What do Pindar, the ancient Greek poet, and the Canadian curling team have in common? I mean, other than their shared love of frantically sweeping well-defined sections of ice with a broom while a friend slides a stone along it? (Obviously). At least one very important thing, it seems – The Olympics. In the beginning, poetry was considered as integral to a successful Olympic Games as were the athletic contests themselves. Pindar was one of the best of these poets, who were given prizes for their efforts and rewarded with the chance to compose odes to the sporting champions. Meanwhile, lesser known poets set up shop and declaimed aloud, hoping passersby would notice their talents.
When the modern Olympics were revived, they included a medal contest in poetry. At the 1912 Games in Stockholm, a “Pentathlon of the Muses” was created for artists to compete for the chance to receive a gold medal and join the company of the wrestlers and weightlifters in heroic glory. The poetry, though, was of a notoriously bad quality, as evidenced by the runaway victories of the fascist German and Italian poets in the 1936 Olympics. In fact, the quality was considered to be so poor that the historical contest results aren’t even acknowledged by the Olympic Committee and in 1952 the literature competition was quietly dropped. You can’t get rid of poetry that easily, though! In more recent games, poetry has been making an unofficial comeback in events held in parallel with the games.
Although it may seem out of place, the connection of poetry and sport is as natural as the connection of body and soul. Sport is not purely physical. It includes a spiritual dimension and there is much to be explored in terms of theology of suffering, discovering the limitations of man, and finding in the physical activity a particular way of ministering to the soul. Sport is a kind of poetry played out in the realm of the physical. To describe it accurately beyond the nuts and bolts of how the game is played and the statistics of those who play the language of poetry is quite apt. If all we know are the mechanics of a game, it would be like reading the baseball boxscore in the newspaper but never actually being present at the stadium. This is to miss the pathos, the drama, the heroism, and the heartbreak. This is why sportswriters often wax poetic about their subject, why F. Scott Fitzgerald refers to a sport as “the faith of 50 million,” and why, in its original incarnation, the Olympic Games had as much to do with poetry as with athletics.
Perhaps the most famous poet connected with the Olympics is Pindar. Not all of his work survives, but his first Olympic Ode is a classic. This only a selection, but perhaps you can recite the whole work aloud this Friday while watching the opening ceremonies:
Water is best, and gold, like a blazing fire in the night, stands out supreme of all lordly wealth. 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. … For me the Muse tends her mightiest shaft of courage. Some men are great in one thing, others in another; but the peak of the farthest limit is for kings. Do not look beyond that! May it be yours to walk on high throughout your life, and mine to associate with victors as long as I live, distinguished for my skill among Greeks everywhere.