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"
I.

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.

II.

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.

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