In Ancient Greece, the three poets best known for celebrating the Olympic Games were Simonides of Ceos, Bacchylides, and most famously Pindar, whose work I discussed in a July 2012 blog post on poetry and the Olympics. All three poets were known for a type of lyric ode known as epinicion (plural: epinicia), written in honor of victorious athletes and typically performed upon a victor’s triumphant return to his home city.
Epinicia were all the rage for Ancient Greeks, and it’s understandable that poets such as Pindar, who were usually commissioned (read: paid) by a winning athlete’s sponsor or family to write epinicia, did not write more generic (and unpaid) celebratory poems about the Olympics. In the modern Olympics, however, celebratory poems have featured prominently in the lead-up to many Opening Ceremonies—and even in the Opening Ceremonies themselves. And while it’s possible that victory odes will be written about the medalists in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, the recent focus on reading and writing pre-Game celebratory poems has continued in the run-up to Sochi, with its most visible manifestation being the inclusion of poetry in Olympic promotional videos.
Perhaps building off of the fairly recent trend to feature poems in TV commercials—witness the 2009 Levi’s ad campaign featuring poems by Walt Whitman, and the recitation of Shelley’s “Ozymandias” in a teaser trailer for the final episodes of AMC’s hit TV series Breaking Bad—both Team GB (Great Britain’s Olympic team) and the Canadian Olympic Team have been featured in commercials designed to inspire viewers through poetry. The official BBC Sochi Winter Olympics trailer features a poem—presumably written for the trailer—read by actor Charles Dance, who plays Tywin Lannister in the HBO television series Game of Thrones.
The backdrop is a harsh winter landscape of jagged snow-capped mountains, driving winds, and swirling fog, which members of Team GB intrepidly tackle using the tools of their trade (skis, skates, snowboards, etc.). The words of the poem, spoken by gravel-voiced Dance, lend a gravitas to the trailer that recalls the scene in Peter Jackson’s film version of The Fellowship of the Ring in which Gandalf and other members of the Fellowship attempt to cross the mountain pass of Caradhras.
I am the dreadful menace;
The one whose will is done;
The haunting chill upon your neck;
I am the conundrum. . . .
These opening lines to the ad, which appear to be spoken by the voice of Winter personified, spotlight the extreme physical challenges—and in some cases even danger—Olympic athletes will face in the heat of competition. The poem, however, is not all desolation, and holds out the hope that some Team GB athletes will conquer Winter (and their competitors) and emerge triumphant:
But now you stand before me,
Devoid of all dismay.
Could it be? Just maybe,
I’ll let you have your day.
Not to be outdone by Team GB, Team Canada has created a suite of promotional videos as part of its “We Are Winter” campaign. The Globe and Mail notes that, in an effort to identify suitable poetry to use in several of the ads, the Canadian Olympic Committee “and its agency, Proximity Canada, worked with a literary consultant to comb through 19th-century Canadian poetry looking for references to winter. . . . ” Unsurprisingly, they found plenty.
One “We Are Winter” ad features freestyle-skier and four-time Olympian Jean-Luc Brassard reading Helen Fairbairn’s poem “The Winter Spirit (The Origin of the Ice Palace).
In Fairbairn’s poem, the Winter Spirit roams across a winter landscape of “wind and storm”:
Beneath, his flying footsteps froze the ground;
And with his garments’ rustling fell the snow;
His lightest touch made icicles abound;
His breath, as when the keenest north winds blow.
He paused above the river, dull and gray,
Turbid and chafing with a restless pain,
And soon in icy quietness it lay,
Bound, bank to bank, within his arctic chain.
The image of a solitary figure bringing the winter world under his control (“Bound . . . within his arctic chain”) is wholly appropriate for the Winter Olympics, in which success frequently hinges upon athletes’ ability to master the environments in which they compete.
At least two other “We are Winter” ads feature poems:
- One ad featuring bobsledder Kaillie Humphries includes a voice-over of four lines from Frederick George Scott’s “In the Winter Woods“
- Another ad featuring snowboarder Mark McMorris includes a voice-over of the first quatrain of Archibald Lampman’s sonnet “Winter Uplands.”
Unfortunately, I was unable to turn up any Team USA promotional ads that feature poetry (if you’re aware of any, please let me know in the comments below!), though I hope the success of Team GB’s and Team Canada’s ads might lead to a few at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. I’d love to hear any thoughts you may have on American poems that would be particularly well-suited for inclusion in a Summer Olympics promotional campaign, so feel free to suggest titles in the comments.