Friday, 17 August 2012

Spirit of the Olympics

Wild olive: Olympic crown
Now that all the excitement of the Olympic Games is over, the Muse has been musing on the difference between the ancient and modern events.

In ancient Greece, the Games were part of a religious festival held to celebrate their gods. The greatest honour a young runner could gain was that of carrying the sacred torch in the closing ceremony to light the fire at the altar of Zeus Olympia, whose statue was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Winning athletes were crowned with wild olive and given a red ribbon to wear around their arm, and soon the sporting events (originally not the most important part of the festival) became as famous in the ancient world as the statue of the god, prompting Aristophanes to write:

Why, Zeus is poor, and I will clearly prove it to you. In the Olympic games, which he founded, and to which he convokes the whole of Greece every four years, why does he only crown the victorious athletes with wild olive? If he were rich he would give them gold.

By the time the Olympic Games were resurrected in 1896, nobody worshipped Zeus any more, so the event became focused on sport, the worldly part of the original festival. Medals of precious metal were forged for the winners to take the place of red wool, and religion took a back seat – for most people. In the film Chariots of Fire, set at the 1924 Paris Games, Olympic runner and devout churchgoer Eric Liddell is asked to compete on a Sunday. But he believes Sunday should be kept sacred so he refuses, even if it means losing his place in the Games and his chance to win gold for his country. He will not back down, and all seems lost… until his friend suggests he run in his place in the 400 metres instead, leaving his rival Harold Abrahams (a Jew) to compete on the Sunday, and opening the way to a happy ending for all.

Eric Liddell training on the beach in the film "Chariots of Fire" 

The real reason Eric Liddell refused to run on a Sunday was not because he believed a random religious rule should be kept. It was because he ran to celebrate his God. His running was not separate from his beliefs – it was part of them. If he had run on a Sunday, he knew the spirit (the very thing that made him so fast) would have been missing from his race, and he would not have run as well. Not only would he have been afraid of losing - having broken his trust with his God, he might never have been able to run again.

The Muse understands this. As muses, we see our authors make spiritual compromises with their work all the time to survive in the world. We see them write things that they otherwise might not have written - for money, for fame, for approval from editors, colleagues, friends and family. It does not matter what you call your particular spirit – a unicorn, a muse, God, Zeus, or simple joy. If it’s part of what you do, you’ll know when it is missing from your work, even if nobody else does. All they will see is that you are not as fast or as good as you once were, and wonder why.

Gold! Olympic medal

The London of 2012 is a very worldly place, which came across during the opening and closing ceremonies at this year’s Games. Money and fame are celebrated in Britain today, while spirit is often reduced to comedy, as in Mr Bean’s parody of Chariots of Fire. The Muse is taking nothing away from Mr Bean (who is funny) or from those athletes who won medals for their country (who are brilliant) – much unicorn glitter for Team GB! But he suspects that a medal, like fame and cheers from the crowd, is as secondary for them as it is for the award-winning author. Because when winning becomes something you do for gold, rather than for the glory of carrying a torch to light a fire on the altar of your god, that’s the time to question why you are running in the race.

Have you ever been faced with a choice like Eric Liddell’s? What did you do?

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You can experience the spirit of the ancient Games in "The Olympic Conspiracy" now available as an ebook from amazon uk and amazon com.

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