Lesson #426: The Double-Headed Eagle

If you’ve been reading for a while, it shouldn’t be a surprise how we got here and why this is of particular interest to me.*

The World Cup is on. I love the World Cup. It’s my favourite sporting event. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of them is that the popularity of football offers billions more eyes than usual to put politics on a global stage.**

My experience with Albania is limited. I’ve set very tired feet on the ground in Albania, but barely — it was very early in the morning, I had been dozing (at best) on a very uncomfortable overnight bus from Dubrovnik to Skopje (never again), and I literally didn’t know what country I was in until I saw a sign on the side of the road in a language I couldn’t read. But I know about Kosovo, if only because it’s related to the dissolution of Yugoslavia.***

The Shakiri and Xhaka double-headed eagle gestures were a big thing yesterday (and discussions of match bans were on order today), but the politics of that are a separate post. Today, we’re touching on the history of the double-headed eagle.

I had assumed that the double-headed eagle was a Roman thing, but the Romans never used it. Sort of. There’s a fluidity in the Eastern Roman Empire that makes its use sort of Roman, but not really. Anyway, the origins go back to the Hittites, who occupied modern-day Turkey from roughly the 20th to the 7th centuries BCE. Scholars are in agreement that the double-headed eagle took on a later meaning of orthodoxy (in the Orthodox Christian faiths) and dominance (in the Byzantine Empire), but its original meaning has been lost — in part because there’s a two millenia gap in its use after the decline of the Hittites before the Byzantines started using it as a part of their heraldry. The double-headed eagle as heraldry spread into the Arab world and large swaths of Europe — particularly in Southeastern Europe — in the late medieval period (11th and 12th centuries), as a result of the Crusades.

In modern times, Russia’s association with the double-headed eagle is arguably the most recognizable — it’s even in their football crest.**** However, it also shows up on Albania’s flag (thus the ethnic Albanians playing for the Swiss team using it), along with Serbia and Montenegro‘s flags, and if you look at the not-so-distant past, in addition to the Russians, it was used by the Serbian kings, which remains on the Serbian flag; the Habsburg dynasty of Austria-Hungary; the Austrian Empire; the Montenegrin royals;  the German Confederation; and Yugoslavia, generally, up until they exiled their last king after the Second World War.

Fun fact: in this World Cup, five other countries have an (single-headed) eagle in their crests: holders Germany, Mexico, Nigeria, Poland, and Tunisia.

For more on the history of the double-headed eagle, see here and here.

*If you haven’t been, the short version is: the sociopolitics of the Balkans as they’re reflected in football hooliganism. And also history.

**In this regard, it’s a shame the US are not participating.

***Serbia basically spent the 90s being a controlling ex until the rest of the world stepped in and were like, “guy…sit down” — and even then, they didn’t do a great job. I have many feelings on the Dayton Accords and not many of them are good.

****If they’re smart, Xhaka and Shakiri will say, “we were paying tribute to our host country!” Which no one will believe, but at least it’s a feasible explanation.


Lesson #409: Steeplechase

This week’s original lesson was going to be that there are technically 15 Winter Olympic sports and 42 Summer Olympic sports. But then, whilst discussing the fact that track and field is actually a dozen different sports, my cousin in a major Canadian city and I got into a discussion that devolved into a debate about whether steeplechase is a horse race or a people race. Clearly neither of us has any idea what steeplechase actually is.

So here we are. Learning about steeplechase.

It turns out there’s a reason I have no idea what steeplechase actually is. It sounds super boring to spectate.* Steeplechase is raced as a 3000m event for both men and women at the Olympics. Master’s steeplechasers and younger athletes compete at 2000m. The 3000m event has 28 barriers (don’t be fooled, they’re hurdles) and 7 water jumps. The 2000m event has 18 barriers and 5 water jumps. Water jumps are 12’/3.66m long and 27.5″/70cm in depth. In women’s steeplechase, the barriers are lower (30″/76.2cm) than for the men (36″/91.4cm).** That’s it. The fastest men in the world run this race in just over eight minutes. The fastest women do it right around nine.

