Writing with humor while word-painting a portrait of an Olympic Opening Ceremony
In “Kings Get in Free,” a story that reads like a “paper” newsreel, Red Smith paints, animates, and celebrates the Opening Ceremony of the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, a typewriter his brush, words the pigment, and impasto the style.
One word can describe his 1,128-word piece: Entertaining.
Smith’s opening: “England’s biggest track meet in forty years opened this afternoon with a pageant of nationalism, an orgy of oratory and a paroxysm of symbolism but no running, jumping, or bulging of the biceps.”
That is not how you would expect a sports story to begin, but then, Smith was not the typical sportswriter.
Smith wrote “Kings Get in Free” in 1948 for the New York Herald Tribune, a paper he began working for three years earlier after Stanley Woodwardlured him to the Big Apple from the City of Brotherly Love.
In his book, Paper Tiger, Woodward wrote, “. . . I had been scouting a little guy on the Philadelphia Record whose name was Walter Wellesley Smith. This character was a complete newspaper man. He had been through the mill and had come out with a high polish. In Philadelphia he was being hideously overworked. Not only did he write the column for the Record but he covered the ball games and took most other important assignments.”
Woodward was an icon among sport editors. Jerry Izenberg, whom Lawrence Lawrence asserted in 2020 was “one of the country’s premier sports writers over the last 60 years, said “Stanley Woodward was the greatest editor who ever lived.”
For 22 years, Smith wrote his “Views of Sport” column for the Tribune.
Smith completed the opening appetizer in “Kings Get in Free” with “The recorded casualties were a half-dozen Boy Scouts and Sea Scouts who fainted under the malevolent sun which beat upon Wembley Stadium with padded brutality.”
This was the first Summer Olympics since 1936 when Berlin, Germany hosted it, the one scheduled for 1940 (Tokyo) cancelled, the London games four years delayed, Germany’s tyrant a collective memory.
In 97 degree heat, the 1948 Summer Olympics, the XIVth Olympiad, began.
Smith’s paragraphs blew fresh air onto an event that time and tradition jammed with pomp and circumstance.
The event’s first day was more than a showcase of athletes. It was a spectacle that 82,000 paid to attend. “Besides sitting and sweltering, . . . beat sweaty palms red, yowled and chanted and waved flags as the musclemen of their countries marched by” (Smith).
And its host site, Wembley Stadium, was not just a gladiatorial arena built from more than 25,000 tons of concrete, but “a cooked gaboon of concrete, its gray slopes packed, its currycombed infield a vivid green encircled by a track of bright red clay” (Smith).
As competitors from 59 countries marched past King George VI, each led by a flag-bearer, the monarch saluted them. “Never were the hardships of the monarch business more amply demonstrated although, admittedly, the hours and salary are usually very good,” Smith wrote.
Per Britannica, “There was no Olympic Village; the male athletes were housed at an army camp in Uxbridge, while the women stayed in dormitories at Southlands College.”
Some may view “Kings Get in Free” as satire, but satire’s needle injects negativity, a tone I did not detect. Instead, hyperbole is the game Smith is playing, the exaggeration effecting amusement, which increases the drama, every paragraph a morsel in a meal in a five-star restaurant.
Hyperbole is a type of trope. According to Grammatist, “the noun trope traditionally refers to any figure of speech in which a word or phrase conveys a meaning other than its literal sense. For instance, the phrase broken heart and the use of Wall Street to refer to the U.S. finance industry are tropes because their literal meanings are different from what we understand them to mean.” Other forms of trope are irony, metaphor, and synecdoche.
As the athletic procession progressed and after “the King finally got to sit down,” the pigeons gained their freedom and humor stepped from its shadow just before the Olympic flame arose from a “concrete bird bath.” Smith commented on the number of pigeons, their numbers appearing to be much fewer than expected: “Chances are the brass didn’t dare turn loose that many squab in this hungry nation.”
Red Smith did not just write “Kings Get in Free,” he crafted it, staging its scenes, the trope a tool he wielded with a surgeon’s precision. At its end, he closed with “It was hokum. It was pure Hollywood. But it was good. You had to like it.”
It’s easy to like his story too.
⚾️ For decades with royal bearing, Smith carried the sportswriting torch.