An Olympic display of artistic strength


For many countries, Ireland included, the Olympics are about more than sport – they’re an expression of cultural pride. And London’s cultural Olympiad will provide an arena for artists, writes SARA KEATING

MODERN VISITORS to Olympia, the ancient site of the Olympic Games, might be surprised by the sprawl of ruined buildings sketched into the summer-scorched landscape. Enclosed within the sanctuary in southern Greece are the rubbled remains of temples honouring the Gods, government buildings, a treasury, memorial museums to house statues of worship, a gymnasium for training, the Leonidaion, where the competitors lodged, as well as the hippodrome, where the athletic competitions were held. In short, Olympia was the original Olympic Village, the site to which the heroes and heads of Greece’s warring city-states decamped every four years, setting aside regional differences and military disputes to unite in celebration of their Gods.

The modern Olympics, established in 1896, no longer hold a religious function, but the modern Olympics have made sport a religion; in Ancient Greece, athletes competed for their city-state, but victory was its own reward, and there was no material reward for winners.

However, the modern Olympics is not just about sport. In the same way that the ancient games were a ritual enactment of the shared religion that trumped regional difference, so today’s athletes are performing their cultural identity as well as demonstrating their physical prowess.

Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, recognised this, by placing culture at the heart of the quadrennial festival; and between 1912 and 1948, culture was even recognised in competitive form, with medals awarded for architecture, sculpture, literature, music and painting. Indeed, Ireland’s first Olympic champions were painter Jack B Yeats, who won the silver medal for painting in 1924 with The Liffey Swim, and writer Oliver St John Gogarty, who was awarded bronze in the poetry category for Ode to the Tailteann Games in that same year.

For Ireland, the wider cultural significance of the Olympic Games was of particular importance. As Tommy Graham, editor of History Ireland, which has just published an Olympic special, explains: “The Olympics were always about more than sport: they were about how a country saw themselves as a nation, and this was especially important for Ireland with her struggle for recognition as an independent nation. [The country] was bedevilled by partition and sporting divisions, and there was even a big hassle over being able to use the word Ireland; it took a lot of negotiation to use it instead of Éire, but they finally achieved it in 1956.”

Graham continues: “There is a great quote from Pat O’Callaghan, the first athlete to win an Olympic medal for Ireland, in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. He said: ‘I am glad of my victory, not because of victory itself, but for the fact that the world has been shown that Ireland has a flag, Ireland a national anthem, and that, in fact, we have a nationality.’”

In this context it seems no coincidence that Ireland – whose political independence had been predicated on a cultural revolution – should have achieved its first successes in the cultural competitions rather than the athletic ones.

In more recent times, the Olympics’ cultural competitions have been jettisoned in favour of a separate cultural programme, as a deliberate way of involving non-sporting citizens in the event. The accompanying cultural strand of this year’s London Games, for example, has been a four-year Cultural Olympiad, spanning British cities and art forms. It even extended its reach to Ireland through the Next Door Neighbours initiative, which is being presented at seven Irish festivals this summer.

Irish playwright Ursula Rani Sarma is just one of the many artists participating in London’s Cultural Olympiad, with touring performances of her new play, The Ripple Effect, beginning this month. The play was directly inspired by 27 groups of young people she met over the course of the four-year festival, as part of the Cultural Olympiad’s participatory strand. For Sarma, “The Cultural Olympiad offers individuals throughout the UK, many of whom will not have the opportunity to attend the games, a chance to become actively involved in an epic and historic occasion. By placing the arts at the heart of the Olympic celebrations, it emphasises the importance of creative expression at pivotal moments in time.”

Although the play is loosely inspired by the tradition of the Olympic Truce, Sarma didn’t feel compelled to write about sport, per se; instead she “wanted the piece to feel epic, heroic and timeless as these are the words that the Olympics bring to mind for me as an artist”.

Within the Olympic arena, meanwhile, the athletic competitions remain part of a performance of culture in its broader sense. The spectacle of the opening ceremonies that mark the beginning of the sporting events is just one example, and the controversy surrounding the sensational ceremony that launched the 2008 Olympics in Beijing is a case in point.

Featuring a cast of 15,000 and an awe-inspiring audio-visual display, the ceremony evoked the country’s glorious past while also invoking its high-tech future: bodies filed in and fell in domino effect in representation of the Great Wall, and others, dressed as spacemen, were dropped in from the retractable roof of the stadium. The Bird’s Nest stadium itself, as the intricate wickerwork-effect arena was known, was a physical embodiment of Chinese engineering and technological prowess.

However, subsequent revelations of lip-synching singers and digitally-enhanced fireworks became a chilling reminder of Chinese censorship policies, the ongoing conflict in Tibet and how desperately the country was trying to control its international image.

Details of this evening’s opening ceremony in London, meanwhile, have been shrouded in secrecy, but from the scant clues that have been leaked to the press it seems that film director Danny Boyle, who is choreographing the event, will take the opportunity to showcase the best of British culture, past and present, under the theme Isle of Wonder.

Although the title invokes the enchanted island of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, Boyle is known for grittier engagements with modern life (Trainspotting, anyone?) and early indications confirm that he will not necessarily offer a sanitised version of British culture. In the first act, the stadium will be transformed into a bucolic wonderland, with real farmyard animals and country cottages reflecting the landscape of rural England, but in the second, a giant mining wheel will draw reference to the country’s industrial heritage and its powerful protest movement.

Yet Boyle’s much-hyped spectacle will only be one part of the opening ritual, which also involves the swearing of oaths, the lighting of the Olympic cauldron, and athletes proudly parading their country colours: a timely reminder that the Olympic arena offers participants a world stage where cultural difference can be enunciated, and national pride restored.