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July 27, 2012

In a recent post on her blog (not to be confused with her Veg food Blog) the always estimable Jacqueline Pye makes some trenchant remarks about the spirit of competition that seems to dominate the modern Olympics and too many other areas of life today, and the minds of other writers more vainglorious and competitive than herself.

I don’t wish to plagiarise Jacqueline’s post, so must ask readers of this who haven’t read it yet to do so now, perhaps via this link , to avoid confusion.

One grits one’s teeth at the parade of tackiness that is likely to be presented to prove that the London Olympics are “the best ever” – best ticketing arrangements, best opening ceremony, best promotions by multinational companies and so on ad nausea – and the pseudo patriotic droning on about how Team GB has strived to be and (whenever a home team chances to win) is the best. It’s inevitable and part of a tradition that has haunted Olympic Games since at least 1936 Berlin.

Host nations can’t help but want to use this big spectacle to satisfy their own vanity and camouflage any domestic problems or embarrassments abroad. Added to that in this case is the “difficult economic situation” our government has so innocently inherited and the witless opportunism offered to take us through it.

Never mind sporting competition to be the best – nowadays you can’t get an opportunity to exploit the needy or to sell scams without declaring a passion for it and if you can’t measure up as being so productive and efficient that your hours can be cut and colleagues dismissed, then hard pressed employers will soon find machinery to replace you.

This media event should inspire our youngsters’ dreams and ambitions; what a shame if it just gives them another set of values to measure their own failure by.

Despite all this I can’t fully agree with Jacqueline’s interpretation of the Olympic Spirit. It’s not all about proving you’re the best, and the motto ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’ (Faster, Higher, Stronger) does not say there can only be one winner. It invites us all to aspire to greater achievements. Whenever a world record is broken (unless it’s a very silly made up one) our whole species can take pride and share in a sense of having evolved a little further.

There have been shocking nationalistic incidents of all kinds throughout the history of the Games, but at their best the symbolism of the five interlocked rings, their different colours intended to represent all nations, can be exemplified and brought to palpable, meaningful life, as a vast global audience is truly united in joy and wonder by moments of sporting and athletic achievement, grace and beauty. And every nation, not just the obvious big ones, can triumph by embracing the true Olympic Spirit.

Writers and especially poets have always understood this. The Olympic Spirit finds expression in the words of Browning, “…a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” of Tennyson, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”, in the words of Kipling’s “If” and literature is rich with less obvious examples of every person’s desire to outstrip their limitations.  Propagandists aside, who has done more than writers to promote the Olympic ideal of mutual friendship and understanding across all nations?

Still, in a world where poets and everyone else can only gain respect by proving their superiority and ability to “win”, it may be a good time to suggest an alternative set of values.

Allow me to propose what I dub the Olympian Spirit, a term which leans heavily on those Oxford dictionary definitions of Olympian as “magnificent, condescending, superior” and, “a person of great attainments or of superhuman calm and detachment”. I hope it may be of some use to those who do not enjoy being caught up in a society that is too much obsessed with “pursuing gold”, when every human being really deserves a great deal more respect than they are currently accorded.

Recently we have seen a revived enthusiasm for the wartime motto, “Keep calm and carry on”, and that’s a good idea when we are all so often held responsible for the endless string of muck ups and disasters that are so frequently cited as a reason for accepting the second rate treatment so often meted out to all but the privileged minority.

Let us condescend to all attempts to exert some puny, self regarding authority, find ourselves superior to weasel words and poorly phrased attempts at mystification, and face all attempts to stress us with superhuman calm and detachment. The Olympian Spirit does not reject effort or improvement, but one wants to decide for oneself what is and is not worth striving for.

In her post, Jacqueline Pye reveals a little of the insouciance, honest humility and tenacity that have led to her not inconsiderable attainments, so one may be confident that she will continue adding to her list of achievements and to prove, despite her rejection of the term, that she is indeed among the very best. She may not like this, but one senses more of the Olympic and of the Olympian Spirit in her good self than her modesty would easily admit to. There’s no need to stick Jacqueline on a podium or a gold medal round her neck; we are all lucky winners because we have been awarded with her presence amongst us.

So I shall bring this post to a close with a poem I started with the intention of spitefully teasing but which inevitably ends with conceding the bays to this woman writer, who continues to surprise and to reveal new depths to all who have the pleasure of following her progress.


You’re at the back of the line, Jacqueline,

So I’m afraid you can’t come in,

Please stay outside and continue to do

All those good things we expect from you,

I’ll accept a bit of your lovely fudge,

But I won’t let you in and will not budge,

You must wait while others boast

And exchange the earth for their Sunday roast,

I shall allow you to stand there patiently

As I display my genius and sensitivity,

Keep on paddling away like a humble vole

Whilst I prepare to score the winning goal

But wait, who has reached the front of this queue

Was it me Jacqueline, or could it be you?

While I flattered myself I was superior

Many preferred to be following her,

More attracted by her recipes and treats

Than by my egotistical bloggings and tweets

The moral for us all is clear

You may overprice yourself, but Jacqueline is truly a dear!


From → Poet, Writer

One Comment
  1. Well, John, I’m (almost) speechless! Thank you for (a) reading my blog, (b) mentioning it in your own, and (c) what you said. You are a highly educated and always fluent writer, and I love a good argument.


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