Out in the Cold

Olaf Steffens

Long ago in Ancient Greece the Olympic Games were invented to celebrate all sports. In the searing heat men would wrestle, run and throw the discus, sometimes even stark naked. Then they would take a break and meet again four years later to compete in the great outdoors and enjoy balmy evenings of wine, olives and sirtaki dancing (συρτάκι).

It was a glorious event, but one small group of so-called athletes wouldn’t play ball. The chess players. They wanted to go their own way.

Not only did they refuse to play naked like the others but they were rarely seen at the beach sirtaki sessions. The chess athletes would retire early to their huts to ‘prepare’ (exactly what they had to prepare nobody really knew).

The Chess Federation of the Ancient World (FEMA) refused to observe the hallowed four-year Olympic cycle, stubbornly insisting on meeting every two years, to the great displeasure of the other associations whose athletes had to train for twice as long. The chess players didn’t mind, especially the Finns who enjoyed their trips to the Mediterranean. They always found the sun ample compensation for their dismal showing at the board.

As Homer relates, FEMA never explained its two-year cycle, and FIDE still refuses to. According to the Greek chess historian Γιώργος Σουλεϊδης this is why for centuries chess players have been excluded from the Olympic family.

In 175 BC, FEMA announced its scheme for a monthly Olympiad. It was the final straw. Even for the Finns, who couldn’t face the constant travelling, and for the hitherto tolerant Greeks who summarily declared chess an Olympic sport no longer. Ever since FEMA and its successor FIDE have had to hold their Chess Olympiads outside Greece in a succession of dreary countries.

The chess community resents its less than splendid isolation from the world of sport. While all the other elite sportsmen and women gather every four years in a magnificent celebration of their prowess, it’s only the chess athletes who sit alone at their own Olympics, shivering in Tromsø. Pity!

So why in heaven’s name is the Chess Olympiad held biennially?

Olaf Steffens is a contributor to Schachwelt

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