Literally the only interesting thing about the steeplechase is that it is so called because sometime in the mid-19th century, a bunch of bored university students at Oxford decided to run from the church in one town to a church in another and this involved jumping over streams and hopping over low walls.

There is very little good reading on steeplechase, but if you’re super into it, the IAAF site is here.

Finally, my cousin and I were both right. Steeplechase is also a horse race. The Irish were racing steeple to steeple on horseback from the mid-18th century. So the running steeplechase basically came out of a bunch of college kids getting drunk one night and going, “…what if steeplechase, but, like, without our horses?” And, that part actually sounds fun. Like I would definitely drink too much one night with my friends and decide to run from one town to another.*** But no one pulled the athletics association aside when they were like, “…what if steeplechase, but, like, without the horses AND on a track?” and went, “that sounds boring AF, you guys”, and now here we are, 120 years into the Olympics, being reminded every four years that there are people who do this on purpose.****

*This is coming from a swimmer who was a mile specialist. Do you know how boring it is to watch someone swim a mile? Take what you’re imagining, multiply it by ten, and you’ll be close. Steeplechase sounds like the track version of watching someone swim a mile.

**Don’t ask me why a race that is measured in metres gives its measurements primarily in inches. That’s information straight from track and field’s governing body, the IAAF.

***This is a bald-faced lie. There are not words for how much I loathe running as a point-to-point exercise. I loved playing rugby; it was running for a violent purpose! But running to be like, “I ran four miles today!” Nope. Nope.

*****Again, this is coming from a swimmer who was a mile specialist and who continues to swim long distances (3-5 miles/swim). I am intimately familiar with people thinking my races were complete madness. My entire high school (200 and 500 yards) and university (500, 1000, and 1650 yards) careers were basically sprinters who were in and out of the water in under 30 seconds or a minute (depending on the race) and my friends who would show up to support me/the team going “why would you even do that?”

Lesson #374: The Time Zaire Lost 9-0 at the World Cup

Apologies for the delay in getting this up. After a month of binging on football, — because that’s really what the World Cup is…a month-long football bender — I took a few days to detox by reading books, catching up with some friends I all but abandoned, running non-pressing errands I’d been putting off, and generally being away from the computer. 

I was sat at the bar in the Irish pub down the street from my house, where I spent all my pub-watching time, for the Brazil/Germany semifinal. I was cheering for Germany, in part because I had them winning it all in my bracket, in part because of Manuel Neuer,* but mostly — because England didn’t even get out of their group (but Costa Rica did…oh, World Cup, your sense of humour!) and Diego Forlan’s flowing locks’ advancement past Colombia were hindered by age and Luis Suarez’s appetite for Italian — because Michael Ballack has long been my footballing God, even if he did play for Chelsea.**

Anyway, among the other regulars at this bar is a guy my Spurs friends and I met in May during the Champions League final. He’s been interesting to hang out with because he’s from Tanzania and is the only person I’ve ever met who can talk about the history of African football.*** So there we are, Guinness in hand, watching Germany crush Brazil. Five goals in, I decided to look up the worst routs in World Cup history. Among them, my new friend mentioned, I’d find a 1974 match in which Yugoslavia defeated Zaire 9-0.**** And then my friend started telling me this insane story (that isn’t all that insane when you consider sub-Saharan Africa’s history of post-colonial despots, but that’s a whole separate issue):

In 1973, Zaire became the first sub-Saharan African team to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. Hooray! So off they went to West Germany. After a 2-0 loss to Scotland, the Leopards learned that the wages they were expecting to see for their effort was being, shall we say, reallocated. Directly into the pockets of an incredibly corrupt Zaire government (that embezzled somewhere between $4 and $15 billion over the course of Mobutu’s 30-year rule). Now, as you can imagine, the players were not especially thrilled by this and decided not to play the following match against Yugoslavia. They were eventually convinced to play the match, but, as you can probably deduce from the scoreline, they didn’t put a whole hell of a lot of effort into it. They also went a man down in the 22nd minute.

