The Twelve (Olympic) Days of Christmas

It’s become somewhat of a tradition here at Olympstats to publish a post at this time of the year with a tenuous link to the festive season. This year it takes the form of our version of the popular song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and we’ll try to cram in as many obscure links, bad puns and weak jokes as we can manage.

So let’s take you on a journey through the lyrics of the song….

On the First day of Christmas my true love sent to me a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

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Links to trees we can find, Cuban runner Felix Carvajal interrupted the 1904 marathon to pick from an apple tree and paid the price with a case of stomach cramps while the German government rewarded every Olympic champion with a sapling of an oak tree in 1936, but pear trees seem to be impossible to link.

So in that case we rely on A. Partridge in the pairs.  Now it’s fair to say Alex rarely competed in pairs rowing after his career as a junior ended and his Olympic medals came as a member of a British eight in 2008 and 2012 but hey, it’s Christmas, so we’re relying on it being the season of good will here. Partridge won silver and bronze medals and had the unusual distinction of being first over the line in 2004 despite having never left England. He lost a place in Athens after suffering a collapsed lung in a race in Lucerne but his team-mates made sure his efforts were recognised by painting his name on the bow of his boat.

On the Second day of Christmas my true love sent to me two Turtle Doves

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We can find doves fairly easily. It can take us from British golfer William Dove in 1900 to Ashley Dove from South African baseball a century later and, if you include nicknames there’s even a turtle lurking in the shape of beach volleyball’s Misty May-Treanor.  Instead we’ll go down a more esoteric path and remember the Olympic tradition of releasing doves of peace during the opening ceremony and, specifically, why it came to an end. The year was 1988 and the doves had been released as they had been for decades with little more than increased laundry bills to mark the fact.  This time however the birds decided that rather than take the shortest route of the stadium they would wait a while and some even perched on the edge of the as yet unlit Olympic cauldron. Unfortunately for them they were still there when the time came to light the flame and were incinerated in an instant. There were no doves present in 1992 or any subsequent celebration except in the symbolic form of biodegradable paper doves

On the Third day of Christmas my true love sent to me three French Hens

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You may think of aquatics here but even we draw the line at swimming poule puns so we’ll go the obvious this time. There doesn’t seem to be a French connection but Jennifer Hens competed for Australia in the air rifle event at the Rio Olympics. Sadly for her she could only finish 39th of the 51 competitors which probably left her in a foul mood. Equally René Lasserre, the French rugby player, was given the nickname “Poulet” which translates as chicken.

On the Fourth day of Christmas my true love sent to me four Calling Birds

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Calling birds is actually a fairly recent addition to the lyrics. Originally it was Colley birds, an English dialect word for the colour black. If we favour that then Gambian sprinter Saruba Colley becomes our prime suspect. Realistically though we need a Bird calling the shots so who better than Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird? Bird was still a high school student in 1976 and had to wait until NBA players were allowed to take part before making his Olympic debut in 1992.

On the Fifth day of Christmas my true love sent to me five Gold Rings

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So this one is easy right? Five rings on the Olympic flag – an unmistakeable sign of the Olympic movement since Baron de Coubertin designed it in 1912. According to him “the six colours [including the flag’s white background] combined in this way reproduce the colours of every country without exception. The blue and yellow of Sweden, the blue and white of Greece, the tricolour flags of France, England, the United States, Germany, Belgium, Italy and Hungary, and the yellow and red of Spain are included, as are the innovative flags of Brazil and Australia, and those of ancient Japan and modern China. This, truly, is an international emblem.”

Alternatively if you want an actual gold ring you look to “Bullet Bob” Hayes, the only man to win an Olympic gold medal and a gold Superbowl ring.

On the Sixth day of Christmas my true love sent to me six Geese a-Laying

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Famously Olympic legend Emil Zatopek used to race his family’s geese on his way from school as a youngster leading his mother to complain how hard it was to fatten the birds when Emil would accidentally include them in his training regime.

Three geese have actually competed at Olympic level in their youth. Well, sort of. A young goose is called a gosling and three of that name have appeared at the Games. William Gosling was a member of the victorious football team in 1900 and later became the High Sheriff of Essex, Bermudan diver Frank Gosling (nicknamed Goose) competed in 1948 and 1952 after serving a pilot guarding naval convoys to Russia during WW2 and more recently New Zealand hockey player Dion Gosling appeared in Athens.

