Pindar, Poetry, and the Olympics

The relationship between poetry and the Olympics reaches back at least 2,500

It is the Lyre of Pindar: The Play at Olympia

It is the Lyre of Pindar: The Play at Olympia. Watercolor by Corwin Knapp Linson, 1896. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010717092/

years, when the Greek poet Pindar (ca. 518-438 B.C.) composed victory odes, or epinicia, for victorious athletes competing in the Olympics and the three other major Panhellenic games—those at Pythia, Nemea, and the isthmus of Corinth. Of these, the Olympic games were the most important, as Pindar recognizes in his first Olympian ode, written to celebrate the victory of the racehorse Pherenikos, owned by Hieron, ruler of Syracuse:

But if, my heart, you wish to sing of contests, look no further for any star warmer than the sun, shining by day through the lonely sky, and let us not proclaim any contest greater than Olympia….

(prose tr. Diane Arnson Svarlien)

While only fourteen of Pindar’s Olympic odes survive—they can be read online in Greek and in various English translations—his influence, and the larger influence of poetry on the Olympics, has lasted. In fact, the push to revive the Olympics was initiated by Greek poet Panagiotis Soutsos, who first raised the prospect in his 1833 poem “Dialogue of the Dead,” in which the ghost of Plato says to a Greece suffering through economic and political hardship:

If our shadow could fly to your earth it would daringly shout to the Ministers of the Throne:
Leave your petty politics and vain quarrels.
Recall the past splendour of Greece.
Tell me, where are your ancient centuries?
Where are your Olympic Games?

The modern Olympics, whose inception owes much to Soutsos, is not often associated with poetry or literature, but from 1912 to 1952 the Olympics included an arts competition known as the “Pentathlon of the Muses” in which medals were awarded to competitors who created the best sports-inspired art in categories such as music, painting, sculpture, architecture, and literature. The arts competition attracted few big names in their respective fields, so unfortunately people never had the opportunity to see writers such as Rainer Maria Rilke, James Joyce, and Robert Frost compete against each other for literary supremacy. Rather, the competition was largely an amateur event; the gold medalist for the very first literature competition, for instance, was none other than  Pierre Fredy, Baron de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee and the modern Olympics. Presumably to avoid influencing the judges’ decision, de Coubertin’s poem “Ode to Sport” was submitted to the competition under the twin pseudonyms Georges Hohrod and M. Eschbach.

More recently, poetry, and especially Pindar, has cropped up in the opening and closing events of several Olympics. During the closing ceremony for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, actor Richard Basehart read from Pindar’s Pythian Ode 8 (lines 95-97; tr. David C. Young and F. J. Nisetich):

Creatures of a Day! Man is merely a shadow of a dream.
But when god-given glory comes upon him in victory,
a bright light shines upon us,
and our life is sweet.

At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the opening words of Pindar’s Olympian Ode 8 (“Mother of golden-crowned contests, Olympia, queen of truth!”) were engraved on all medals. For the same Olympics, Armand D’Angour, Professor of Classical Languages and Literature at Jesus College, Oxford, composed “Ode to Athens,” written in the style of Pindar. The poem was read by former British fencer and gold medalist Mary Glen-Haig at the closing session of the International Olympic Committee. D’Angour’s ode harked back to the 1896 Athens Olympics, when classical scholar George S. Robertson composed and recited his own Pindaric ode for the opening of the games.

Not all poetry related to the Olympic Games is Pindaric. At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, spoken word poet Shane Koyczan performed “We are More,” a poem decidedly not modeled after Pindar. And the lead-in to the London 2012 Olympics has already featured poetry in various forms and settings. As part of Southbank Centre’s Poetry Parnassus, the Chilean arts collective Casagrande sponsored a “Rain of Poems” in which 100,000 bookmarks featuring poems by 300 contemporary poets from 204 countries were dropped from a helicopter over the south bank of the Thames River. The city of London sponsored an Olympics poetry competition for children, while the Scottish Poetry Library and the BBC are sponsoring “The Written World” project, through which a poem from each of the 204 participating nations will be broadcast each day during the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The Forward Arts Foundation has also contributed to the poetic atmosphere of the London Olympics through its “Winning Words” project, which has resulted in temporary and permanent poetry installations—including a poem by U.K. poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy—at Olympic Park.

Not to be outdone by other incursions of poetry into the London Olympics, London Mayor Boris Johnson, who studied classics at the University of Oxford, added his own poetic stamp on this year’s Games by reciting an ode—in both ancient Greek and English—as part of a July 23rd gala for the International Olympic Committee at the Royal Opera House. Armand D’Angour, who wrote the 2004 “Ode to Athens,” was commissioned by Johnson to write this newest ode, which can be read on the University of Oxford’s website under the title “Pindaric Ode for the London Olympics 2012.” The ode was written in the style of—you guessed it—Pindar, and will be engraved on a plaque installed in Olympic Park.

Few art forms can capture and celebrate the heights of human potential as well as poetry. It is no surprise, then, that poetry remains an important presence at Olympics Games, which every two years thrills the world with unparalleled expressions of the human body and spirit.

One Comment

  1. Patricia Gray
    August 4, 2012 at 8:54 pm

    Hi Peter,
    Loved this piece about poetry and the Olympics. Public radio ran an international poetry competition about the Olympics, and some of the poems they read on the air were really good!
    Patricia

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