The cult of the pure: what the Olympics say about artists and athletes

Sat, Jul 28, 2012, 01:00

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.

Yet the connection goes very deep. Even when they were not sportsmen like Byron, the Romantics helped to forge a conceptual link between the artist and the athlete: the idea of the extraordinary, the prodigious. The Romantics invented and embodied the sense that the artist (and especially the poet) was a creature separate from the common run of human beings, just like the great athlete. They developed a cult of youth and beauty, just like the cult of sports. They are best frozen in their early years – Byron, Keats and Shelley died young – just as the athlete’s life ends when his body passes its peak. And the Romantics, like the emerging cult of sports, looked to a largely invented and highly idealised ancient Greece for a Utopia that might be revived.

Some of what came out of this connection was bonkers and some of it was dangerous. Gogarty’s bronze-medal ode has a touch of both. It has lots of old guff about our “misty land” with its “stout lowlanders and, wild without fear, / The deep-breathed runner, the mountaineer”.

It also has elements of the cult of the strong and pure (a weird synthesis of Hellenism and Darwinism) that found its fullest expression a decade later in Leni Riefenstahl’s film of the Berlin Olympics: “By the Conflict is revealed / In a runner what is best . . . ”

But, in winnowing out these artistic elements in their origins, the Olympics also made themselves safer, blander, more open to being smoothly corporatised.

Like any giant money machine, the Olympics can span lots of contradictions; the body beautiful sponsored by McDonald’s and Cadbury, for example. But their awkward links back to the notorious Byron and through him to the even more notorious Marlowe are too dirty to be assimilated. In order to grow into the all-conquering spectacle it is today, the postwar Olympics had to create a much more controlled imagery: the Greek body beautiful without the feverish eroticism, the idea of the extraordinary individual without the political rebelliousness of the Romantics.

Jack Yeats’s silver-medal painting of the Liffey Swim can stand as a kind of elegy for a less bland Olympic ideal. In one way, it does foreshadow what the games have become, in that its focus is on the spectators, not the participants, on the crush of ordinary bodies straining to view the event rather than on the smaller figures of the swimmers struggling against the current. But in another its vision of sport could not be more different. It is open, democratic, ragged, not sealed off in its own citadel but utterly intertwined with the life of the city. Where, one might wonder, are the security men and corporate executives?

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