It is a great pleasure and honour to have been invited to speak before you all at Greenwich: it’s the first time I have had the opportunity of doing so since starting 5 weeks ago. Even though this kind of cultural history is hardly my core area of research, I want to seize the opportunity to explore some very basic issues that the title of the event and the programme itself raise about how we study and represent history and gender.
The text I want to think about is the flyer before you of this very study day itself: “Reading the Olympics”. Trained to be attentive to the paratextual as much as to words, I looked at this flyer and wondered at its quite literal subtext – the image the day’s organisers chose to placed beneath the words, THE image of the Olympics. Why did this image seem so right to me? What affiliations or genealogy does it suggest that make it seem an obvious image to underlie the programme? What is being rewritten or written out (in every sense) so as to make it seem right?
It is of course the discobolos (or diskobolos or discobolus) of Myron which I recognised from my classical past. What did I know of this statue? What did I know of its association with the Olympics?
The original Greek statue, supposedly by the sculptor Myron, dated from some time around 450-460BC. We know it mainly from a marble Roman copy found in Italy in the eighteenth century; smaller bronze copies have also turned up. It’s famous for having solved a problem in sculpture that the exhibition that opens tonight in the Stephen Lawrence Gallery also addresses (“The Present is a Moment just Passed“). For the statue captures movement through time even while it is, being a statue, arrested in time. The thrower is about to launch the discus off into an uncertain future. How far will it go? Where? What will this projection into futurity mean? Victory? Loss? Something else again? And then, who is this man? His nakedness abstracts him from society: we cannot place him other than to say he was almost certainly a Greek free man, not a slave, as only Greek-speaking free men could participate in the Olympic games. He has no name, no individuality. Typically classical, the statue aspires to the type, the idea, not the individual likeness.
But then, I want to ask, how much has this image to do with the ancient Olympics? Discus throwing was, it is true, one of the five parts of the ancient Pentathlon (discus, javelin throwing, jumping, wrestling, running). But it was just one of them and, furthermore, it was practised everywhere in the palaestra as part of a general gymnastic training. There’s nothing about discus throwing per se which is Olympian.
Yet here we find discus throwing on the official posters for the 1920 and 1948 Olympic games (the latter more specifically Myron’s).
Was a copy of Myron’s statue perhaps found in Olympia to validate our association of the statue with the Games?
Well, no. All the copies of the Discobolos I know about have been found in Italy: it does not seem to be connected to Olympia it all.
Only two statues were dug up when the Prussian Ernst Curtius excavated Olympia between 1875 and 1881: a winged Victory and the so called “Hermes of Praxiteles” in which the god holds the baby Dionysos. Despite Hermes’ typically perfect body, this statue is hardly a model of the competitive athletic. The original Olympic games were held in honour of the king of the gods, Zeus, and there is a clear connection of this statue to Zeus. Dionysos’s mother was consumed when her lover Zeus revealed himself to her. Zeus saved the unborn child inside her and gave it to Hermes to take to the nymphs to be nursed and brought up. Here Hermes has paused on his flight to amuse the infant Dionysos with a charm in his right hand – now missing. From the direction of this photo Hermes looks serious, but when seen from the left his face is sad, when from the right, smiling.
Why don’t we use this emotionally complex image of surrogate fatherhood as an image for the Olympics? Perhaps because while Hermes’ body is perfect, the statue is hardly a marker of competitive individualism or struggle that the Olympic Games seem to valorise above all else.
What’s at stake, then, in using as the icon of international sporting competition a Roman copy of an emotionally blank athlete? I leave that for yourselves to ponder for the moment. What I will say is that the very idea of the discobolos and discus throwing as the embodiment of the Olympics started at the very first international Olympic Games in 1896. I’ll talk a bit about those first Games before going on to discuss briefly the most famous of all movies about the Olympics, Leni Riefenstahl’s amazing 1938 two-parter, Olympia, as a way of setting up and contrasting with the talk that will follow mine, a discussion of the 1948 London Olympics by our colleagues from History.
Part 2 is here.