Hoplitodromos from an Attic black-figure Panathenaic amphora, 323–322 BC (photograph Marie-Lan Nguyen)
Fast-forward to August of 2020 and all eyes will be on Tokyo, as the Games of the 32nd Olympiad kick off with fireworks and fanfare. But among the 33 different sports contested and the 339 medal events, you’re unlikely to see sculptors displaying their works. Still less poets penning victory odes.
The modern Games have come a long way since Pierre de Coubertin, a French aristocrat and polymath, lobbied for their inauguration in 1896. Coubertin’s vision was a bold one, steeped in the ancient tradition that he proposed as their model – where competition, ‘not the triumph but the struggle to overcome one’s opponent’, found its bearings in Greek philosophy. This was a credo that championed mind and body in impressive synchronicity – artistic feat and athletic achievement as two sides of the same medal.
Watching the men’s 10,000-meter final or the Olympic marathon, you’d be forgiven for wondering where art figures in modern athletic competition. Our Games often look to be about sport alone – in its commercially-packaged, TV-ready format – and little else. But in the lithe and lean running forms of the best, in the rhythmic trance of the top distance runners’ swift-footed and inexorable motion, you can still see, if you choose to look, the live inspiration behind ancient sculpture. That moment when power and aggression are made vulnerable to beauty.
The poets of ancient Greece saw it, and captured it – and none more than Pindar. Most of his surviving works are the so-called victory odes: the epinikion – epi meaning ‘upon’; nike meaning ‘victory’ – that celebrate the triumphs of ancient athletes in the Panhellenic festivals, of which the Olympics were just one. In these poems, written circa 5th century BC, the prestige of victory is one thing. But its wider meaning and significance are another:
If ever a man strives with all the soul’s endeavour, sparing no labour to achieve excellence, we must give praise to those who attain the goal, a proud tribute that shuns all thoughts of petty jealousy. We must speak kind words of the endless toils that build a monument to beauty. (Pindar, ‘Isthmian 1’)
Pindar’s poem is a call for us to sing and to celebrate real athletic achievement. He asks us to dismiss our envy and lazy scorn, in recognition of the near-superhuman feat, and the years of dedicated graft that go into it. Perhaps it sounds a bit fulsome to cynical modern ears. But in an age when distance running is often geared towards mass participation, and the indiscriminate success of ‘everyone gets a medal’, the victory odes of these wordsmiths remind us what the best athletes – professional and amateur alike – and their achievements – professional and amateur alike – might mean to the rest of us. Mind and body in perfect union. A step closer to the divine, to the gods and goddesses. Or, through secular eyes, a stride beyond what we thought were our human limits:
Who, then, was given the wreath of victory for his speed of foot, putting before his eyes the games’ glory, achieving thought in action?
In the furlong race, keeping the strain of his running in an even course, Likymnios’ son, the thunder of horses. (Pindar, ‘Olympia 10’)
Let’s jump in time and place again, to 1850, and to a small town in Shropshire, England. Much Wenlock is a quaint enough place to visit today: all early-Gothic-style architecture and well-kept streets of half-timbered buildings, with a 16th-century guildhall and annual well dressing – the decorating of a freshwater well with flower petals. It seems an unlikely setting for athletic greatness, still less for the birthplace of the modern Olympics. But if you find yourself in this picturesque part of the English countryside any time soon, specifically the bunting- and-public-house lined high street of this little town, you’ll spot one of a series of bronze markers set in the ground, marking out the Wenlock Olympian Trail. This is the true heritage of the Olympics as we know them, a quiet but lasting record of the Games that came to inspire the modern movement, and the well-connected de Coubertin: The Wenlock Olympian Games, as realised by Dr William Penny Brookes.
It’s fair to say Brookes was a Victorian of accomplishment – surgeon, physician, magistrate, entrepreneur. He was also a philanthropist, and more than a bit keen on self-improvement. Having spent years as a Justice of the Peace, you’d have to guess he saw plenty of the kind of petty crime that brings the same folk in front of the courts time and again. His active solution was to offer classes and lectures – in art, music and botany – and to set up a kind of lending library, all of which were, at his call, for ‘every grade of man’. Make no mistake: this was a project sprung from the aim of keeping noses clean. But from humble beginnings ‘The Olympian Class’ was duly born, and in turn, the inaugural Wenlock Olympian Games. It was to be, Brookes announced, ‘for the promotion of the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock and especially of the working classes, by the encouragement of outdoor recreation, and by the award of prizes annually at public meetings for skill in athletic exercise and proficiency in intellectual and industrial attainments’.
Lofty ambitions. But even on the evidence of these, it’s easy to dismiss the Wenlock Olympian Games. An English curiosity, of the sort that probably involved events like cheese-rolling and shin-kicking, and with plenty of competitors still to be found necking ale in the pub before sundown. Take a look in the town’s unassuming museum though, and a sharper picture emerges. Photographs of well-built and resplendent competitors taking part in a wide variety of serious athletic events like hurdles, shotput and the hammer – and ‘foot races’, incorporating a variety of distances. The medals for the victors in these 19th century Games were worn with the same justified pride of the ancient Greeks, and pay due homage in incorporating the feathers of the winged goddess of victory. True to that ancient spirit of ‘healthy minds in healthy bodies’, there too among the athletic events are artistic competitions. Olympian events for singing, artistry, and writing.
