“But if, my soul, with fond desire
To sing of games thou dost aspire,
As thou by day can’st not descry,
Through all the liquid waste of sky,
One burnish’d star, that like the sun does glow,
And cherish every thing below,
So, my sweet soul, no toil divine,
In song, does like the Olympian shine.”
~ Ambrose Philips’ translation of Pindar’s First Olympian Ode
While our modern American society has cleaved arts and athletics into two opposing forces, contriving incongruous labels like “jock” and “theater kid” and sending High School Musical’s Troy Bolton and Glee’s Finn Hudson into hormone-fueled identity crises, the world was not always this way. In fact, for much of human history, art and athletics have been viewed as interdependent and inextricably linked.
For an example, one need only look, as is often the case, to the Greeks. Founders of the Olympic Games, the Greeks viewed athletics as a necessarily aesthetic endeavor, strength and beauty held in constant balance. This balance is on display in the Greek sculpture Discobolus of Myron and featured in the epic odes of Pindar. Nowadays, these careful ruminations on athletes and their craft seem to have been replaced by people shouting about sports from every TV screen at the gym and by whatever this is. The Greeks would be appalled.
The relationship between art and athletics is not only a classical concept, though. In fact, from 1912 to 1948, the modern Olympics included a “Pentathlon of the Muses” in which artists competed in the categories of architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture, with the requirement that their works be directly inspired by sport. (How else do you think we got the St. Louis Croquet Wicket, the song “We Will Rock You,” or the statue Christ the Diver About to Do a Reverse Three and a Half Somersaults with a Half Twist?!)
Unfortunately, William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein did not zip up their tracksuits and sharpen their best tiny ink-javelins (pens, to the non-competitive poet) to attend, and the poetry at the Olympics Games became, well, terrible. In fact, many of the winning poems and poets have been lost or their records conveniently forgotten.
Recently, however, there has been renewed interest in the role of poetry in sport, particularly during the London Olympics of 2012 where a “Cultural Olympiad” sought to include artists from every Olympic nation. In fact, before that same Olympic Games, London mayor Boris Johnson recited an Olympic ode that he commissioned at the Opening Gala for the International Olympic Committee.
The Olympic ode was popularized by the aforementioned Pindar, who in turn was commissioned by a man named Hieron I to immortalize in verse the victory of his racehorse, Pherenikos, and its jockey. (I’m still waiting for that ode to Rafalca, Mary Oliver!) This first Olympian Ode of Pindar is still considered one of the best in history for its glorious depiction of strength and beauty married and immortalized in victory.
Last week, I had the privilege of competing in the tenth quadrennial Gay Games in Paris, France. The Gay Games were founded by Olympic decathlete Dr. Tom Waddell in San Francisco in 1982 to gather gay athletes from around the world and prove that “queer” and “athlete” are not incongruous labels.
In 2014, the Gay Games in Cleveland and Akron changed my life. When I arrived, I was not out publicly, I had just finished my collegiate running career, I had no gay-athlete friends, and I had precious few gay adult role models. In one whirlwind week, the Gay Games taught me unconditional pride, instilled in me a new purpose for my running, and gave me so, so many friends whom I love, look up to, and visit around the world.
This past August in Paris, I did not need to be taught these things again. Rather, this time I was struck by the absolute strength and beauty of the athletes around me—the quick skim of runners over hurdles, the surge of water polo players through churning pools, the unbreakable spirit of my fellow marathoners. In a world where sports are so often blunted and broken down to statistics, the athletes at the Gay Games compete generously and beautifully.
So, in order to commemorate these tenth Gay Games, I have decided to pen my very own over-the-top, saccharinely sincere Pindaric ode. (Admittedly, I have not researched Pindar’s work extensively, so maybe we can call it “Pindar-ish.”) Let’s hope it’s not, well, terrible:
The First Olympionique of Gunnink
What first began at Golden Gate,
Flung open in the Golden State,
This year across Atlantic ran
To dip her traveler’s feet into the Seine.
That long-proud Spirit of the Games,
Fixed in quadrennial refrain,
So drew her glitt’ring gown o’er France
That all her long train of romance
And tragedy, through history would know,
City of lights lit with her glow.
From rainbow paradises bright
And nations governed by dark plights
The athletes marched in bold parade,
All to compete under one name.
Their shins were polished, elbows tuned,
Their lungs perfumed with lavender,
So when the Games her torch let burst
The great body its harmony resumed.
The sons of Peltzer long-legged flew,
And daughters of Didrikson swung,
To carry Waddell’s vision through,
Our leg of that great relay we to run.
So burly Brits stampede down fields
With rainbow socks stretched o’er their heels,
And divers’ flips splashless resolve,
Their bravery in grace dissolved.
Thai flyers rain down spikes in volleyball,
Gym trembling with their rally calls.
We ask not welcome, we demand.
We beg not tolerance, we stand.
The discus thrown an averment,
Each iced puck struck a message sent,
That we will not wait for our heav’n,
But pull heav’ns down with titan arms
Until our roads cobble with stars
And we are gods of our own creation.
The racquet stilled with final swishing round,
The wrestler pressed last shoulder to the ground.
With each race run and each garland bestowed,
The Games her blaze dispersed with sated blow,
But lo, the torch to smoke did not unwind!
Instead each athlete did a small flame find
To tend and to be tended in each breast,
City of lights to world of stars be stretched.
So athletes trade kisses and promises,
The Games another journey to begin,
To find another shore for her queer kin,
With collied hearts to cleanse and fears to mend.
But left behind along the swan-flecked Seine
Among the traffic and blushing wishes
A pleasant company of footprints stay
To march in harmony ‘til end of days.
Gabe Gunnink (’14) lives in Seattle, where he works for a European travel company and gawks at the landscapes and skylines surrounding him. In his free time, he enjoys practicing Portuguese under his breath on city buses, running far enough to justify eating an entire pan of cinnamon rolls, and faithfully implementing Oxford commas.