The games at Olympia, together with those at Nemea, Delphi and Corinth, were occasions on which the Greeks affirmed their sense of being Greek. There was no Greek nation, but there were many tribes, local dynasties, city states, confederations; and coming together for the games or for the great religious festivals at Eleusis, on the island of Delos and elsewhere, they knew what they had in common, as Greeks. Self-identity is always a matter not just of what you are but also of what you are not; and the Greeks felt themselves to be Greek by virtue of not being barbarians, the obvious marker of barbarians being that they did not speak Greek but made brutish and unintelligible sounds instead. A ‘barbarism’ is a linguistic usage not in accordance with the classical, not the Queen’s English.
When Baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympic Games in 1896 (after visiting the Olympians in Much Wenlock, see Anna Selby’s essay in this issue), 14 nations and 241 athletes competed in 43 events. He started an idea of world-wide inclusivity and in that spirit, with many lapses, travesties and gross aberrations, so the Games, and the Paralympics joining them, have developed to what they are now, 204 nations, more than 14000 men and women competing. So the identity of the modern Games, ideally, is inclusive, not exclusive: an extraordinary variety of participants, all to be welcomed and respected, coming together in one place in voluntary and peaceful (not belligerent, not merciless, not lethal) competition.
We were very pleased and proud at MPT when we were invited to participate in the South Bank’s ‘Poetry Parnassus’, in fact to be the magazine in which at least a few of the hundreds of arriving poets and translators would find lodgings. It is the happiest match: our magazine with that assembly. Each issue under our editorship has been an anthology of many voices, a medley, an ensemble, and intrinsically an act of faith in human coexistence in variety. And more and more lately, and with a further extension in this present issue, MPT, edited in Oxford, has been connected to the world wide web. One book, 200 pages between two covers, reaching into and being reached by the whole world. The South Bank at the end of June will be a locus like a physical book, more various still, more bursting out of the covers – all those poets and translators – translators who are poets – assembling in one place on the riverbank of a great city that speaks five hundred languages in its homes.
The day after the 2012 Olympic Games were awarded to London, 52 people were murdered in the city by four Britons. Glance at the obituaries of those dead Londoners, dead visitors and guests in London, the mix is the very hallmark of what the city is and represents, all kinds of people, all manner of achievements and aspirations, creeds, origins, ancestries. When four implacably hating young men put bombs on a London bus and the London tube the blast travelled far beyond the city and the British Isles, it struck at families in Poland, Kenya, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Vietnam, Ghana, Nigeria, Mauritius and many other countries too. We are all connected.
The Ancient Greeks were a notably quarrelsome and belligerent people. Sharing a culture, speaking varieties of the same language, certain they were not barbarians, frequently they embroiled themselves in internecine strife. The Olympic Games, held in Elis, were in essence a religious festival because in that place Zeus had a great sanctuary and people came to worship there. So for the duration of the Games, five days, and for some time either side of that period, a cessation of hositilities was imposed on all the competing parties, many of whom would inevitably be at war with one another. Indeed Elis, even when no Games were in progress, became a land which armies en route to fight elsewhere were only allowed to pass through if they agreed to give up their weapons on entering and get them back on leaving. Many competitors will arrive in London this summer from homelands at war internally and abroad. And the cost of ‘peace’ (security) in the host city has risen to more than £1bn. There will be 7500 troops (and 23,700 ‘security personnel’) on duty at the venues and a battleship on the Thames. This is to secure a space in which competitors can compete in peace.
A few years ago the fires wasting large areas of Greece came very close to the site at Olympia. And a month ago two armed and masked men held up the only guard on duty and stole seventy-seven exhibits from the museum, among them a bronze statuette of a victorious athlete and a bronze charioteer in Geometric style. Much is under threat, much feels to be slip-sliding away. This magazine, the South Bank, the many venues, may they be safe places for some things of value.
Helen and David Constantine March 2012