The cult of the pure: what the Olympics say about artists and athletes
CULTURE SHOCK:THERE IS A PECULIAR connection between Ireland’s two Olympic medals for the arts, both won in Paris in 1924. Jack Yeats won silver for his dynamic painting The Liffey Swim. Oliver St John Gogarty won bronze for his dreadful poem Ode to the Tailteann Games. Gogarty was himself a famous Liffey swimmer. A year before his Olympic triumph he was kidnapped by the IRA – Gogarty was a Free State senator – and brought to a house on the river at Islandbridge. Convincing his captors that he needed to answer a call of nature, he plunged into the freezing Liffey, swam to the other side and escaped. The episode made Gogarty a rare thing in Irish culture: an anti-republican dashing hero.
The connection is accidental, of course, but it has a certain resonance. The poet as swimmer is, or rather was, a Romantic archetype. The Olympics themselves are a creation of a 19th-century aesthetic of manly nobility, an ideal in which fine sensibility and physical prowess were to be regarded not as opposites but as a perfect unity. Its great embodiment was, of course, the figure of George Gordon, Lord Byron, commemorated on the shores of the Gulf of Spezia, in Italy, as the “noted English swimmer and poet” – in that order. Byron’s most famous feat, swimming the Hellespont strait, between Asia and Europe, in 1810, was a self-conscious poeticism: in Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander the young Leander swims the Hellespont to visit his beloved.
Marlowe’s Leander, in turn, is a highly charged homoerotic reimagining of the Greek ideal of the male body beautiful: “His body was as straight as Circe’s wand; / Jove might have sipped out nectar from his hand.”
Marlowe drools over Leander’s beauty: the touch of his neck “Even as delicious meat is to the taste”; his smooth breast and white belly, his “orient eyes” and gorgeous lips. He invites the reader to run his or her fingers along “That heavenly path with many a curious dint, / That runs along his back . . . ”
Marlowe sails pretty close to the wind in making this divine swimmer an object of male desire: “Some swore he was a maid in man’s attire, / For in his looks were all that men desire.” Even those who accept that he is indeed a man are given to telling him: “Leander, thou art made for amorous play.”
Marlowe’s revival of Leander and Hero is, of course, part of the Renaissance rediscovery of classical, and in particular Greek, culture. And Byron’s swimming of the Hellespont in Leander’s wake is a conscious revisiting of that rediscovery. Byron was a fanatical Hellenist: he gave his life to Greek independence. He popularised in an especially potent way the notion of a Greek ideal, a cult whose most enduring legacy is the modern Olympic Games.
All of this is worth mentioning because it relates to a larger question: the strangeness of the Olympics themselves. Nowadays, when anyone mentions Yeats and Gogarty and Ireland’s Olympic medals for painting and poetry, it is almost always as an oddity, a quirk. It now seems bizarre that, until after the second World War, artistic pursuits were included alongside physical ones, even in a limited way. (The poems and paintings had to relate to sport.) Actually, what’s odd is the opposite: the way the Olympics have managed to suppress their connection to 19th-century Romanticism.