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Honoring The Games, And The Past, With Poetry

Ron Tanovitz

In the days of the ancient Greeks, poetry and sport went hand in hand at athletic festivals like the Olympics. Poets sang the praises of athletic champions and, at some festivals, even competed in official events, reciting or playing the lyre. Here at NPR, we're reviving that tradition with our own Poetry Games.

From the far reaches of the globe, we've invited poets to compose original works celebrating athletes and athletics. Each morning next week, we'll introduce a new poem on Morning Edition, and then you, the audience, will judge who should win the victor's laurel crown.

To learn more about this ancient tradition linking the poetic and the athletic, we talked with Tony Perrottet, author of The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games. "The ancient Greeks very much sought perfection in the body and the intellect," Perrottet tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "They saw it totally connected."

The ancient Greeks very much sought perfection in the body and the intellect — they saw it totally connected.

"At the Olympic Games," Perrottet continues, "the athletes ... would hire the greatest poets of the day to write victory odes. At the same time, all the poets of the Greek world would descend on the Olympic Games, and they would set up stalls or stand on soap boxes and just orate their new work, knowing that the finest minds in the Greek world were in one spot."

But the Olympic audience was a tough crowd — Perrottet cites one famous incident in 384 B.C. when tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse brought actors to the games to recite his poetry, and it didn't go over well: "The enraged crowd actually went and beat him up and trashed his tent," Perrottet says.

Fast-forward to the late 19th century, when Baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the games in 1896. "He was a great fan of the ancient Greeks, obviously, and he ... saw that perfection in mind and body went hand in hand," Perrottet says.

At the Stockholm Games in 1912, Coubertin got music, painting architecture and poetry — both lyric and epic — included on the Olympic roster. Coubertin even anonymously entered his own poem called "Ode to Sport" which won the gold medal that year:

"O Sport, you are Beauty! ... O Sport, you are Justice! ... O Sport, you are Happiness! The body trembles in bliss upon hearing your call ... "

"It's very inspiring stuff. ... You can imagine the athletes on the edges of their seats," Perrottet laughs.

As poetry began coming in from around the globe, translation became an issue — and quality did, too. "That was the death knell for Olympic poetry," Perrottet says. "The officials started sending letters among themselves, and they speculated that perhaps, in the words of one official, 'There are not enough artists who have connection with the world of sport.' "

The poetry portion of the games was dropped after the 1948 London Games.

Poets have long grappled with the ephemeral nature of worldly glory. The Greeks' idea was to try to "win fame in this life and thus gain a level of immortality," Perrottet says. Most of the poems that were read at the Games — both in the days of the Greeks and in the 20th century — have since been lost. So Perrottet suggests NPR kick off the Poetry Games with a quote from Homer's Illiad:

"I too shall lie in the dust when I am dead," Achilles says. "But now let me win noble renown."

Poetry Games theme music composed by Colin Wambsgans and performed by Matthew Barbier.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff