Poetry’s Long-standing Relationship with Olympics Continues at Rio

"Ode by an Olympic Competitor," Rock Island Argus, August 07, 1908, p. 7. This poem was written by University of Virginia sprinter James Alcorn Rector before departing for the 1908 London Olympics. Rector won a silver medal in the 100 meters.

“Ode by an Olympic Competitor,” Rock Island Argus, August 07, 1908, p. 7. This poem was written by University of Virginia sprinter James Alcorn Rector before departing for the 1908 London Olympics. Rector won a silver medal in the 100 meters.

Poetry and the Olympics have long been easy bedfellows: 2,500 years ago Pindar was penning odes for victorious athletes in the ancient Games; in the first half of the 20th century, the Olympics actually included an arts competition known as the “Pentathlon of the Muses” in which poets and other writers could battle for Olympic glory; and more recently, poems have been performed at Olympic opening ceremonies, dropped from helicopters, and featured in inspirational ads promoting the Games.

It’s no surprise, then, that poetry also featured in the Rio 2016 Olympics opening ceremony. During a section of the ceremony focusing on the environment, the poem “A Flor e a Nausea” (“Flower and Nausea”) by late Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade was read in Portuguese by Brazilian actress Fernanda Montenegro, with an English translation recited by none other than Dame Judi Dench.

If “A Flor e a Nausea” has whetted your appetite for more of Drummond’s poetry, the Library’s Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape includes the following recording from July 29, 1974, of the poet reading a selection of his poems in their original Portuguese.

Poetry also found its way into the peripherals of the opening ceremony courtesy of a new commercial developed by Apple as part of its “Shot on iPhone” campaign. The ad, titled “The Human Family” (and not the first to put poetry in the service of sales), couples images and brief videos of people around the world with a voice-over of Maya Angelou reciting her poem “Human Family.” Angelou’s poem captures the essence of the Olympic spirit by noting the “differences / in the human family”differences of color, creed, and culturewhile nonetheless asserting that:

We are more alike, my friends
than we are unalike.

(As an aside, if you’ve read any of the news coverage of Apple’s ad, you’ll find Maya Angelou referred to by multiple media outlets, including The Washington Post and Fortune, as a “Poet Laureate.” In a previous blog post I write about why it’s not necessarily accurate to call Angelou a Poet Laureate.)

If you come across any other examples in which poetry intersects with the Rio Olympics, let us know in the comments below.

One Comment

  1. Jennifer Harbster
    August 8, 2016 at 4:45 pm

    Great post, Peter! I miss working with you on these thematic posts. So happy to see they are still going strong…I look forward reading more of these and learning how poetry is connected to our lives and plays important roles in society (in this instance, it is the Olympics)

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