Poetry at the Olympic Games

Amanda Katz reminisces on the early Olympic games, which featured competitions in music, painting, and poetry:

Nine days into the Olympic Games of summer 2012, we’ve all been reminded that this event is not, in fact, a simple series of sports competitions. It’s an international, hallucinatory carnival of dancing horses, Coca-Cola, terrifyingly strong teenagers, Paul McCartney singalongs, badminton scandals, rude commentators, bodies doing the nearly impossible—and, of course, poetry.

Poetry? Yes, from every quarter. A quotation from Tennyson’s “Ulysses” has been carved into a wall at the Olympic Village. Canadian writer Priscila Uppal is in London as an Olympic “poet in residence,” posting new poems daily about the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Earlier this summer, a weeklong festival called the Poetry Parnassus brought hundreds of poets to London, one from each of the competing Olympic nations. Of course, there is a long association between poetry and the Olympics: At the ancient Greek Games, poets such as Pindar wrote famous odes in honor of the winners.

In recent history, however, the relationship went still deeper: For some decades, literature was actually an Olympic medal event. Today, the strange story of the event’s debut 100 years ago—and the florid, slightly unsettling poem that won—have been almost forgotten. But together, they offer a fascinating glimpse of the spirit of the Olympics at the time.

In 1906, the International Olympic Committee began discussing a proposal from the French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the man credited with launching the modern Olympics in 1896, to include arts competitions in the Games. Eventually, the committee announced that the 1912 games in Stockholm would include not just sports but also five unprecedented events: competitions in architecture, music composition, painting, sculpture, and literature. The rules called for entries to be unpublished or unexhibited works, “directly inspired by the idea of sport.”

Here is the winning poem titled “Ode to Sport” that won the gold medal at the 1912 Olympics:

O Sport, pleasure of the Gods,
essence of life, you appeared suddenly
in the midst of the grey clearing
which writhes with the drudgery of
modern existence, like the radiant
messenger of a past age, when
mankind still smiled. And the glimmer
of dawn lit up the mountain tops and
flecks of light dotted the ground in the
gloomy forests.

II.
O Sport, you are Beauty! You are the
architect of that edifice which is the
human body and which can become
abject or sublime according to whether
it is defiled by vile passions or improved
through healthy exertion. There can be
no beauty without balance and proportion,
and you are the peerless master
of both, for you create harmony, you
give movements rhythm, you make
strength graceful and you endow suppleness
with power.

III.
O Sport, you are Justice! The perfect
equity for which men strive in vain in
their social institutions is your constant
companion. No one can jump a
centimetre higher than the height he
can jump, nor run a minute longer
than the length he can run. The limits
of his success are determined solely
by his own physical and moral
strength.

The New York Times also had a recent piece on poetry at the Olympic Games:

For much of the 20th century, poetry was an official, medal-winning competition in the Games. The French visionary who revived the Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, always insisted Greek-style arts contests should be allowed alongside athletics. His dream was realized in 1912 at Stockholm, where literature, together with music, painting, sculpture and even architecture, became Olympic events in the so-called Pentathlon of the Muses, in which all submissions had to be “directly inspired by the idea of sport.” In seven Olympiads, writers — almost always poets — were awarded gold, silver and bronze medals alongside sprinters, weight lifters and wrestlers. The general literature category was then expanded in 1928, 1936 and 1948 to include specific contests for epic and lyric poetry.

Very interesting!

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