Closer Readings Commentary

The Olympics

“Holding an Olympic Games means evoking history.”

—Baron Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympics.

As the world turns its eyes this July to London, England, the site of the 2012 Summer Olympics, it will be fun to take the longer view by examining the historical and philosophical significance of the Games in Ancient Greece. In doing so, we should ask: What was it like to compete in or attend the ancient Olympics?

This EDSITEment feature transports us back to Classical civilization and the flourishing of small city-states in order to examine the values and cultural assumptions about human excellence and competition that dominated this distant but familiar culture. Poetry has always played a central role in the Olympic Games. Return to the present to see how, in 2012, the chosen host city for the Summer Olympics, London, is shining a special light on this connection. Also learn about London’s distinguished relationship with the Olympics.

The Ancient Olympics

A bronze statue of a discus thrower
Photo caption

A bronze statue of a discus thrower.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The recurrence of the Olympic Games every four years reminds us that the kinds of events that a society honors tell us a great deal about the values and assumptions of that particular society. The Ancient Olympics Special Exhibit, available from EDSITEment-reviewed and NEH-supported Perseus Digital Library Project, allows students to compare ancient and modern Olympic sports, tour Olympia as it looks today, explore the context of the Games and the Olympic spirit, and read Olympic athletes' stories.

We must be careful, however, to remember that the ancient Olympics were different than the modern Games in many ways. The athletes were part of a major religious festival honoring Zeus, the chief Greek god. There were fewer events, only free men who spoke Greek could compete, and ancient athletes competed as individuals, not on national teams, as in the modern Games. Like our Olympics, though, winning athletes were heroes who put their home towns on the map.

In Live from Ancient Olympia!, students write and perform a TV news style “live interview” with ancient Olympic heroes. These interviews will clarify students’ understanding of the attitudes and ideals underpinning the significance of the Olympics in ancient Greek culture. Their ability to achieve legendary status through public competition was related to the Greek ideal of excellence, called arête.

Aristocratic men who attained this ideal of arête, through their outstanding words or deeds, won permanent glory and fame. Those who failed to measure up to this code feared public shame and disgrace. As is still true, not all ancient Olympic athletes lived up to this code of excellence. Through the concept of aretê, the ancient Greeks created a competitive athletic culture in which winning was valued not for its own sake but for the moral virtues that contribute to victory. The Victor's Virtue: A Cultural History of Sport explores the twofold meaning of aretê focusing on the ways in which the concept bridges the gap between philosophy and sport.

For further discussion of the question: Do the modern Olympics represent true continuity with an ancient tradition, or a mostly new phenomenon with an ancient name? See the EDSITEment feature: When the Games Were Held at Olympia.

Poetry at the Olympics

In addition to athletics, the busy schedule of the early Olympics included religious ceremonies, speeches by well-known philosophers, parades, even poetry recitals. In fact, poetry with its deep connection to religion and the gods was considered a major component to the ancient Games.

When we think about the Olympics, we don’t often pause to consider the role that poetry played, and continues to play, in the Olympic ceremonies. In ancient times, Olympic poetry was performed for spectators; it offered audience members another lens through which to view the art of competition and new words through which to capture and describe arête. In modern times, a highly acclaimed poet is selected to write and recite a poem that captures the spirit of the Games before a large audience of spectators. In the EDSITEment lesson The Olympic Medal: It's All Greek to Us! students will see that the Athens 2004 Olympic medal uses an inscription from a victory ode by the ancient poet, Pindar. This elementary "text" will also help students practice reading ancient Greek and reinforce the link between ancient Greek culture and the modern Olympic Games.

The poet chosen for the 2012 Summer Olympics is Carol Ann Duffy, Britain’s Poet Laureate. Duffy’s poem “Eton Manor” is a tribute to the Eaton Manor Sports Club, an elite sporting association that formed in the early 20th century. The pride, ambition, and camaraderie of early members reflect the code of excellence that guides Olympic athletes, both ancient and modern. It is expected that she will compose an original poem for this occasion. Students can find biographical and contextual information on Carol Ann Duffy from EDSITEment-reviewed Poetry Foundation and read her poem “History” from the entry at EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets.

In fact, London has positioned poetry front and center in the 2012 Games. The verse of an earlier British Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson has also been highlighted. His final line from "Ulysses" celebrates the human need "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” This memorable phrase from Tennyson’s much beloved poem was chosen by a nation-wide contest and has now been etched on the six-meter wall in the heart of the newly constructed Olympic Village! It is part of the BBC-featured Winning Words initiative, which seeks to incorporate poetry into the London Olympics and Paralympic Games and after they conclude “to carpet the nation in poetry!” Students can explore more vivid images conjured by this poet in Poems of Tennyson and Noyes: Pictures in Words.

London as Site of Olympics, Past and Present

Two thousand and twelve marks the third time the modern Games have been held in London since the Olympics were revived in 1896. London first played host in 1908, before the upheaval of the “Great War,” and hosted for them the second time in 1948, after the devastation of the Second World War.

The 1908 London Olympics were the third to be hosted outside of Athens. They were originally scheduled to take place in Rome, but with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on April 7, 1906, the Italian Government was forced to redirect funds away from the Olympics. London came to the rescue and provided the venue.

Though smaller in stature than previous modern Games, the 1908 Games hosted 22 nations competing in 110 events. As one of the first venues of the modern Olympics, London in 1908 helped set standards, including organizing the Games around an opening ceremony and national teams and establishing the exact length of the Marathon (which is still 26.2 miles, based on the distance between Windsor Castle and White City Stadium).

The Summer Olympics of 1944 were to be held in London, having been awarded to that site in 1939. However, they were canceled due to the war and that year a small celebration was held in Lausanne, the Olympic headquarters, instead. The Games were not restored until 1948. London was selected to host them, as many other cities were still recovering from the ravages of war. By that time, a total of 59 nations were participating. Germany and Japan were excluded for security reasons.

Some important features of the Games originated in this second London Olympics known as "The Austerity Games." In 1948 for the first time, starting blocks and photo-finishes were used. It was also the first time the Games were broadcast to home television viewers. One of the first female athletic stars, Fanny Blankers-Koen, "The Flying Housewife," brought the Netherlands four gold medals in track. She downplayed her achievement by saying, "All I've done is run fast. I don't see why people should make much fuss about that."

NEH-funded Chronicling America contains additional historical context for students with newspaper articles, primary source images, and accounts of the Olympic experiences ranging from the Olympics’ 1896 revival in Athens through the 1920 Games in Antwerp. For more on past Games, students may also peruse the NEH-funded 1968 Exhibit references to the Summer 1968 Olympics, which reflected some of the controversy inherent in the times, including the now infamous image of the Black Power Salute at the podium.

Student may access official information on past Games from the Olympic Record Timeline in The National Archives of the United Kingdom along with a picture of their current sporting and cultural activities.  Students may find more on the 2012 Games from the London 2012 Olympics and The International Olympic Committee: London 2012 Summer Olympics and BBC Online London 2012.

Finally, as this year’s Olympics coincide with the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, students may want to learn more about her and other British monarchs. The Art of Monarchy Web feature from the BBC News Service illuminates the long and fascinating history of the British Crown through the art that the monarchs have acquired over the centuries.


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Third: Argentinian runner Delfo Cabrera finishes the marathon at the 1948 Olympics. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.