My Sixty Days in Greece: The Olympic Games, Old and New

"Religion hallowed athleticism; it hallowed the Olympic games. The games were part of the worship of the gods, victory was a token of their favor"

When it was reported that, after many years of hope deferred, I was at last to visit Greece, the local newspapers had it that the prime object of my trip was to witness the Olympic games at Athens. Now that the Olympic games at Athens have proved a brilliant success, nothing could seem more natural than that a professor of Greek and an editor of Pindar should speed across the water to behold the wonderful revival. But at the time those who believed most in the old Olympic games were not the most enthusiastic about the new. Private letters seemed to indicate that the celebration would be a failure, perhaps deserved to be a failure. The stadium was there, and that was a great point. It had been called into being again for the purpose, but no one who had not seen it could have imagined how it would stand out in its unique beauty among the great theatres of the modern world. There was to be running,—nothing more antique than running. There was to be leaping, throwing the discus, the long-distance race, and wrestling. But the latter part of the programme was very modern. Boxing was to be banished as too brutal, and the bicycle was to take the place of the four-horse chariot. The swimming-match was not Olympic. The fencing-match was too Roman. Your genuine Greek abhorred the sports of the amphitheatre. Lawn-tennis was really too airy a pastime for the Olympic games, and there was mention in one newspaper of croquet. Croquet is an estimable game, but hardly a sport to lure one across the Atlantic, though one would vault over the "salt, unplumb’d, estranging sea" to witness a match game of kottabos, say, between Theramenes and Kritias; nay, your true pedant would almost have himself ferried over the Styx for that. However, "croquet" was a misprint for "cricket."

Then the press began to teem with extemporized erudition about the old Olympic games. Krause's learned work was dusted and disemboweled, and the very emphasis repelled the classical scholar. Besides, the writers nearly all overlooked what seemed to be the religious significance of the games, and as a devout Hellenist, who belonged to the church of which Pindar was pastor, I was shocked at the flippancy with which the whole matter was handled; and being called on for a deliverance on the subject, I freed my mind by a discourse addressed to a small congregation of the faithful. I will not give my sermon in full. An outline will be a sufficient trial to the reader's patience.


We call this age an age of intelligent sympathy. We try to understand the past and to reproduce it in order to put our understanding of it to the test. No modern age has comprehended classical antiquity so well as has ours, and the close of the century has witnessed many reproductions of the antique. Every few months a Greek tragedy, every year or two a Greek comedy, is brought on the stage. The music of the Greeks has become vocal once more, and we can hear pæans sung as of old. Why should we not have a revival of the Olympic games? The site will not be the same, but there were elaborate Olympic games at Antioch as well as in Elis. Why not at Athens? No environment could be more noble, and Olympic games of some sort were performed there in antiquity. Nor must we insist pedantically on the season of the year. Think of Christmas in Australia. It is still Christmas. And as for the difference in the games, were there not changes enough in the old days? The mule-race came in and the mule-race went out. Why might not boxing share the same fate, in accordance with the spirit of the age? But there's the rub. Is there anything left of the old spirit, or can anything of the old spirit be evoked? Will the new Olympic games be anything more than athletic sports? What is there to make them differ from baseball contests and football contests, from polo and lacrosse? The antique spirit? But what was the antique spirit, and where shall we look for its truest expression? The answer comes unhesitatingly: In antique poetry.

A nation is to be judged by its poetry as well as by its prose, by its aspirations as well as by its performances, by the bread of angels which it craves as well as by the husks which swine do eat, and if we are to catch the spirit of the Olympic games we must go to the great interpreter of that spirit when it was at its height: we must go to Pindar. Not for the description of the games themselves. That was needless for his time. It is not needless for ours. And our time, equipped for sympathy as no other age has been in the long procession since the close of antique life, rejoices in a truer vision and has earned a truer vision, in the Greek fashion, by "toil and cost." Earlier efforts to picture the scene of the Olympic games leave us cold, no matter how skillfully the writers weave in the details from antiquarian and from scholiast, whereas now everything has become more vivid for all that has been revealed to us by the excavations at Olympia. Gardner's chapter on Olympia and Shorey's article on the Olympic games breathe the breath of life.

"Everything that has been brought to light at Olympia has brought with it new light for the scene, for the games. The Hermes of Praxiteles is henceforth for us the impersonation of the youthful athlete, whose physical prowess has not made him forget tenderness and reverence. The Nike of Paionios revives for us the resistless rush of victory. We mingle in the eager crowds, we feel the tremulous excitement; we too become passionate partisans and swell the volume of cheers." But in the presence of the brilliant scene and in the midst of the flush of the contest we must not forget what it all means. We must not forget the great altar that dominates Olympia. We must not forget that there were priests and prophets among the victors. The festival was sacred to the supreme god. The year was a sacred year; the poems that celebrated the victories were sacred poems. Pindar, the last prophet of the Doric creed, with its great exemplar Herakles, was a consecrated man. The athlete served God with his body; the victor in the chariot-race served God with his substance.

The life of the Olympian victor was a term of comparison, not for happiness merely, but for blessedness, which is more; and this blessedness had not lost its significance even in the time of Plato. There still abode that supernal element, which cannot be restored, which has departed with the mystic meaning of the olive leaf; for the two surfaces of the olive leaf symbolized to the reverent Greek the two worlds, the upper and the lower.

Athleticism has been made so prominent in the games that we need to be reminded that the victories celebrated by Pindar do not all involve physical prowess. A certain risk was run by those who drove the chariots; but these were not always the owners, and a good third of Pindar's odes tell of those who gained the victory by purse rather than by prowess. No wonder; for these high and mighty people who indulged in chariot-races were the very people who could afford to pay for so expensive an adornment of the triumph as one of Pindar's golden odes. "Expense and toil" are emphasized as well as "toil and expense." To be sure, it might not be well to compare a victory in the chariot-race with building a church or founding a divinity school; yet the consecration is there. When Demaratus, one of the most romantic of Greek characters, leaves Sparta forever to join the Persians, Herodotus watches his receding figure in sympathetic mood. Demaratus had done the state good service, and more especially, of all the Spartan kings he alone had won for the Lacedæmonians an Olympic victory with the four-horse chariot. In this whole class of Pindaric odes there is a marked recognition of the favor of God, and in one of them we have a vision of the world to come. How foreign is all this to us! What a contrast between the Dantesque vision of the ode in honor of Theron's victory and the record of the latest trotting-match! But after all, when we think of the Greek games, we think first of athleticism, and it is well. The first recorded victory was a victory in a foot-race, the most simple of all, the most Greek of all. And athletic victories were something to date by. So Thucydides dates by them,—Thucydides, who does not deal much in side-lights, who keeps to the inexorable march of events, the merciless chain of causation, the remorseless machinery of politics and war: " 'T was the Olympiad in which Dorieus was victor for the second time." He dates by Dorieus as he dates by the priestess of Hera at Argos, who had been fifty years in office when the war broke out, and who in the ninth year of the war was so unlucky as to set the temple on fire. Somehow these dates do not produce exactly the same effect as the fire at Chicago,—also due to an old woman,—and the fight between Corbett and Sullivan.

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