No homing pigeons released during the Olympic Opening Ceremony – what would the ancient Greeks say?

Posted on July 27th, 2012

RPRA pigeonsTHE symbolic release of homing pigeons has been an integral part of Olympic opening ceremonies since ancient Greece – but not so, in London 2012.

To make up for London’s oversight, and to keep up a 3,000-year-old tradition, 200 Royal racing pigeons (Her Majesty the Queen is Patron of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association) were released beside the City of Manchester Stadium, in Eastlands, on 27 July 2012 – eight hours before the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony.

When London last hosted the Olympics in 1948, a young Queen Elizabeth stood beside her father King George VI at Wembley Stadium as he released 2,000 Royal racing pigeons to officially declare the Games open, as shown here in this original footage.

In 2012 a group of 80 disabled & non disabled children from Manchester have been tasked with the honour of releasing the birds.  One of the pigeons released set off on a 170 mile journey to London to deliver a message of good luck to Team GB.

As the birds reached for the skies, each child waved a flag representing a participating nation in this year’s Olympics. Helping the children release the pigeons were 10 guards from the British Army’s Mercian Regiment – who have recently returned from a tour of Afghanistan. The soldiers held a special mini Olympics for the children before helping them release the birds.

Pigeons have played a symbolic role in Olympic ceremonies since the ancient Greeks held the first Games in Athens between 776 BC and 393.  At the end of each Olympic Games – which were held every four years – homing pigeons were sent to the villages to announce the winners.  Villagers were then able to welcome home their heroes with olive branches and celebrations.  When the Olympic Games were reinstated into the modern era more than 1,500 years later, in Athens in 1896, so too were homing pigeons.  Symbolically released at the opening and closing ceremonies, pigeons have been as much a part of the modern Olympics as they were in ancient times.  Until London 2012 that is!

The Queen keeps racing pigeons at her royal loft on the Sandringham Estate.  When the Olympics were last held in the UK in 1948, Her Majesty was present at Wembley Stadium to see King George VI officially declare the Games open by releasing 2,000 royal racing pigeons.  As the birds sprawled into the sky above London, the King raised the Olympic Flag.  The same symbolic ceremony was carried out in all previous and future Olympics – including in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, when Hitler released 20,000 homing pigeons.

Athletes of the ground v Athletes of the sky

Although pigeons can’t qualify for the Olympics, they would provide fierce competition against their human athletic rivals, based on the following facts.

100m Sprint

The world’s fastest man, Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, is aiming to break his own world record of 9.58 seconds in the 100 m sprint final this summer.  He averages a speed of 23.35 mph, which is incredibly fast.  However, it would not be enough to beat a racing pigeon which during 100 mile races can reach up to 110 mph – meaning it would take a mere 2.03 seconds for the pigeon to fly 100m. Unlucky Usain!

Long Jump

In 1991, USA’s Mike Powell broke the world record for the long jump with a leap of 8.95m – five centimetres further than the previous record.  While it might have looked like he was flying through the air, it was nothing compared to how far a pigeon can fly.  From take off to touch down, pigeon have been known to fly distances of more than 1,000 miles.  Better luck next time Mike!

Pole Vault

Ukraine’s Sergey Bubka broke the pole vault world record 35 times during his career and still holds it with his 6.15m outdoor leap in 1994.  Unfortunately for Bubka, the pigeon has him beat.  Most birds will fly higher than 500 feet in the air during migration and can reach up to 20,000 feet.  They don’t need a pole to get up there either Sergey!

Perhaps this is why pigeons are not allowed to compete in the Olympics; the podiums would be completely dominated by our feathered friends.

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