|I am right now in the sea 30 minutes from here|
the eve of the Olympics I find myself at last on holiday for a week, swimming
below Delphi. In antiquity the sanctuary here had its own athletics competitions, the
Pythian games. My favourite ancient Victory Ode is Pindar's Pythian 10 in honour of a boy
called Hippocleas who won the Delphic junior sprint in 498 BCE.
|Perseus, Patron of Sprinters|
Pindar foresees that, with the garland of victory, Hippocleas will
win huge admiration ‘from boys his age
and from his elders, and will make the girls notice him.’ Pindar slyly
alludes to the next Olympics, hoping that Hippocleas will triumph there, too: he
compares the young athlete to Perseus, who could fly through the air on his
August 3 is the eightieth anniversary of the most important sprint of all
time, Jesse Owens' 100-metre dash in 10.3 seconds at the Berlin Olympics in
1936. Over the succeeding days he added gold medals in the long jump, the 200
metres, and the 4x100 relay.
Owens' bravura performances cast the Nazi ideology of Aryan supremacy into disarray. He
was filmed by Leni von Riefensthal for her documentary, Olympia, but there were rumours that
Hitler refused to acknowledge Owens’ victories: Owens himself at different
times both confirmed and denied this. Aryanists produced the absurd defensive argument that
people of African descent were 'inevitably' physically stronger since they were
less far removed from a ‘jungle’ existence than the ‘higher’ races.
When criticising Nazi racism, we must remember what faced Owens back home: ‘When I came back to my
native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the
front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted.
I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White
House to shake hands with the President, either’.
Owens was a conflicted character, who endured misery as well as glory: a supreme athlete, he chain-smoked and died of lung
cancer; a member of the Republican Party, he suffered from the sharpest end of
free-market capitalism and was bankrupted; acutely aware of racism, he initially objected to the black power salute after the sprint at the 1968 Olympics.
But surely he would have approved of Pindar’s image of Perseus as sprinters’ hero:
when asked what mindset had allowed him to win such extraordinary races, Owens
simply said, ‘I let my feet spend as little time on the ground as possible.
From the air, fast down, and from the ground, fast up.’ Owens could do poetry in prose as well as motion.