Anyway, at the time, the country was run by a guy called Mobutu Sese Seke, who was, by all accounts, not a nice man. Funnily enough, though, he was installed as President with support from both Belgium (who had been Zaire’s colonial overlords) and the United States. Mobutu’s solution to opposition was the beloved trifecta of psychotic rulers since the dawn of man: kidnapping, torture, and execution. And he was not particularly pleased by a 9-0 humiliation. So he did what any tyrannical dictator would do in this situation; he sent his presidential guards to threaten the players. They were told that if they lost 4-0 to Brazil in their final match of the group stage, they would not be allowed to return home. In the end, Zaire lost 3-0 and its players returned home without further incident, but Mobutu had a policy that kept the members of the Leopards from pursuing football careers outside of Zaire.

If you’re interested, the scoresheet is here. You can read more about this madness here, here, and here.

*Neuer appears in conversation between me and a friend in the Texas capital on at least a weekly basis. He’s also the subject of the biggest fight The Swede and I ever had. I was mad at him because for an engineer he was being impossibly idealistic, and he was mad at me because for a student of revolutions, I was being impossibly pragmatic. In the end, we nearly got kicked out of a bar in Berlin.

**During the 2008 Champions League final, a friend looked at me before Ballack took his penalty and said, “you know he’s just standing there thinking, ‘of course it’s going in; I’m Michael fucking Ballack!'”, which is still the best ascription of emotion I’ve ever heard.

***The only Africans I’ve ever really known on a regular basis were when I lived in an Eastern European capital, and they had some seriously disturbing stories about how they’d ended up there; we didn’t talk much about football.

****The record is a goal difference of 9. Two separate 9-0 matches — Hungary vs. South Korea in 1954, Yugoslavia vs. Zaire in 1974 — and one 10-1 match — Hungary vs. El Salvador in 1982.

World Cup Break (duh!)

It’s the World Cup. As such, your humble researcher will be spending time cheering for England’s continued mediocrity/Diego Forlan’s flowing locks/the underdog (unless that happens to be Portugal), judging countries on their national anthems (Spain is #1), exchanging sarcastic commentary with friends around the world, and taking everything Michael Ballack says as gospel truth for the duration.

Lesson #360: The Tottenham Crest

The supporters club I’m part of has a Facebook page where we keep each other updated on team-related news. Sometimes, it’s whether we need to relocate to the Chelsea bar (ugh) for the super early match because our bar staff didn’t show up to open for us. Sometimes, it’s videos of fans spontaneously deciding, despite being down four goals to Liverpool, to cheer like Spurs scored a goal (which they did not). Sometimes, it’s lost posters for a certain Argentinian striker. Sometimes, it’s wild speculation that I feel the need to correct. Because, as you may have noticed, I cannot abide poor research.

In this case, it’s the source of the cockerel (or, as Spurs fans are wont to call it, “the cock on a ball”) that makes up the Tottenham crest. One of the members of the club posted about the possibility that the crest had arisen from the fact that White Hart Lane was built on what used to be a farm.

It literally took me 20 seconds to find the actual information. Twenty. Seconds.

According to Ken Ferris’ book, Football: Terms and Teams, the cockerel has been part of Spurs since the 1901 FA Cup final. The cock and ball* first appeared in 1909 when a former player cast a copper statue to place in the West Stand at White Hart Lane. The spurs on the cockerel are related to the late medieval nobleman Harry Hotspur’s riding spurs.** And also, you know, because fighting cocks wear spurs. As I’m sure you can guess, Tottenham Hotspur take their name from our friend Harry, who had ties to North London.

