Tuesday 2 August 2016

Glorious Sprinters Ancient and Modern

I am right now in the sea 30 minutes from here
On 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 winged sandals.

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.

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