Back When Jocks Loved Poetry
There was a time when sports and literature weren’t diametrically opposed. About twenty-five hundred years ago.
This divide is probably more of the fault of the literary world than it is of the sports world—but the sports world should nonetheless share a little bit of the blame.
The literary world has become more and more specialized and pretentious, and poetry in particular has somehow ceased to be a part of shared human expression (except through popular music, of course). It has cordoned itself off into academic departments and networks of like-minded careerists.
The sports world, on the other hand, is the complete opposite. Through its shameless self-promotion, its ridiculous pay-outs, its domination of the news and small talk, it is blatantly populist and aims directly at the lowest common denominator.
And there is the matter of masculinity. Jocks suspect poets—and all artists, for that matter—of being unmanly. Poets suspect jocks of being dumb. Sadly, they’re both right.
But let’s go back to a time when jocks loved poetry, and poets loved jocks—all the way back to ancient Greece. There was a time when a poet like Pindar (who lived in the generation just before Socrates), could say something like this:
Who a nobler Theme can choose
Than Olympia’s sacred Games?
What more apt to fire the Muse
When her various Songs she frames?
Sports as the most fitting subject for poetry? Contemporaries poets doubtless don’t agree. But you can see Pindar’s point—what could be more poetic than the beauty of the human form, the striving after excellence, the application of the will, the joy of victory, the bitterness of defeat?
Pindar is most remembered for his “victory odes”—poems written in honor of the winners of athletic contests. He wrote other kinds of verse, too, but only his victory odes have managed to wriggle from the grasp of all-devouring Time—and a good many of his surviving odes were written in praise of winners of the original Olympic Games.
Like our modern Games, the original Olympic Games were celebrated every four years. Like all ancient Greek events, they were done in honor of the gods—chiefly the chief of the gods, Zeus.
The first Olympics were held sometime in the eighth century before Jesus. They consisted only of foot races, but later on wrestling and boxing and discus throwing and chariot races were added on.
The competitors had to be male and free-born, and they had to speak Greek. The athletes were nude, and they were doused in olive oil—kind of like our modern-day ritual with Gatorade.
But unlike Gatorade, the athletes were doused in olive oil before the competition, and the excess oil was scraped off using a J-shaped tool called a strigil. This was done for reasons of cleanliness, but it was also done for the same reason that bodybuilders grease up for weightlifting competitions: to highlight their physiques.
The winners of the ancient Olympic competitions received an olive branch and a large supply of olive oil, and many of them received cash awards from their hometowns.
With their winnings, the victors often hired people like Pindar to pen poems to memorialize their victories—which very few sports stars do these days. For example, in Ode XII, Pindar praises Ergoteles, the winner of a foot race:
With Olive now, with Pythian Laurels grac’d,
And the dark Chaplets of the Isthmian Pine,
In Himera’s adopted City plac’d,
To all, Ergoteles, thy Honours shine,
And raise her Lustre by Imparting Thine.
Pindar’s Olympic Odes pay tribute to the victor, of course—but they also pay respect to the victor’s city and family, and the mythology connected thereto. In Ode VII, he speaks of the birthplace of Diagoras, a champion boxer:
In this fam’d Isle, the radiant Sire of Light,
The God whose Reins the fiery Steeds obey,
Fair Rhodos saw, and, kindling at the Sight,
Seiz’d, and by Force enjoy’d the beauteous Prey.
This refers to Helios, the god of the sun, who ravished a sea nymph and took her as his wife. Her name was Rhodos, and the island of Rhodes takes its name from her.
But the Greeks were wary of reveling too deeply in victory or success. Either because of superstition (the same type of superstition that informs our use of the phrase “break a leg” when we wish someone good luck) or because of a clear-eyed view of the ups and downs of life, or most likely both, the ancient Greeks were always quick to include a word of warning in their various gloryings in human achievement. The same ode as above ends in this way:
Yet as the Gales of Fortune various blow,
Today tempestuous, and Tomorrow fair,
Due Bounds, ye Rhodians, let your Transports know;
Perhaps Tomorrow comes a Storm of Care.
Thus these poems are not only a celebration of sport, but also a celebration of art, culture, history, religion—and philosophy. Socrates didn’t hang out at the university, he hung out at the gymnasium.