Nearly everyone’s got Olympic fever—except me. Once in awhile I turn it on and, if my timing’s good, I catch a swimming event, or get blown away by gymnastics. Sometimes I’m inspired by an athlete’s story. No matter how much I might enjoy what I see, though, I never really have a compulsion to keep tabs on the schedule, or check it for a particular event. And when I do happen to tune in, sooner or later I grow weary of the national jingoism.
More interesting to me are the side stories, the lesser known background info surrounding the Olympics. I just learned of a whole new dimension to them: poetry competitions were once a substantial, integrated part of the games. “The relationship between poetry and the Olympics,” says The New York Times “goes back to the very origins of the Games. In ancient Greece, literary events were an indispensable part of athletic festivals, where fully clothed writers could be as popular with the crowd as the buff athletes who strutted about in the nude, gleaming with olive oil.” More recently, the 1924 Paris Olympics gold ring for literature went to Géo-Charles, a nom de plume of Charles Louis Prosper Guyot, for “Jeux Olympiques,” an evocation of the hammer-throwing and foot races:
The runners bend, tense flowers. . .
A shot: A violent word!
Necks extended, forward
faces like pale snatched
teeth and jaws rushing into
As heartening as it is to learn of poetry’s lost heritage, that it is lost shows a lack of respect not seen towards athletes. Most of the competing poems and their creators have mysteriously vanished; sports historians are still trying to track down poems only known by their titles.
The good news is, poetry’s making a comeback this time around. In the above referenced article,
Tony Perrottet wrote:
” International poets have converged on London to orate in 50 languages…with 100,000 copies of their collected work to be dropped by helicopter on the venue by the Thames… “The Written World” will feature a poem from each of the 204 competing Olympic countries read live and broadcast daily by the BBC. And verse has been engraved on plaques of stone, metal and wood emblazoned at strategic points throughout the Olympic Park…”
Naturally, I’m delighted. Among other things, I’m tickled to find myself so in sync with the gestalt, having posted several blogs here on Dirty Laundry that draw parallels between the lives of athletes and writers:
Baseball and literature share many commonalities. First of all, baseball is the sport that’s most written about in all of American literature. Several baseball players have tried their hand at writing, just as writers try playing ball; it’s not for me to say which group does better! Professional baseball inspires writers, evidenced by the many books and movies glorifying and celebrating players as world class heroes.
We also share the struggle it takes to move up enough to earn a living in our chosen fields (pun not intended!). The starving writer is legendary, but most people don’t even know about the starving athlete, what with so many of them making tons of money. What people don’t realize is that high paid players are in the minority: not everyone who enters the minor leagues makes it to the majors, and even if they get there, they don’t necessarily get paid like A-Rod or Verlander. Once upon a time, baseball players had it so bad they had to hold down other jobs both in and out of season.
It goes without saying that Olympian competitors have it even harder than professional ball players. Many of these kids depend on family and home town supporters to scrape together the money to fund their airfare. Of course, it’s worth everything for the exhilaration of playing, or of reading one’s poetry, in front of a world audience.
In honor of poetry’s return to the Olympics, National Public Radio has woven the theme into their own games-and-contests format, with Morning Edition inviting submissions of poems celebrating the Games. Here the everyday listener can play Judge and vote for the winner. If that’s too much work, just go and enjoy the poems. Here’s a sample:
by Ouyang Yu
I have been dreaming
writing into a sport
in the Olympic Games
that is called, tentatively
in which I’d give
my simplest performance
the lightest and the liveliest
till it flies
lifting me, weightless
into a sky
- Essay: Poetry’s Relationship With the Olympics (nytimes.com)
- Boris Johnson to recite new poem for the Olympics in ancient Greek (guardian.co.uk)
- Honoring The Games, And The Past, With Poetry (npr.org)