Champions of Verse - By TONY PERROTTET
Published: June 29, 2012 - The New York Times
Sports fans are not necessarily renowned for their literary tastes — their passions oft running less to soulful ruminations than to beer-fueled stadium chants — so Olympics observers may be flummoxed by the sudden proliferation of poetry related to the 2012 Games. This weekend, international poets have converged on London to orate in 50 languages at a festival called Poetry Parnassus, with 100,000 copies of their collected work to be dropped by helicopter on the venue by the Thames. Another poetic project, “The Written World,” will feature a poem from each of the 204 competing Olympic countries read live and broadcast daily by the BBC. And verse has been engraved on plaques of stone, metal and wood emblazoned at strategic points throughout the Olympic Park, for the edification of athlete and spectator alike.
Yet the relationship between poetry and the Olympics goes back to the very origins of the Games. In ancient Greece, literary events were an indispensable part of athletic festivals, where fully clothed writers could be as popular with the crowd as the buff athletes who strutted about in the nude, gleaming with olive oil. Spectators packing the sanctuary of Zeus sought perfection in both body and mind. Champion athletes commissioned great poets like Pindar to compose their victory odes, which were sung at lavish banquets by choruses of boys. (The refined cultural ambience could put contemporary opening ceremonies, with their parade of pop stars, to shame.) Philosophers and historians introduced cutting-edge work, while lesser-known poets set up stalls or orated from soapboxes.