Gdansk – 5

The exhibits then contrast the ordinary nature of some people’s lives with the extraordinary events taking place in the Communist countries of the Eastern Bloc. Some events such as the Hungarian uprising of 1956 when Imre Nagy withdrew his country from the Warsaw Pact, the raising of the Berlin Wall on 13th August 1961, and the Alexander Dubcek-inspired Prague Spring of 1968 are well known.

Others are not but are of equal significance in the gradual breaking down of the Communist system under the control of the Soviet Union. On 16th June 1953, three months after the death of Stalin, 300 East Berlin construction workers went on strike and marched down Stalinallee towards government buildings after their superiors announced a pay cut if they did not meet their work quota. These demands soon escalated into an outcry for a General Strike on the following day.

Early the next morning, 40,000 protesters had gathered in East Berlin. Protests were held throughout East Germany in almost all industrial centres. The original demands had turned into political statements including one that required the resignation of the East German government, who decided to crush the uprising, a theme that was often repeated behind the Iron Curtain, though not in 1980 in Gdansk as already indicated. The East German authorities turned to the Soviet Union for military support. 16 Soviet divisions with 20,000 soldiers were used to quell the uprising.

Travels through History: France

The south-eastern part of France has an abundance of historical interest. From the Roman theatres of Arles and Orange to the Cathar castles in the foothills of The Pyrenees there is much to see and remember.

There are mysteries too.

Why would the Roman Catholic Church create a crusade against the Cathar ‘heretics’ when these people were following such a devout life? How did the Romans build the Pont du Gard so quickly as part of a 40-mile water channel to provide water to Nimes? What did Bérenger Saunière discover in Rennes-le-Chateau that made him so wealthy?

Added to the history and the mystery are a host of natural wonders, beautiful scenery, and familiar names appearing in unfamiliar places.

The Limerick Snake Hawk

Extract from Animals Evolution Avoided

Legend has it that St Patrick removed all the snakes from Ireland. This theory has no real basis in fact. What’s more likely is that snakes were hunted to extinction by the highly efficient raptor called the Limerick Snake Hawk, the last of which died in Dublin Zoo in 1926 having survived on a diet of long, thin sausages for twenty years.

The snake hawk was the same size as today’s peregrine falcon although its plumage was dark brown. It was thought the colouring enabled it to blend in with the peat bogs. This hawk rarely flew above its prey to dive down to catch it. From the way the last hawk hunted the sausages as they were dragged along the ground by a greyhound, it’s thought the hawk was able to pick up the trail of a snake and then fly on ahead to ambush the snake, hence the need to blend into the background. Hunting in this manner meant the hawk would never pounce on sticks or small branches from a great height and hurt its talons. Once the snake was caught, the hawk would grip the reptile by the tail and swing it against either a tree or a rock, knocking it unconscious before taking its next meal back to the nest.

The Limerick Snake Hawk was a consummate hunter. At the zoo, the last surviving hawk never missed the sausages as they passed by, even when they were tied to the fastest greyhound. Scientists believe that if the hawk had maintained even a 60% kill rate in its hunting, instead of 100%, the species would have survived to this day. It’s ironic that a species, famed for their hunting skills, should become a victim of their own success.

Sports the Olympics Forgot – The Anti-Pope Games from Avignon

This is an excerpt from the Anti-pope Games story in my book, Sports the Olympics Forgot

The next oldest race is the Greyhound Race that dates from 1621. Here the artificial hare is chased around three laps of the track by greyhounds dressed in monk’s costumes. The hare wears a Papal Crown and carries a Papal Staff. Again this is a toned-down version of the original where a real hare, wearing a mitre, was hunted to death by greyhounds. Nowadays, the winning greyhound and owner receive a kennel for the dog that is modelled on the Pope’s Palace at Avignon. A greyhound named Luther has won the race the most times with seven wins in the period 1898 – 1905.

Dating from 1645 the oldest athletics event is the Papal shot-put where contestants have to land their throws in a Papal mitre that is placed 15 meters and 17 centimeters from the rim of the shot-put circle. Each contestant is allowed six attempts at this accuracy contest and the winner is the person who lands their put in the hat the most times. Hugo Benjamin Draxler won the event thirteen times between 1794 and 1831. Draxler has been an important figure in the Games as he also lobbied the organizers to introduce a spear throwing contest where the aim and the rules were literally the same as those of the shot-put contest. After the success of the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris both a discus and a hammer contest were introduced in 1925 with the Papal Mitre situated 60 meters and 68 centimeters from the throwing circle. No one has ever won the Discus event and the Hammer event has been won just once in 1958 by the Soviet Anatoli Timofftichuk.

