"The Spirit of the Olympics"

By Mary Papoutsy
June 26, 2004
Holy Apostles Saints Peter and Paul Greek Orthodox Church

Christos and Mary Papoutsy
Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this evening's celebration of the Olympic Spirit. It is a pleasure for me to be here tonight and a great honor to discuss briefly and in broad terms some of the salient characteristics of the Spirit of the Olympics, its ancient origin, and what this spirit means to us today.

As we gather together tonight to honor a unique form of spirit, a spirit handed down to us from ancient tradition, a variety of images come to our minds. Many of these images stem from the ceremonial aspects of the Olympic Games—for example, during the opening ceremonies, or at the awarding of medals—while other images of athletes striving to achieve victory in different competitions loom before our minds' eyes. All these images also evoke strong feelings in us. We watch the carrying of the torch with awe. We watch the competition of our nation's athletes with excitement. And we fill with pride whenever one of our own athletes achieves a great victory. Few of us can ever forget this excitement.

For those of us of Hellenic descent, the upcoming summer Olympic Games in Athens hold special meaning. They promise all of the excitement customarily associated with such international competitions, and much more. For these Games are returning to the land of their original birth and to the land of their reorganization in modern times. Not only do uncontestable records detail their existence in the 8th century B.C. at Olympia, held regularly until the 4th century A.D., but history solidly places their reorganization in modern times at Athens in 1896.

Renowned poets and writers alike have extolled the virtues of Olympic victors, from Pindar to Kostis Palamas. What was it, we may ask, about the Olympics that held such importance and allure? Why did this institution last for over one thousand years? Why were peoples from so many disparate backgrounds and beliefs willing to reorganize these Games a little more than one hundred years ago?

Renowned poets and writers alike have extolled the virtues of Olympic victors, from Pindar to Kostis Palamas. What was it, we may ask, about the Olympics that held such importance and allure? Why did this institution last for over one thousand years? Why were peoples from so many disparate backgrounds and beliefs willing to reorganize these Games a little more than one hundred years ago?

The answer, I believe, can be summed up succinctly. It is the Spirit of the Olympics. This Spirit granted importance to the original races and competitions and remained a human ideal memorialized forever in the annals of recorded history. It is this same Spirit which prevailed over the centuries, through political and religious changes, through changes to the Games themselves, to bring to us an athletic and cultural ideal which we honor tonight.

Bernard Knox, the eminent Classicist and scholar, has described aspects of this Spirit well. In his lecture titled, "Always to Be Best: The Competitive Spirit of Ancient Greek Culture," given at the University of New Hampshire for the John C. Rouman Classical Lecture Series, he states that competition for the Ancient Greeks had two facets. The poet Hesiod described one as a healthy and friendly competition that spurred a person to improve his own performance. It was a form of competition that also spurred artistic and economic growth. This form had gentlemanly nobility to it. The other face to Eris, the divine personification of Competition, was that of hostile strife. Many examples of both forms of competition abound in ancient literature, since competition formed a core for everyday living of the Greeks. Competitions in music, drama, dance, and poetry also took place with equal intensity in the ancient world. Indeed, according to Knox, the Greeks viewed life as one huge "agon," or competitive struggle.

The key to the positive form was balance, a harmony between mind and body. And the means to achieving this balance was through self-discipline, training, and education in a diverse array of fields. The ideal athlete studied at length and trained hard, played fair, and performed his or her best. This athlete embodied the best form of competition, the friendly, healthy competition described by Hesiod. He solemnly believed in and abided by the Olympic oath that he took at the opening of the ancient ceremonies: "We swear that we will take part in these Olympic Games in the true spirit of sportsmanship, and that we will respect and abide by the rules that govern them, for the glory of sport and the honor of our country."

But, before the Olympic Games could be held, a truce had to be observed by all participating city-states. This truce represented another important component of the Olympic Spirit, another positive component of competition. In this case, however, the competition manifested itself not simply in the characteristics of individual performance, but in the collective behavior of the entire polity. Observance of this truce firmly placed city-states within the common cultural and religious sphere of the Ancient Greeks; its observance was a sign of civility and humanity that separated Greeks from non-Greeks. A suspension of hostilities signaled, even more importantly, that a striving to excel, a striving to be best, a striving to transcend limits, was a noble goal and thus critical to the survival of society.

