Pindar Goes to Rio

Over the last few weeks, my journey through my lifetime reading list brought me to Pindar — the fifth century BCE poet who was widely considered by the Greeks to be the greatest ancient lyricist.

Most of Pindar’s surviving works are odes to victors of the games: winners of foot races, wrestling matches, chariot races, and other competitions at the Olympia, Delphi, Corinth and Nemea festivals. Winners often commissioned professional poets to write celebratory poems in honour of their achievements. Long before broadcast media, poets like Pindar served the function of providing slow motion ‘replays’ of grandiose victories in words, to the awe and amazement of everyone back home. (These poems were typically performed at celebratory homecoming festivals upon the victor’s return to his town or city.)

I did not plan this intentionally, but I found myself reading Pindar during the Summer Olympics (Rio 2016). What a riveting juxtaposition to read about, say, Hagesidamos’s glorious boxing victory at the Olympian games in 476 BCE, while being surrounded by a palpable hum of excitement for present-day heroes like Usain Bolt, Penny Oleksiak, and Michael Phelps. To read Pindar during the Olympics is to come face-to-face with our primal, collective, and timeless obsession with exemplars of our own kind. Here we realize just how acutely we need to be represented by a champion who flies the flag of our in-group.

Pindar was enthralled by the god’s ability to endow particular humans with exceptional physical ability. In the athletes of his time, Pindar saw the unmistakable spark of the divine. Indeed, the Greeks did not consider sporting competition and religious observance as categorically isolated activities in the same way we do. Pindar’s poems blend mythological accounts of the gods and fifth century BCE sports commentary to a climatic end: to acknowledge that all achievements of human greatness come from Mount Olympus. Greatness, in human terms, is a measurement of how one’s exploits rank compared to those of the gods.

Yes, much has changed since Greek aristocrats founded those early Panhellenic games. Today’s Olympics is different. Women now compete. Every moment is archived in pristine, digital high definition. Winners are determined by technology measuring hundredths of a second. It is the Games of broadcast rights, international committee politics, and drug scandals.

What remains the same? Sports and arts — coliseums and commissions — are still primarily sponsored by elites. Vendors still setup shop to sell merchandise to enthusiastic pilgrims and fans. Songs are still written. Great wealth and glory are awarded the victors. We fawn over the accomplishments of archetypal human specimen: athletes who have honed their bodies to the nth degree of precision. We are infatuated with the heroes of our tribe. And many winners still cast an eye to heaven with a gesture of thanks to the gods, as if deflecting the adoring praise of the stadium to Zeus and Apollo.

But do you remember Hagesidamo’s victory at the 476 BCE games? How important is his triumph now? What of his fame and rewards?

The poems and fragments of Pindar remind us not only of what has not changed in 2492 years of history — they tell us that Time turns even the glory of gold to dust.

Or does it? Conversely, by remembering the works of Pindar here, Hagesidamo’s name remains to this day. In Pindar’s poems, we are compelled to continue to dream the dream of the Olympians: our feats and accomplishments matter if they can only be remembered.

Even high deeds of bravery
Have a great darkness if they lack song;
We can hold a mirror to fine doings
In one way only,
If with the voice of Memory in her glittering crown
Recompense is found for labour
In echoing words of song.
(Pindar, *Nemean VII* 13-16, trans. Bowra 1969:158)

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