Pyramid Racing – Part 2

Each year there are roughly 5,000 entrants for the race who make their way to Cairo at their own expense. They are given a thorough medical by the race organizers and those who pass have to sign an insurance waiver and provide proof they have adequate medical insurance for repatriation to their own country. If more than 3,072 pass the tests then an elimination 10,000-metre race is run around the Giza Plateau and the top 3,072 entrants reach the pre-qualifying races.

A basic pyramid race comprises four racers, one for each of the edges. The idea is that the contestants start the race 50 yards from their corner of the pyramid. They stand by an empty plinth and wait for the Starting Judge to wave the Wand of Osiris. Once this happens, they make their way to the top of the pyramid, collect an image of Thoth from a judge wearing an ibis mask, who stands on the capstone, and then descend to the bottom. The winner is the person who first places his Thoth on the plinth.

In the week prior to June 21st the qualifying takes place on the Pyramid of Menkaure. Between June 14th and June 17th the 3,072 entrants each take part in one of the 768 races; the losers from these races qualify for the races on the Step Pyramid of Djoser between June 18th – 21st. On June 18th and 19th the 768 winners are whittled down to 192 and then on June 20th the final 48 are decided and they qualify for the “Race to the Stars” on the Great Pyramid on June 21st. The 576 who lose races on June 18th and 19th qualify for the races on the Pyramid of Menkaure on June 21st, which is still a prestigious race. The 144 who lose races on June 20th qualify for the races on the Pyramid of Khefre on June 21st, a race only second in importance to the race on the Great Pyramid.

Extract from Sports the Olympics Forgot

 

The Hula Hoop Games – Buenos Aires

The modern hula hoop was invented in the late 1950s but people around the world have played with hoops for centuries. Traditional materials for hoops include willow, rattan, and stiff grasses. The Hula Hoop Games in Buenos Aires were started in 1959 and now attract contestants from around the world.

At these Games the emphasis lies on throwing and rolling the Hula Hoop rather than twirling it around the body while running along or standing still. There are two types of events: the distance events and the accuracy events. The standard 40-inch diameter adult hula hoop is mandatory for all events.

The distance events involve throwing the hoop as far as possible. There is the plain hurl event where the contestant grips the outside of the hoop and throws it into the distance, often twirling around in a circle like a discus thrower to build up momentum before releasing the hoop at the optimum moment. The winner of the event is the person whose hoop lands at the furthest distance from the start line. The furthest distance ever recorded was 156 feet 11 inches by David Nelson from Accra in Ghana in 1997.

From the books Sports the Olympics Forgot

The Ecuadorian Squirrel Hawk

Extract from the book “Animals Evolution Avoided

During the evolution of the hawk species, one particular branch, the males of the Ecuadorian Squirrel Hawk, started attacking other animals to satisfy their own vanity.

The male Ecuadorian Squirrel Hawk would build a nest in the traditional manner. It would then have to attract a mate. The unusual method of attraction used by this bird was not a display of hunting prowess or an elaborate dance. The male hawk would clinically remove the tail from any mammal it could find and then hang these tails from the nest to try and attract a female hawk. Over the years, the squirrel hawk must have deduced that squirrel tails worked the best and so decided it could hunt rats, mice, and other rodents for food, but squirrels should be left alone as their tails were more important than their meat for the preservation of the hawk species.

The male hawk would place the tails in fetching arrangements designed to impress the female hawk. Some hawks would drape the tails over the sticks in the nest to make the nest more comfortable for their potential partners. Other hawks would hang the tails from the nest, where they would sway in the wind and catch the eye of any passing females.

The unusual behaviour of these birds has also led to a change in the appearance of Ecuadorian squirrels, whose tails are, on average, 65% shorter than in other squirrel species. These squirrels also sit on their tails when at rest unlike other squirrels whose tails stick out behind them when they are sitting still eating a nut. It’s also believed the Ecuadorian Ground Squirrel may have evolved from particular families of Ecuadorian Squirrels who lived close to hawk’s nests and who were attacked more than other squirrels.

These squirrels confused early explorers who would see a squirrel that had been attacked by an Ecuadorian Squirrel Hawk and conclude they had found the squirrel equivalent of the Manx Cat.  Once the explanation was discovered, some Victorian explorers even began to explore the Isle of Man, looking for a Manx Cat Hawk, a potential distant relation of the Ecuadorian Squirrel Hawk, but no evidence of this bird was ever found.