Nine days into the Olympic Games of summer 2012, we’ve all been reminded that this event is not, in fact, a simple series of sports competitions. It’s an international, hallucinatory carnival of dancing horses, Coca-Cola, terrifyingly strong teenagers, Paul McCartney singalongs, badminton scandals, rude commentators, bodies doing the nearly impossible—and, of course, poetry.
Poetry? Yes, from every quarter. A quotation from Tennyson’s “Ulysses” has been carved into a wall at the Olympic Village. Canadian writer Priscila Uppal is in London as an Olympic “poet in residence,” posting new poems daily about the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Earlier this summer, a weeklong festival called the Poetry Parnassus brought hundreds of poets to London, one from each of the competing Olympic nations. Of course, there is a long association between poetry and the Olympics: At the ancient Greek Games, poets such as Pindar wrote famous odes in honor of the winners.
In recent history, however, the relationship went still deeper: For some decades, literature was actually an Olympic medal event. Today, the strange story of the event’s debut 100 years ago—and the florid, slightly unsettling poem that won—have been almost forgotten. But together, they offer a fascinating glimpse of the spirit of the Olympics at the time.
In 1906, the International Olympic Committee began discussing a proposal from the French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the man credited with launching the modern Olympics in 1896, to include arts competitions in the Games. Eventually, the committee announced that the 1912 games in Stockholm would include not just sports but also five unprecedented events: competitions in architecture, music composition, painting, sculpture, and literature. The rules called for entries to be unpublished or unexhibited works, “directly inspired by the idea of sport.”
From the start, the arts events did not exactly rival the world-class swimmers or sprinters for public appeal. Most prominent artists ignored the contests, the judges struggled to choose among works of myriad styles and languages, and after 1948, as Richard Stanton recounts in his book “The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions,” the decision was made to abandon the medal events in the arts.
The gold medal winner in literature at that first 1912 competition, however, was one very special poem. Presented in full in both French and German versions, attributed to the duo of Georges Hohrod and Martin Eschbach, it was called “Ode to Sport”—a rhapsodic, nine-verse prose poem praising athletics as a model of “Joy,” “Audacity,” “Justice,” and other virtues. The judges went wild. As they wrote in their published review of the poem, “It is of the exact type that we sought for the competitions....It praises sport in a form that to the ear is very literary and very sporting.” So taken were the judges with this Olympic gold poem that they refused to award either the silver or the bronze.
Weeks later, however, according to Stanton, the judges were still trying to get a solid address where they could send Hohrod and Eschbach’s medal and certificate. Only sometime after that did the truth emerge: There was no Hohrod or Eschbach, and the perfect fit of the poem with the initial impulse behind the arts events was no accident. Worried that there wouldn’t be enough entries in his beloved arts competitions, the baron had written the poem himself.
To look at the poem today (helpfully translated into English by the IOC), it’s no surprise that it survives not in the Norton Anthology of Poetry but in a back issue of the Olympic Review, the IOC’s house publication. But as the excerpts below show, it does say a lot about what was considered excellent sports-themed verse at the time—and about what de Coubertin saw in the global Games that, with so much effort, he had managed to revive.
The winner, excerpted
With a classical invocation,
de Coubertin nods to the Games’
O Sport, pleasure of the Gods, essence of life, you appeared suddenly in the midst of the grey clearing which writhes with the drudgery of modern existence, like the radiant messenger of a past age, when mankind still smiled. And the glimmer of dawn lit up the mountain tops and flecks of light dotted the ground in the gloomy forests.
He takes a stand against doping.
O Sport, you are Honour! The laurels you bestow have no value unless they have been won in absolute fairness and with perfect impartiality. He who, with some shameful trick, manages to deceive his fellow competitors feels guilt to his very core and lives in fear of the ignominious epithet which shall forever be attached to his name should his trickery be discovered.
He shows a troubling enthusiasm for eugenics.
O Sport, you are Fecundity! You strive directly and nobly towards perfection of the race, destroying unhealthy seed and correcting the flaws which threaten its essential purity. And you fill the athlete with a desire to see his sons grow up agile and strong around him to take his place in the arena and, in their turn, carry off the most glorious trophies.
In the end, he embraces an Olympic ideal we’d all recognize today.
O Sport, you are Peace! You promote happy relations between peoples, bringing them together in their shared devotion to a strength which is controlled, organized and self-disciplined. From you, the young worldwide learn self-respect, and thus the diversity of national qualities becomes the source of a generous and friendly rivalry.
Amanda Katz is the deputy editor of Ideas. Follow her on Twitter @katzish.