Charlotte Higgins on Culture
When the International Olympic Committee meet for a gala tonight at the Royal Opera House to usher in the 2012 Games, they will be treated to a recital of poetry by the mayor of London, Boris Johnson – in ancient Greek.
Johnson, a classicist by education, who is famous for quoting Virgil and Homer in the original at the slightest provocation, has commissioned Armand D'Angour, a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, to write an poem in the style of Pindar, the ancient poet most famous for his odes celebrating victories in the athletic competitions of fifth-century Greece.
"Like any other classicist," said D'Angour, who also composed a poem in ancient Greek for the 2004 Olympics, "Boris couldn't imagine the Games without Pindar."
The resulting six-stanza poem begins, in its accompanying English verse translation: "This new Olympic flame behold,/ that once burned bright in Greece of old;/ with happy hearts receive once more/ these Games revived on London's shore." (The full text, in both Greek and English, is available online.)
The conceit of D'Angour's poem was suggested by Johnson, who noted that the Greek for "bolt" was "asterope". Thus came the idea of concealing athlete's names, in this case that of Usain Bolt, in the verse.
The stanza that refers to the Jamaican sprinter reads, in its English translation: "They will observe with rapt delight/ the archer draw his bowstring tight,/ the skillful rider guide her horse,/ and lightning bolt around the course." Diver Tom Daley and heptathlete Jessica Ennis are also referred to.
Johnson himself appears, described punningly as "barus", an adjective meaning, according to D'Angour, "weighty or deep-voiced, both of which Boris is". However, the poet may be also intending something more subversive, since "barus" also means "burdensome", "grievous" and "oppressive".
The poem has also been inscribed on a bronze plaque that will be installed in the Olympic park.
Tim Whitmarsh, professor of ancient literatures at the University of Oxford, noted an alternative translation of lines nine to 10, rendered by D'Angour as "Millions of watchers will embrace/ the passion of each close-run race". He said: "You could actually translate this as 'a huge crowd will watch on as others speed by'. I take it that this is an allusion to VIP lanes?"
There is also a sponsorship clanger. The last two lines of the poem are: "Good luck to all who strive to win:/ applaud, and let the Games begin!" The Greek for victory here is, of course, "Nike". But since the brand is not a sponsor of the Games, its use is liable to have Johnson cast out of his own party. "Armand's endorsement of Adidas' rival is bold, and, I am sure, heartfelt," said Whitmarsh.