Olympic Tradition and Trumbull

The Olympics from their beginning to today.

Trumbull, in its small way is taking part of a very old tradition.  In these times of high cost satellite television, when a hundred channels compete for our attention, this year the local government and the library decided to provide continuous coverage of the XXXth Olympiad from London, UK.  

These games, a technological wonder, are being beamed across the globe from the recently redeveloped area of East London known as Stratford.  Shortly after the announcement of London's successful bid, I had the opportunity to visit the site where the new stadium and athletes village were being constructed in the economically ravaged East End.  The area, now known as an up and coming area, has provided an exciting entertainment and shopping district for the thousands of residents, the balance of regeneration without gentrification was a goal of former Mayor Ken Livingstone, and in many regards, that goal has been achieved.  

But such a symbolic decision as showing the games live to the residents of Trumbull, is in no small way a continuation of the democracy and good government the games came to symbolize: A hope that all the people can share in what is a noteworthy event, the heir of the ancient games of Olympia which sought to bring civilization and culture, beauty and athleticism to Greece, the games of the past stood as milestones of the society, and came to define a world of civility versus barbarism.  Could it not be that human kind could live a practical existence without merely surviving? 

Ironically, during my visit to Stratford, London, I went to see that historic drama 300, about the war which had come to the ancients, and the great fight of ideology between the militaristic Sparta and the polar opposite Athens.

The divided states of ancient Greece were being invaded by the Persians, the culmination of the movie the battle which is described in Thucydides, who himself once said: "The whole earth is the sepulcher of famous men; they are honored not only by columns and inscriptions in their own land, but in foreign nations on memorials graven not on stone but in the hearts and minds of men."

The competing aspects of western civilization, the desire to create great achievements and the tendancy to militancy expansion, its double edged sword, are at the origins of the ancient games.  Yet in our games, we create the lasting achievement which no stone memorials can replace, memories of triumphs and achievements in our time.  Of competition within the bounds of sportsmanship, all of the characters and flaws of humanity, in its lasting goodness and malevolence on display.

The Trumbull Library, whose cornerstone was placed in 1974, was the nexus of our own kind of regeneration.  The town, isolated and cut off from the surrounding areas, once had a functioning trolly and rail stop, in an era before the invention of the automobile, or interstate, the area was on the outskirts of town politics.   There was little there then that still exists today, the Town Hall was the jail, certianly no market or row of shops existed as there is today;  the center of town for many years before was the area of the Plumb building.

The modern Olympic games, a dream of Victorians and 19th century optimists were held for the first time in 1896, in Athens, Greece.  The modern state held little in common with the collection of city states of the golden age, but united in common with history and geography, many of the rites and rituals from 1896, were in hope, the culmination of the worlds regeneration from the dark ages, the renaissance of reason and mankind that we could live as they once did, through self government and freedom.  But the 1896 games were minor in comparison to 2012.

The top medal winner, that year, were the rag tag team of athletes from the backwater isolationist republic, known as the United States of America.  We won 11 events that year which featured a greatly reduced opening ceremony as even the torch parade did not reappear until the 1930's.

The origin of the Olympic rings is somewhat shrouded in mystery, as a logo, it is instantly recognizable, the different colors representing, among other things, the five main geographic areas of the world.  Europe, Asia, Africa, Australasia and America.  Pierre de Cubertin, the father of the movement composed the creed which was as follows:  

"The most important thing in the Olympic games is not to win, but to take part.  Just as the most important thing in life [in our unified culture] is not the triumph but the struggle.  The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."  

To have fought well in the everlasting attempts at self improvement, in excellence, in honor and achievement, one might add, for those are the spirit of the games both new and ancient.

So we should reflect on this inheritance that we are all a part of.  What do we know of the ancient event, known as the games, mimicked for a thousand years after by the Romans; the Flavian coliseum and Yankee Stadium were created as temples to the celebration of sports, as living museums to past moments of glory in athleticism.

The ancient games of Olympia featured both religious ceremony along with feasts.   Most visitors slept in small tents, wealthy spectators hosted lavish dinner parties in magnificent structures.  Nights of merriment coincided with religious ritual, temples, sacred groves; where priests and priestesses mingled with the common people in personification or celebration of Democraktia.    As we know the games began in the year 776 BC, the reasons of this timing has been shrouded in the mists of time.

Nor do we know the context of political events or who originated the idea, but we do know that they were held in Olympia in the state of Elis.  People from all over the countryside, the more than 300 Poleis, converged on this place of magnificent structures, columns in reverence to the 12 main gods of the Greek pantheon.  On the third night of the games, which always coincided with a full moon, rituals and processions were held in the sacred grove of Altis.  All wars would stop for three months prior to and after the event, to allow for preparation and training.  No army or weapons of any kind, by anyone with authority, could enter the Olympic grounds, and the people had right to free travel and association, amongst the various regions.  The games of Olympia were held every four years during the hottest months of the year, it is believed.

Events included the 'Stade,' a type of foot-race, the distance of which was short, perhaps the length of the field of play.  There was a pentathlon, which in Greek meant, five (pant') competitions (athalon) a cumulative event which closed the games.  Other foot races held were the middle distance Dia'los and the long race (perhaps our equivalent to marathon or 10,000 meters) the Dolichos.

There were events specifically military based, the hammer throw, some wearing helmets in body armor, as well as the javelin and the discus.  Wrestling, Chariot races and equestrianship events were also honored practices.  The ancients had a different sensibility towards the natural world, and accordingly, unfair advantage would not be tolerated.  Athletes and spectators were forbidden from practicing magic of any kind.

The false belief that women were ostracized from society was complete nonsense.  From religious ceremony to the feminine games in honor of the goddess Hera, women played a responsible role in society in both Greece and Rome to the envy of the ancient despots abroad.  Much of it must have been well placed propaganda.  

The age of antiquity came to an end and with it the games of ancient Greece as the civilised world, politics, society and old sensibility crumbled into the dust of the agora.  Individuals were no longer free, the very laws began to unravel and with it the rule of just authority.  Thus entered the times of serfdom and barbarism, and democracy, long after, regarded as a myth that must have been invented in the minds of creative opportunists, no society could exist in such a utopia as a republic, not with all the dangers and threats of foreign powers and personal security, and there certainly was nothing to play about with in the dark ages.

Those famous Olympians whose victories coat the legend of the past, such as Milo of Croton, a wrestler, winner of six championships, so powerful and strong he was known for carrying cattle on his shoulders, would live on as though a dream, but in 393 AD with Rome besieged by Goths, the world itself dying, the games came to an end.

In two years, Roman Emperor Theodosius the Great, last ruler of a unfied Empire, legitimately chosen in Rome and the East, would die having achieved his lasting tribute to the world of codifying all the laws that were known at the time, from the Greece of Solon, to the Roman 12 tables.


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