While the 2016 Summer Olympic Games begin today in Rio, introducing a long roster of competitive events such as cycling, gymnastics, swimming, track & field, the triathlon, and more, many people tend to forget that poetry was also a vital part of the Olympics.
In ancient Greece, literary events were an essential part of the proceedings, as athletes commissioned poets like Pindar to write their poems of victory. In Pindar’s first Olympic ode—first of fourteen of his surviving Olympic odes—he celebrates the victory of the racehorse Pherenikos, owned by his patron, Hieron, the ruler of Syracuse.
Even throughout much of the twentieth century, poetry was included as an official competition in the Olympics. In the arts-inspired Pentathlon of the Muses, poets—alongside the athletes—were awarded the gold, silver, and bronze for their epic and lyric poetry.
While poetry is no longer part of the competition, poems about athleticism, sports, and triumph over adversity still remain particularly relevant during the worldwide event. During the opening ceremony to the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, Apple will present a new ad featuring a poem by Maya Angelou called “Human Family.” In the poem, Angelou, also popularly known for her poem “Still I Rise,” writes about human differences in culture, race, background, personality, and identity that nonetheless give way to a universal human experience. Listen to an audio recording of Angelou reading the poem at Scientific American and read more about Angelou's life and poetry. Also during the opening ceremony, actors Fernanda Montenegro and Judi Dench will read Carlos Drummond de Andrade's poem "Nausea and the Flower," in which the poet finds hope in the sight of a flower sprouting in the concrete, despite the time of troubles that he lives in. Read more about Drummond de Andrade's life and poetry.
For more poems about summer sports and the triumph of the human spirit, also see this anthology of poems for the Summer Olympics.