It was a shock to discover I had been banned from competing in the Olympics at what I do best. If you’re reading this, you’re probably banned as well. You didn’t know, did you? The ban was introduced in 1954, in preparation for the Games two years later. Juried competitions for writers, artists, sculptors, musicians and architects were removed from the Olympic roster. Apparently, people like us undermine the true Olympic spirit.
I’m not casting aspersions on your affection for noxious substances – what you do to summon the muse is your own business. We are not a bunch of Dwain Chambers’s. In the eyes of all the Olympic Organising Committees since the XVI Olympiad in Melbourne, we are more reprehensible than that. We are, or hope to be, professional writers and professionalism is the antithesis of the Olympic ideal. On those shaky grounds (what’s amateur about the athletes, footballers, tennis players etc. who’ll be strutting their stuff in London this year?), you and I have been denied the chance of winning an Olympic medal.
Some of our near-ancestors walked around with Olympic Gold medals for literature around their necks. Well, only if you have any of the following in the family album: Pierre de Frédy (the familial name of the founder of the new Olympics, Baron de Coubertin – bit iffy even if he did enter under a pseudonym), 1912; Raniero Nicolai, 1920; Charles Louis Proper Guyot (aka Geo-Charles), 1924; Kazimierz Wierzyński and Ferenc Mező, 1928; Paul Bauer, 1938; Aale Tynni and Giani Stuparich, 1948. A motley crew of artists, musician, sculptors and architects earned similar distinction.
Since 1948, those of artistic or cultural persuasions have been invited to the Olympic sideshows but not allowed to enter the main events. (Cultural medals should have been awarded at the 1952 Games but the Finnish organisers couldn’t be bothered to set up the competitions and they stuck up a few paintings instead.)
What upsets me is not that I could have been an Olympic contender. Arrogant I may be, but I accept that my chances of winning an Olympic medal for literature would be slimmer than a stick insect on hunger strike. No, the annoyance is that after sitting through so many televised Olympic Games, I never grasped what the Olympic movement was supposed to be about.
This revelation came about, as several others have, because I was doing historical research (okay, I was surfing the net to help me with an article I was writing). What historians do is scrabble at the rocks fallen from the tallest cliffs in the world, the Heights of Ignorance. The pebble I turned over was Baron de Coubertin.
I was aware of his part in recreating the Greek, down-swords festival known as the Olympic Games, now generally accepted as the greatest international event in the sporting calendar. What I didn’t appreciate was that the ancient Greeks got up to a lot more than naked running, throwing and wrestling at the Festival of Zeus in the Olympia valley near Elis.
The Olympic festival also provided the occasion for Greek city-states to glorify achievements in architecture, mathematics, sculpture, and poetry. Poems, called Epinicians, were commissioned in honour of athletic victors and were written by the most famous poets of the day. Coubertin tried hard to retain this cultural aspect in the new Olympic Games. In his mind, Olympism was inseparable from culture, and should educate the intelligence as well as the body.
That explains Olympic Charter (Rule 44: Cultural Programme) which insists that a host city organises a cultural programme running parallel to the sporting competitions. It doesn’t explain why I never knew that culture was supposed to be as important an organ of the Olympics as sport. Or that nations were supposed to embrace each other, not just in sporting rivalry, but also in mutual cultural appreciation. I don’t feel lonely in that ignorant company. How many of you knew that GB is masterminding a Cultural Olympiad of 1,000+ events taking place from Shetland to Cardiff, from Enniskillen to Margate?
I have no criticism of the job Ruth Mackenzie, Director of the Cultural Olympiad, is doing, although finding out that her nickname is ‘Childcatcher’ did cause me to catch breath. She simply hasn’t got the PR profile to match that of the Chairman of the Games Organising Committee, Lord Seb, quadruple Olympian, multi-millionaire, international evangelist and, with a good 2012 in his pocket, soon to be a deity to rival Zeus. Baron Coe of Ranmore (witty bugger isn’t he?) has the Stratford village and all the new sports stadia to shout about while Ruth has a lot of pink ribbon. This ribbon will mark any event designated as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. It’s a legacy of the pink abomination of design known as the 2012 London logo (thank you, Wolff Olins, that really marked us Brits out as artistically aware). So if you see any show, circus, play, carnival or morris dance emblemised with a pink ribbon, rest assured this is not a tacky tourist attraction, it’s an Olympic event.
Pop along because you’ll be signing up to the Olympic creed, set out by Bishop Ethelbert Talbot at a service for Olympic champions during the 1908 Olympic Games:
“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.”
Just don’t expect a medal for it.