Jeux Olympiques! A round-up of the literary world’s participation in that… thing that everyone’s excited about.

The mister is outraged. We live in a TV-less abode and our basic internet package doesn’t cover live Olympic streaming through NBC.

I’m only aware there’s a problem when a rather loud “NO. I would NOT” startles me from my book. He would not like to pay an extra seventy dollars on top of our existing sixty-something dollars for an upgrade.

But he would very much like to see the games, poor dear, especially those esoteric sports like fencing and trampoline, though he does draw the line with dressage which, in case you don’t know, are freaking dancing horses.

(On another weird note, I admit I’m quite intrigued by this now-discontinued Club Swinging event thingy. It gives me a touch of déjà vu; though in my memory I’m wielding wine bottles and am barefoot on the streets of Dublin…)

Club Swinging, played in the 1904 and 1932 Games: a precursor to the Olympic Rhythmic Gymnastics discipline.


The point is: he’s in a huff and I’m in my book and can’t quite relate, though I do feel for him. I just don’t care about it all that much myself.

But I’m trying.

In an attempt to make an effort and engage with the Games in a way that makes sense to me, I googled something like ‘the Olympics in Literature’ and came up with all sorts of fascinating goodies. I was thinking something along the lines of a good book or a poem that features the Games in some way. Little did I know that Literature itself performed in the Olympics: in the early modern Olympic Games, from 1912 to 1952, medals were awarded in the Arts for works inspired by Sport.

Who knew?!

Apart from these know-it-sporty-alls:

Over at Slate there’s a history of competitive art at the Olympics while The Atlantic delves into how the art contest was hijacked by the Nazis in 1936.

The Village Voice takes it all the way back to 440BC and “a struggling, celebrity-hungry, young prose stylist named Herodotus” who decides to debut his work at the Olympic Games:

“According to the admiring author Lucian, when the festival had begun—it usually attracted some 40,000 spectators to the remote sanctuary of Olympia—Herodotus waited for a decent crowd to gather in the cavernous Temple of Zeus, then proceeded to recite his golden prose. The audience was utterly transfixed; word raced around the Olympic venue that a hot young author was on the scene. Not only did hundreds of Greek celebrities vie to hear Herodotus read in the five days of the sports festival, but they carried his name after the games to the far corners of the ancient world. “By this time he was much better known than the Olympic victors themselves,” notes Lucian enviously—which is saying quite a lot, since athletic champions were revered as virtual demigods by the Greeks, a cross between NFL players and rock stars.”

Art’s rockstar Banksy interprets the Olympics.

Also chiming in, The New York Times waxes sporty poetry and unearths this 1924 Paris games gold-medal-winner “Jeux Olympiques”:

(“The runners bend, tense flowers, . . . / A shot: A violent word! / And suddenly / Necks extended, forward / like stalks / faces like pale snatched / apples, / teeth and jaws rushing into / space.”)


As are these 10 great stories about the Olympics, spanning history, scandal and science on Longform.

All wonderful places to start from if you’re ever planning on taking a class at East Tennessee State University on the Olympic Games and Literature. Course objectives include recognizing how and why authors use the Olympics to express viewpoints about the human condition, and analyzing gifted writers who use the Olympics as a metaphor.

I don’t know if I’m ready to take it to that level yet. Perhaps I’ll begin with a wee quiz and a podcast on the subject over at The Guardian, ease myself into things.

I’m not convinced, though. And I’m not alone. Shakespeare couldn’t stand all that sporty stuff. I wonder what he’d make of being a part of tonight’s opening ceremony in London? Not much, says this Guardian book blog.

In the old Bard’s words:

“‘I am not gamesome. I do lack some part of that quick spirit that is in Antony. Let me not hinder, Cassius, your desires. I’ll leave you.'”


24 thoughts on “Jeux Olympiques! A round-up of the literary world’s participation in that… thing that everyone’s excited about.

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed your blog on Olympics literature, Deborah. I also just read one of the stories you linked to at Longform, the reflections by an American athlete in the 1856 Greek games. Nothing short of amazing how much the games have changed from the time of my great-grandfather to now: plus a very funny story about American organized cheer. Also, now I believe I know the origin of Phil Knight’s company name.

  2. Cracking post, it seems in the wake of Danny Boyle’s ‘Leftist/Socialist’ Opening Ceremony, most of today’s literature stems from the minds of independent journos & bloggers whereas the hosts concentrate more on the visual & musical aspect. I feel it is quite sad & a backwards step that the intellectual insights have to be searched for

  3. Excellent post. There is such a rich literature associated with sports-writing (so many gifted authors cut their teeth on the sports pages). I wonder what, say, Bernard Malamud would’ve made of the Olympics. Based on “The Natural,” you’d expect a searingly accurate depiction of steroid culture, racism, and the transcendent athleticism of scared young amateurs.

  4. Oh Deborah, don’t pull a Garth Algar (Wayne’s World – “I am not worthy”). You certainly are! You made Freshly Pressed, and I’m impressed. Glad you did, otherwise I may never have found your blog. It’s cool, funny. Great About. I write and run, and more at Rite2Run Stop by anytime, and congrats!

    • Thanks Jim. I spent a little while this evening looking through your blog. I do agree that walking, cycling or running is the best way to discover new places – last year I spent three months walking in southern India, discovering slowly those places we normally zoom by on a bus.

      Running is something I do but don’t really enjoy haha! Maybe you can persuade me!

  5. This is a great post, I really enjoyed reading it. Congratulations on ‘Freshly Pressed’ that is terrific. I am a follower now and look forward to your next post.
    cheers Judy 🙂

  6. Hi Deborah,
    Found you on Freshly! Well done. Your style of writing is really unique and enjoyable to read. I’m a fiction writer myself and find blogging quite a challenge from what I normally do, so it’s interesting to look at your take on the process itself, but also to see your views on different topics, such as this feature on sport and its influence on literature.
    Thanks for the post and best wishes with future work.

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