Monday, August 13, 2012

My brief envoi to Olympics

The blue and white flag over the blue and white land
I hope I live long enough to see more, at least as broadcast.  Watching the modern ones helps me to wonder about everything that we do not know about ancient ones.  And I may never again be able to tramp all over Athens, so you will pardon my posting a couple of images from a decade ago.
2002.  From a very non-touristic position to the SE corner of the Acropolis
where (I noticed on TV) the flag still flies.  And that isn't a pile of rocks but
the Acropolis rock itself, with the Wall (of every pre-modern era) built on it.
I was thinking Sunday evening as I watched thousands of young athletes, as well as Prince Harry and his friends, singing almost all the words to songs I hadn't even heard before, that finally, six years after I retired from teaching, I was watching them with an almost anthropological interest.  No wonder that most of them know so little of what I know, when I know still less of their childhood.  My Afghanistan was where Sir Aurel Stein had traveled and Sir Mortimer Wheeler had excavated, whence I found to my relief the painting of Tocharian 'knights' in Berlin, endless delights of mixed cultures in the Musée Guimet, and big Buddhas that I might dream of visiting at Bamiyan.  Their Earth has hardly any mysterious places anymore.  And so on.
But Greece is still Greece.  I read several papers on line.  But when the flag is run up for Olympic Games, it is the one on the Acropolis, in the white of Clean Monday houses and the blue of the sea as dark as wine that you can see on any clear day near Delos, say, or Samos.  And the LSO played the Greek national anthem just right, just as they did our borrowed melody, To Anacreon in Heaven, better than our own Marine band plays it.  It wasn't a good year for Greece to be training and sending athletes, of course.
I shall never get used to light shows with music.  Not that I object.  You might say, if you know classical music pretty well, that the tunes and their limited harmonies (for the most part) need all the help they can get and haven't gotten since we lost John Lennon and Cole Porter (to name two).  But a huge light show with more going on than anyone (of my age, anyhow) can take in seems to be done for its own sake and to have nearly nothing to do with the songs and performers.  This already happened with some of the 'psychedelic' shows of the late 1960s, but they were very simple, like the little computers that went to Jupiter and, for that matter, in 1969 on the moon.  I'm not complaining; I'm not even objecting to the too-serious (?) standards that my favorite newspaper, besides the Guardian, the San Francisco Chronicle, applied.
This show wasn't put on for me.  It was put on for all those kids holding up medals for their friends to see and photographing each other, doubtless posted within minutes of taking.  
Coming back to my point.  These athletic games, both the original ones that I think of as Pindaric, and the retrospective ones of the Imperial Roman centuries, are for the age group who, for the most part, competed in them.  Perhaps originally they were aristoi and hippeis (Latin equites), educated and trained at their families' expense; perhaps by the Hellenistic age sponsorship was in place.  In any case, the Games were an aspect of a gymnasion education, which is why the pentathlon was central.  Training the military elite was like a military academy followed by West Point.  I was thinking as I watched the light show that ancient Youth cannot have been utterly different, even without any internet.  Yet it can be important in ways that an old lady might not quite understand to take these things seriously.  Of course, the S F Chronicle was right about the entertainer named Jessie J. (the Guardian agreed), but what do they expect from Rio next time?  All round, there was too much boasting openly about medals; perhaps certificates sent later (if the post offices last that long) would be better.  But why?  I don't think West Point's closing ceremonies are all that decorous.  No, let it be.  It isn't for retired professors of ancient art that it is done.  For us it is educational and a subject for meditation.
As for the athletics, the best were breathtaking and utterly wonderful.  The horsemanship (already part of the ancient Games) also was wonderful.  The Marathon through the streets of London was a treat.  I do wish that the broadcasters had the courtesy to realize that persons who like athletics would like to see a more balanced treatment.  It isn't only a question of fairness!  One wants to compare.
I close with the nearest I could come to a picture of my own of the 1896 Panathenaic Stadium.  Somewhere I do have a picture of Olympia's, but I couldn't find the image.  Similarly for Delphi and Isthmia.  In courses on Greek Art as taught in an Art Department, I didn't use them, I'm afraid.
But from the top of the Acropolis, leaning over the Wall, here is the context of the Panathenaic Stadium where they did end the Marathon race in the 2004 Games.
2002.  I carefully checked the Google air view map.  You are looking down at the Choregic Monument of Lysikrates (334 BCE) which, commemorating a victory in the dramatic festival, has tripods on it; the Street of the Tripods runs straight to the Arch of Hadrian (partly encased in green mesh for cleaning) and, in its temenos, to the Olympieion, begun in the sixth century BCE but Hellenistic in the standing Corinthian columns.  At the top left and center of this photo, in its hollow and much hidden by trees, is the Panathenaic stadium of 1896.  Above the Choregic Munument, on the steep slope at the bottom of the image, is the Plaka.

There.  Next time I'll write about something else.  London and Athens have such historical depth and complexity, they are a real joy.  I had no TV for Rome, alas.  Beijing has the depth but not the same feeling for the West (not that it can be put down on that account).  I am very eager to see what Brazil will do.