*That just never gets old…I sometimes have the sense of humour of a 12-year-old boy.

**That’s late medieval, not late, medieval, though that’s also accurate. Obviously.



Lesson #349: Wagnerian Singers

One of my friends brought his new girlfriend out to the pub for the match today. She’s freaking awesome! She admits to knowing nothing at all about football, but was game to come and socialize and meet his friends (and then game to come with us while we watched my team play his team in hockey). But what makes her awesome is that it turns out that she’s an opera singer, studying for her MFA. So we were talking about opera while my friend stood there and stared at me before asking “how are you so into football and also this into astrophysics* and opera? You shouldn’t exist!”

She and I quickly moved from opera itself to the music and theory of opera. When the discussion moved to Wagner (who, if you’ve been reading for a while, you know I love) and she told me that she can’t do Wagner, which sounded absurd to me until she said that in her class, there’s only one Wagnerian singer. It turns out, and this makes perfect sense, because Wagner vastly expanded the orchestra for his operas, singers have to be able to project over all those added instruments, and the percentage of people who have that ability is not very big, even in the opera community. So the complexity of his music, which is the thing I like most about Wagner, is also the thing that makes his music hardest to sing.

In other news, Englebert Humperdinck was an actual person (other than the pop singer whose name is not actually Englebert Humperdinck)…he composed Hansel and Gretel, which my friend’s girlfriend is performing in next month.

FYI: As a point of personal pride, because it was the derby, some friends and I took it upon ourselves to change the Arsenal supporters club’s (which is literally 25m from ours) sign to read “[Neighbourhood redacted] is Arsenal Red” to “[Neighbourhood redacted] is Lilywhite.” It was a vast improvement in our opinions, but the Gooners were nowhere near as amused with our changes as we were. Because Gooners take themselves way too seriously.

*The reason he and I have gotten to be such fast friends is our mutual love of space.

Lesson #343: Biathlon

Once every four years, I remember that I think biathlon is effing awesome. Because it is effing awesome! Honestly, most of the time between Winter Games is spent forgetting that biathlon even exists, but ten days out of every 1461, I’m super excited about the sport. I will seriously watch biathlon for hours; I find it soothing in the same way I find watching fish soothing. And much as I love hockey (a lot, despite my favourite player’s old-age absence from the Canadian squad this go), I care who wins in hockey. In biathlon, I could not care less who wins medals or which country’s flag they’re wearing. I can watch without an elevated blood pressure and a constricted chest. So I do.

Four thousand years ago, the Norwegians — or at least the people living in what is now Norway — drew us some pretty pictures on rocks depicting people on skis hunting with spears. To be honest, I’m not sure what more information you need. We’re talking about an Olympic sport that people were effectively participating in 4000 years ago. Out of necessity, sure, but still participating. The first written mention of hunting on skis comes from Virgil ca. 400 BCE. Later, because the Scandinavians are kind of good at the whole ski-across-the-country thing*, militaries began adapting the sport for their own purposes. The Finns, for example, put the military aspect of the whole skiing/shooting thing to good use against the Russians in the Second World War. But the practice itself has been noted for a couple millenia; the historians Xenophon, Strabol, Arrian, Theophanes, Prokopius, and Acruni all wrote of soldiers making use of skis.

Etymologically, biathlon is derived from the Greek (obviously), meaning dual contests.**

And I guess it probably matters that the first recorded competition in biathlon as we know it took place in 1767 near the Swedish/Norwegian border. Its Olympic debut came at Chamonix in 1924. Just like a certain other sport I wrote about four years ago.

As an aside, the Russian military runs a tank biathlon competition. Because of course they do.

For more, see here and here.

*Two years ago, the Swede took part in the Vasaloppet, the world’s longest cross-country race at 90km. A mutual (also Swedish) friend of ours is currently training for this year’s women’s race.

**If you’d like to expound on this, it’s the same with pentathlon (seven contests) and decathlon (ten contests).