And, for completeness, I have to point that badminton shuttlecocks have traditionally been made from goose feathers and that a flock of geese featured at part of the opening of London 2012.

On the Seventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me seven Swans a-Swimming

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Once Lianna Swan swam at the Rio Olympics there could be no other choice here. Born to an English father and a Pakistani mother she had the good sense to finish in 7th place in her heat of the 50m freestyle so that she would literally be a swan a-swimming to seventh.  The Swan sisters who competed for Brazil in sailing probably wouldn’t be as happy to find themselves swimming and neither would those Olympian members of Australia’s Swan River Rowing Club.  If multiple gold medal winning cross country skier Gunde Svan found himself swimming then it’s fair to guess that climate change is doing some strange things to the Winter Olympics.

On the Eighth day of Christmas my true love sent to me eight Maids a-Milking

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From an easy choice to a much more difficult pick.  American wrestling gold medallist Rulon Gardner grew up on a Minnesota dairy farm but he’d probably not thank you for calling him “a maid a-milking”.  New Zealand equestrian star Mark Todd sold most of his herd of dairy cattle to finance his successes at the 1984 Games and 1992 gold medallist Sally Gunnell began her hurdling career by jumping hay bales at her family’s dairy farm. If you look beyond the milk references you can find Tilly van der Made, a Dutch runner of the 1960s.

On the Ninth day of Christmas my true love sent to me nine Ladies Dancing

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Believe it or not there is a crossover between Olympic sports and ballet.  Sophie Hichon won a bronze medal in the women’s hammer at the Rio Olympics after studying ballet for a decade and the same can be said of Canadian skeleton slider Sarah Reid.  Ski Ballet (later acroski) was a demonstration sport a quarter of a century ago but its chances of becoming a full medal sport have faded dramatically since as the popularity of the event declined so dramatically that official competitions ended in 2000. More recently ballroom dancing (in its guise as dancesport) has lobbied for inclusion.

On the Tenth day of Christmas my true love sent to me ten Lords a-Leaping

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Lord’s cricket ground hosted the archery events in 2012 and the Italian men’s certainly celebrated their gold medal win with a lot of leaping about.  This time we can actually find ten Lords. We have US diver Alice Lord, her compatriots Harvey (track and field) and Arthur (golf), Australians in the form of Max (basketball), Ron (football) and Karen (swimming), athlete Fred and swimmer Bob from Great Britain, South African rower David and Swedish swimmer Torsten.

But that only adds up to nine you say? So let’s add an actual titled Lord to the list. Lord Burghley who won the 400m hurdles title at the 1928 Olympics and then spent nearly half a century as a true “Lord of the Rings” as a member of the IOC.

On the Eleventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me eleven Pipers Piping

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With a generous interpretation of the rules you can actually get to eleven pipers at the Olympic Games. Six people with that surname have competed at the Games – the most successful by far being the Canadian ice hockey player Cherie Piper with three gold medals. Piper’s team won 15 out of 15 games during her Olympic career and scored ten goals for every one conceded.

So where do we find the extra five pipers?  Strangely the answer comes from 1924 in Paris. For some reason the British team were escorted during the opening ceremony by five kilted military bagpipe players. What the French made of it is not recorded.

On the Twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me twelve Drummers Drumming

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So we’ve reached the end of our not very serious journey  and… we’ve reached a dead end. No Olympians called Drum, Drumm or Drummer. No Snares, no one called Hi-Hat or Cymbals. A few called Bass but that seems tenuous even for us. So instead we’ll retreat once more to the comfort of Olympic ceremonies. In Beijing 2008 drummers marked the start of the opening ceremony (though we’ll have their word for the exact number – they’re really wasn’t time to count) with a display of traditional Chinese drumming while four years later the deaf percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie led a mere thousand drummers during the section based on the Industrial Revolution.

So there we are – we’ve reached the end of our circuitous journey and, if we’ve cheated a little at times, please forgive us. It is Christmas after all…

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Merry Christmas and a Happy New Olympic Year of 2018 from all at


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