical benefits. Tom Brown’s Schooldays and its sequel, Tom Brown at Oxford, popularised this muscular hellenism; Vincent’s Club, formed in Oxford in 1863, incorporated it. Founder WB Woodgate said the club “should consist of the picked hundred of the University, selected for all-round qualities; social, physical and intellectual…”

Class was as important as classicism. The National Olympian Association, founded in London in 1865, saw sport as a way for the degenerate masses to acquire the upright morals and chiselled physiques of Greek literature and sculpture. The rival Amateur Athletic Club, it has been argued, was formed to keep British sport for the progeny of Oxbridge and the public schools. Oxford afforded daily opportunities to vie on track, field or river, so the gentleman all-rounder could largely get by without the unseemly and unfair business of training. The amateur ethos was enthusiastically exported in books – including 1887’s Souvenirs d’Oxford and de Cambridge – by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympic Games.

At the 1896 Olympics the fruition of his dream, Oxford amateurism, demonstrated its potential. John Pius Boland of Christ Church, a spectator, was asked to make up for a manpower shortage in tennis and won one of Britain’s first two Olympic gold medals. Also in Athens was George S Robertson, a Magdalen classicist with a Blue in hammer-throwing, who “could hardly resist a go at the Olympics”. Arriving to find there was no hammer-throwing, he achieved what remains the worst Olympic discus result on record. However, as a recent winner of the Gaisford Prize for Greek Verse he was asked to compose and recite a Pindaric ode for the closing ceremony, and did so with aplomb.

Rhodes Scholars, selected on criteria including sporting drive, have featured regularly among Oxford Olympians, among them Jack Lovelock of New Zealand and Exeter, who won gold in the 1500m at Berlin in 1936. However, the heyday and twilight of amateurism are most clearly delineated in the careers of two other famous Oxford runners. Brasenose undergraduate Arnold Strode-Jackson entered Stockholm 1912 as a private citizen – the last time the rules allowed this – and ran the 1500m event in shorts trimmed with Oxford blue. Overtaking world-beaters in the last 50m, he loped to victory in 3 minutes 56.8 seconds – a new Olympic and British record. It was the first time he had run on an anti-clockwise track – the international standard – but he swore by the contrarily clockwise old track at Iffley Road, saying it gave Oxford runners an edge by strengthening the naturally weaker left leg. However, when Roger Bannister became president of OUAC as an Exeter medical student in 1948, he replaced the bumpy, non-standard old track. After missing out on medals at the Stockholm Olympics in 1952, Bannister embraced an ever more rigorous training regime, and broke the four-minute mile in 1954 on the Iffley Road track he had created.

For decades, it was rowing that dominated Oxford’s sporting achievements, with the Boat Race setting an annual target for excellence. A model scholar-athlete, Balliol musician Frederick Septimus Kelly was in the losing Boat Race crew of 1903 but won gold in the eights at the London Olympics in 1908 (he died at the Somme in 1916). The limits of fair play were exposed at Stockholm 1912, when crews largely from Oxford won both gold and silver in the men’s eights. In the final, New College won the toss for the slightly shorter lane, but like gentlemen they offered it to the Magdalen-dominated Leander crew. Blithely accepting, the Leander crew took gold. A century on, New College Boat Club’s letterhead is still inscribed GDBM, for ‘God damn bloody Magdalen!’

A similar cynicism seems to have been held at Oriel in the Seventies, when (it is whispered) the view still prevailed that ‘women should preferably be very short and light, and admitted at a ratio of 8:1’. By that time the tide was clearly turning against amateurism. Up until 1968, the British Rowing Association had simply chosen the fastest of Britain’s existing crews and, in Jock Mullard’s words, “sent them to be humiliated by the rest of the world”. But in Mexico, Mullard’s crew came tenth and British rowers won no medals. The following year a National Coach was appointed to create a proper national team – the prelude to a recovery of British rowing achievement at international level which has been crowned by Oxonians including Jonny Searle, Pete Reed, Andy Hodge and, most spectacularly, Matthew Pinsent.

The ability for athletes to earn money through their sport has punctured the class privilege that underpinned amateurism. The passing years have likewise dissolved the impediments to women’s achievements at Oxford and in the Olympics – a progression brilliantly embodied in Stephanie Cook, the pentathlete-doctor who won gold at Sydney in 2000. Bonnie St John, a Trinity Rhodes Scholar who won bronze medals in the slalom and giant slalom at the 1984 Winter Paralympics in Innsbruck, epitomises the overturning of prejudice, both racial and against people with physical disabilities. The amateur era should not go unmourned. With television, and the advertising opportunities it affords, the Olympics have burst like the Incredible Hulk out of the relatively modest cloth cut for them by the revivalists of 1896. Professionalism is the norm, and the amateur spirit clings raggedly to gargantuan Olympian loins. Oxford protests (as a Union motion put it last November) “that modern sport is just not cricket”. But tellingly, when the Olympic torch comes to Oxford in July it will spend about the same length of time at Iffley Road as Roger Bannister took to run the mile there, and four times longer at the Cowley plant of London 2012 sponsor BMW.

This sprint around Oxford’s Olympic history has also been too brief, and it has been possible to mention only a few great names. The classical thread still twists through Oxford’s involvement in sport and the Olympics. Oxbridge track and field athletes compete under the Homeric name of the Achilles Club. Since 1992 the Atalanta’s Society, named after the archetypal female athlete of Greek myth, has promoted Oxonian sportswomen. Treading in the footsteps of Pindar and of George Robertson, Armand D’Angour, a Classics fellow at Jesus, was commissioned to write an ode for Athens 2004 and has done so again for London 2012 at the request of Mayor Boris Johnson – a Balliol classicist.

Most importantly, Oxford continues to produce superlative all-rounders: scholar-athletes such as cross-country mountain biker Rosara Joseph (St John’s), swimmer Jack Marriott (Hertford), hockey player Mutsa Mutembwa (St Edmund Hall), and wheelchair racer Nikki Emerson (Magdalen) – just four of the Oxonians with their eyes on Olympic glory this year in London.