Did the Founder of the Modern Olympics Also Happen to Win the First Olympic Gold Medal for Literature?
Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to poetry and poets and whether they are true or false.
POETRY URBAN LEGEND: The first winner of an Olympic Gold medal for Literature went to a poem written by the creator of the modern Olympics.
In 1924, Oliver St. John Gogarty (from this earlier Poetry Urban Legend) won an Olympic medal.
What did he win it for?
Why, for a poem he wrote called “Ode to the Tailteann Games.”
You see, for a number of years, the Olympics actually gave out medals for ARTISTIC competitions as well as athletic ones!
The idea was first proffered by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the man who actually (more or less) founded the modern Olympic Games, in 1894, at the formation of the International Olympic Committee, a Committee he would be President of from 1896 to 1925 (and Honorary President until his death in 1937).
de Coubertin felt that artistic competition should follow alongside athletic competition at the Olympics.
His early pleas went to no avail for the first three Olympics in 1896, 1900 and 1904, but in 1906, the Committee finally agreed with him and scheduled to have them at the 1908 Olympics in Italy. However, due to financial issues, Italy had to back out of hosting the Olympics, and London instead held them. Given the time crunch (they had about a year to prepare), there was no time to plan artistic competitions, as well.
Undaunted, de Coubertin finally got them to have artistic competitions in 1912.
These competitions would continue until 1948, at which point the IOC determined that artists were, almost by their very nature, professionals and should not be able to compete in the Olympics, which were intended to only be for amateurs. As a way of making up for it, every Olympics ever since has had attached to the Games a series of cultural exhibits for those who are interested.
But during the time of the art competitions, the categories were Architecture, Literature (all kinds), Music, Painting and Sculpture. The works all had to be brand new for the Games and they all had to do with sports somehow.
So fair enough, but hilariously enough, the very first Gold Medal given out for Literature (and in fact, the ONLY medal given out, as they did not award any Silvers or Bronzes for the category that year) in 1912, the very first art competition at the Olympics, went to none other than the Baron Pierre de Coubertin himself!!
de Coubertin entered the work, a poem titled “Ode to Sports” under the pseudonyms “Georges Hohrod and Martin Eschbach from Germany”.
O Sport, pleasure of the Gods, essence of life, you appeared suddenly in the midst of the grey clearing which writhes with the drudgery of modern existence, like the radiant messenger of a past age, when mankind still smiled. And the glimmer of dawn lit up the mountain tops and flecks of light dotted the ground in the gloomy forests.
O Sport, you are Beauty! You are the architect of that edifice which is the human body and which can become abject or sublime according to whether it is defiled by vile passions or improved through healthy exertion. There can be no beauty without balance and proportion, and you are the peerless master of both, for you create harmony, you give movements rhythm, you make strength graceful and you endow suppleness with power.
O Sport, you are Justice! The perfect equity for which men strive in vain in their social institutions is your constant companion. No one can jump a centimetre higher than the height he can jump, nor run a minute longer than the length he can run. The limits of his success are determined solely by his own physical and moral strength.
O Sport, you are Audacity! The meaning of all muscular effort can be summed up in the word ‘dare’. What good are muscles, what is the point of feeling strong and agile, and why work to improve one’s agility and strength, unless it is in order to dare? But the daring you inspire has nothing in common with the adventurer’s recklessness in staking everything on chance. Yours is a prudent, well-considered audacity.
O Sport, you are Honour!The laurels you bestow have no value unless they have been won in absolute fairness and with perfect impartiality. He who, with some shameful trick, manages to deceive his fellow competitors feels guilt to his very core and lives in fear of the ignominious epithet which shall forever be attached to his name should his trickery be discovered.
O Sport, you are Joy! At your behest, flesh dances and eyes smile; blood races abundantly through the arteries. Thoughts stretch out on a brighter, clearer horizon. To the sorrowful you can even bring salutary diversion from their distress, whilst the happy you enable fully to savour their joie de vivre.
O Sport, you are Fecundity! You strive directly and nobly towards perfection of the race, destroying unhealthy seed and correcting the flaws which threaten its essential purity. And you fill the athlete with a desire to see his sons grow up agile and strong around him to take his place in the arena and, in their turn, carry off the most glorious trophies.
O Sport, you are Progress! To serve you, a man must improve himself both physically and spiritually. You force him to abide by a greater discipline; you demand that he avoid all excess. You teach him wise rules which allow him to exert himself with the maximum of intensity without compromising his good health.
O Sport, you are Peace! You promote happy relations between peoples, bringing them together in their shared devotion to a strength which is controlled, organized and self-disciplined. From you, the young worldwide learn self-respect, and thus the diversity of national qualities becomes the source of a generous and friendly rivalry.
Let’s give the Baron the benefit of the doubt and say that his pseudonym worked and he was indeed, anonymous, when he was chosen as the first winner of the Olympic Gold Medal for Literature.
The legend is…
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