The best forms of this ancient Spirit, the ones which remain with us today and which are readily recognizable, constitute our Spirit of the Olympics: a spirit of peaceful, friendly, and healthy competition. Moreover, they have constituted, I maintain, the very essence of the Olympics since ancient times. Unlike some scholars today who relegate this Spirit to a dissenting footnote as they claim that nothing today remains of the original Olympics, I believe that the very core of the Olympics, the very proud and transcending nature of its competition, has remained intact. For with what other institution do we see such a regular, peaceful gathering of nations and peoples, a gathering nonetheless devoted to competition? That the Olympic Games were reorganized and that they continue to be held demonstrate the verity of this positive form of competition and its long-lasting ideals.

This is why we gather tonight to honor the Spirit of the Olympics. We recognize it, just as the ancients did, as good and noble. It has great meaning to each of us personally and to our society as a whole. An Olympic medal today represents the pinnacle of achievement, and the process by which it is achieved, not just for one individual, but for an entire sponsoring nation, just as an Olympic victory did thousands of years ago. We respect such a striving for excellence, understanding the rigorous self-discipline and training that an Olympic victory represents. And because of this respect, we also honor all of those who participate, not simply those who win gold, silver, or bronze medals. Good gamesmanship and fair play are as important to us today as they were in ancient times: ungracious or unfair wins draw quick condemnation from us or even elimination. We thrill with great victories and agonize with tragic defeats. Even as spectators we thus participate in the Olympics.

This grand Spirit of the Olympics—and all that it entails—holds special appeal for Americans. As the people who live in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, a fair competition, won upon merit, is the underlying precept for nearly all of our secular institutions. The person who wins through dogged hard work and fair-play often does achieve an Olympic victory here, a victory we commonly call the Great American Dream. We honor heroes of the Great American Dream in all facets of life—in music, art, sports, business, politics, and more—understanding that they have displayed many of the same qualities that brought about an Olympic victory in ancient times. Give every person the legislative and educational tools necessary for competition and an opportunity to excel, we say, and let the best person win fair-and-square. Perhaps without even realizing it, we understood and absorbed some aspects of this noble Spirit as we set down the foundations for our own free society in the 1700's, a democratic society based in part upon the principles of freedom exercised so long ago in Ancient Greece. And so, the Olympic Spirit holds additional meaning here in the United States, apart from its more traditional definitions.

As we gather tonight to celebrate, let us pay tribute to the Spirit of the Olympics as a positive force in humanity, one originating in ancient Greece, one worthy of emulation and perpetuation. These noble ideals have great meaning to each of us individually and to all of us collectively, since we value a striving for excellence within the framework of healthy and friendly competition. Well-known symbols of the Olympics, like the flag of interlocking rings, the flame, and the anthem, continue to evoke in us this uplifting Spirit, the kind of competition that encourages us, too, to strive to improve, to strive to settle differences. As we observe the Athens 2004 Games this summer, let us consciously recall the nobility of this immortal Olympic Spirit and the far-reaching impact it has had upon our lives. Let us, each one of us, carry within us the eternal flame of the Olympic Spirit and let it shine throughout our lives as a guiding beacon for peaceful, fair, and friendly competition, and a striving for excellence in all of our endeavors. Let the lyrics of the Olympic Hymn, composed by the famous Modern Greek poet, Kostis Palamas, resound in our hearts as we cheer on the Olympic athletes:

"Immortal Spirit of Antiquity,
Father of the true, beautiful and good,
Descend, appear, shed over us thy light
Upon this ground and under this sky
Which has first witnessed thy unperishable fame.
Give life and animation to those noble games!
Throw wreaths of fadeless flowers to the victors
In the race and in strife!
Create in our breasts, hearts of steel!
Shine in a roseate hue and form a vast temple
To which all nations throng to adore thee,
O Immortal Spirit of Antiquity."

"Αρχαίον πνεύμ' αθάνατον, αγνέ Πατέρα
τού ωραίου, τού μεγάλου καί τ' αληθινού,
κατέβα, φανερώ σου κι' άστραψε εδώ πέρα
Στή δόξα τής δικής σου γής καί τ' ουρανού.
Στό δρόμο καί στό πάλεμα καί στό λιθάρι,
στών ευγενών αγώνων λάμψε τήν ορμή,
καί μέ τό αμάραντο στεφάνωσε κλoνάρι
καί σιδερένιο πλάσε καί άξιο τό κορμί,
καί σιδερένιο πλάσε καί άξιο τό κορμί.
Κάμποι, βουνά και θάλασσες φέγγουνε μαζύ σου,
Σάν ένας λευκοπόρφυρος μέγας ναός,
Καί τρέχει στόν ναόν εδώ προσκυνητής σου
Καί τρέχει στόν ναόν εδώ προσκυνητής σου,
Αρχαίον πνεύμ' αθάνατον. Κάθε λαός
Κάθε λαός, αρχαίον πνεύμ' αθάνατον κάθε λαός."

Thank you and good evening.