Somewhere along the way, the modern Olympics have lost sight of this. The opening and closing ceremonies afford the performance arts a look in, but they can only look on as sport takes the podium. The Wenlock Olympian Society, though, have different ideas. That ideal of mind and body in powerful unity, the one that Pindar champions in his victory odes, is the torch that Brookes picked up and ran with, and that has been carried ever since.
This year, the 133rd Wenlock Olympian Games saw competitors travel from across the country, even the world. As Chris Cannon, archivist of the WOS says: ‘It was Brookes who ignited the Olympic flame that burns brightly today. This is the spiritual home of the Olympics. It’s as simple as that’. Athletes compete in a huge array of events that it seems impossible for one small English countryside town to organise – but it does. The Games incorporate everything from archery to volleyball, badminton to triathlon, and more running events than you can shake a liquorice stick (from the town’s confectioners) at: a seven mile road race, a half marathon, and a host of track staples including the 100, 200 and 800 meters. But among the bronzes, silvers and golds are those for live arts events – including singing, dancing and verse. A separate poetry festival takes place in the town each year, attracting top writers to perform, and boasting an impressive roll call. It’s surely only a matter of time before it and the Games combine forces. Like the Games, historic lines from the English poet A E Housman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’ ring with the sporting and artistic character of the region, singing tribute to an anonymous young athlete struck down in his prime:
The time you won your town the race We chaired you through the market-place; Man and boy stood cheering by, And home we brought you shoulder-high.
Today, the road all runners come, Shoulder-high we bring you home, And set you at your threshold down, Townsman of a stiller town. (A E Housman, from ‘A Shropshire Lad’)
It would be something to see more in the way of sport and art combined, of mind and body celebrated for their respective feats – but also in their complex, graceful harmony. Pindar’s example from the ancient Games paved the road, and the Wenlock Olympian Games carries the torch in its modest, quintessentially English way, truer than the modern Games to those classical ideals. But poetry and competitive running have much more in common than first meets the eye. Both are fundamentally solitary pursuits. With running it’s you versus the path ahead, you versus your fellow competitors. In poetry it’s you versus the blank page, you versus the many ways in which words and language might fail. But it’s also, in both disciplines, you pitted squarely against yourself, your angels and demons, your hopes and fears and dreams. The possibility and potential of individual glory or failure hangs in the air, looming around both endeavours. Writing a poem, you’re trying to reach beyond the borders of speech, the limits of words and their meaning, and the best poets somehow manage it, putting into words what can’t be put into words – until it is. Running a race, you’re trying to stretch beyond the limits of the self, your capabilities, and the best athletes, the victors at amateur and professional level alike, seem to outrun the constraints of the human mind and body – they almost transcend the physical as a great poem almost transcends the language. The margins for success are slim, the chances of failure are high. With that in mind, the unlikely communities that poetry fosters are much like those among runners, and spring up for the same reasons. Solidarity, mutual recognition of determination and effort, achievement in the face of the odds. No wonder we need clubs.
In my poem ‘Graft’, the opening line is just a bit of reported speech. Something I heard said a few years ago, by someone who’d never run competitively before, and who figured – or maybe just hoped – that athletes must stick with the sport because it gets easier over time. The truth, of course, as any dedicated runner knows, is that it never gets any easier. Just faster. From there, the poem picks up the idea and runs with it. Where do our assumptions about success come from? Our dismissals of achievement? Why bother with anything that comes easily? What is it to run, to compete, and why do we exhaust ourselves and define ourselves by this pursuit?
The answers, you’d have to suspect, are close to those original Olympic ideals, in the poetry of Pindar and the torch that keeps flickering today. A level playing field. Years of training and commitment. True recognition, free from cynicism, for honest hard work. The moment the winning athlete crosses the line – power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty – and what it means for the rest of us, competitors and spectators alike. Running as a shifting definition of what it is to be human, as poetry in motion. Whatever it takes.
It must get easier over time though he smiles, guessing drills in the blistering cold, running full tilt
can’t be as hard as it sounds, mile after mile climbing the old hill of weakness versus the will
else how do you do it? Again, the sorry hope that it might come simply shows its idle head,
or worse, attempts to dismiss its own failure as the luck, chance or dumb skill of the best.
We’re all guilty of it. No wonder in a world where wealth is laid for some on a gilded plate.
But anything worthwhile is pure heart and courage. I’m not talking the rich and their inheritance.
Fuck that shit. Graft hard, and hold true to this – no-one got anywhere fast without striving for it.
The Result Is What You See Today: Poems About Running, edited by Ben Wilkinson, Kim Moore and Paul Deaton, was recently published by smith|doorstop and is available to buy here. ‘All the Soul’s Endeavour’ was originally published in Meter Magazine. ‘Graft’ appears in Way More Than Luck (Seren, 2018).