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Poets and the Olympic Truce: Poetry Connection


“Economy and simplicity,” saith maestro Keeley. There were Seferis’s masters. And are mine. The Greek “burden of history” is unique in some ways, I think, because of the influence of classical Greek thought on so much of the world. For other ancient cultures like China and India, the geography often changed shape, empires came and went. For the Greeks, the classical period did not really end but simply continued to evolve. And Greece is a small country to have such enormous influence, to have created our notion of democracy, for instance. Greece has been overrun and occupied and resurrected, always changing, always evolving, but still holding to its root. In this, it is like the Chinese. It is both a treasure and a burden, I think, to be a Greek poet."

Sam Hamill  18.2.2004

Poets and the Olympic Truce

Athens hosted the Olympic Games in August 2004, but due to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan ‘security’ — and not the Olympic Truce — was the overriding concern. As a matter of fact, efforts (including involvement of NATO forces leading to further militarization) made to secure the games against all kinds of threats pushed completely the true meaning of the Olympic Games into the background.

An editorial in the International Herald Tribune on Feb. 10th 2004 referred to the need to distinguish between true and false threats. Since September 11th and the massive exaggerations that the whole of America had come under attack, this was used not only to create fear of further attacks, but to justify to go to war on a ‘permanent basis’. The permanent war excludes any cultural dimension and therefore any hope for peace. As such ‘the war against terrorism’ let not only the American administration incur all kinds of false judgments i.e. Iraq under Saddam Hussein possessing ‘weapons of mass destruction’, but also to overreactions, the going to war on March 21, 2003 against Iraq a most recent and painful example.

When the Olympic Games started in Athens 2004, that war in Iraq was continuing. Despite America having signed with other nations the UN resolution, all of a sudden the Bush administration did not feel bound by that resolution. In the daily newspaper the reason why was reported as follows:

“US denies breach of Games truce

Washington (AFP) – The United States said yesterday its military operations in Iraq are not covered by the so-called Olympic Truce it signed last year at the United Nations.

The State Department said US soldiers now fighting in Iraq would not be bound by the terms of the truce that calls for all nations in conflict to observe a traditional ceasefire during the Games.

“I reject the notion that somehow we are violating any Olympic principles by what’s going on in Iraq,” deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said. “I don’t think there’s a connection between the truce and what’s going on in Iraq.” On November 3, 2003, the United States was among 190 of 191 UN General Assembly members to co-sponsor and adopt a Greek-submitted resolution titles “Building a Peaceful and Better World Through Sport and the Olympic Ideas,” the key component of which was the truce.

The resolution “urges the member states to observe, within the framework of the Charter of the United Nations, the Olympic Truce, individually and collectively, during the Games of the XXVIII Olympiad.” Perhaps ironically, the US ambassador to the United Nations at the time was John Negroponte who is now Washington’s top diplomat in Iraq, the lone UN member not to sign the truce because it was then under a US-led occupation government and not represented at the world body.

Shortly after the resolution was adopted, UN chief Kofi Annan said the truce was a “powerful message” for all combatants to cease fighting and think about peace, even if hostilities stopped for only 24 hours.[1]

A lot was made and said about the Olympic Games returning ‘home’: to ancient grounds where the Olympics started first in the Classical Period and then again over 100 years when the new games were reinvented. It was thought that at least the ancient ideal calling for the prevalence of peace while the Games were in progress would contribute to making these Games a success not only in Greece but world wide.

Olympic Truce conveys the meaning that no one resorts to violence during the Games, in order that the athletic competition can take place in a peaceful environment. Taken further, this ideal should also mean that no one be permitted to resort to violence in order to influence the overall outcome of the Games. Rather, fair sportsmanship and non-violence serve as a guarantee that the honors taken home by the winning athletes will bestow a sense of pride and civility upon life everywhere.

While discussing within POIEIN KAI PRATTEIN what possible contribution artists, poets, writers, philosophers, filmmakers etc., could make to the Olympic Games of 2004, one idea struck a deep cord. The idea of creating a poetic movement in support of the Olympic Truce by linking to the efforts of the ‘Poets against the War’ in America would mean going beyond mere anti-war movements. The conditions of peace are varied but they begin as Ancient Greek poets knew already by taking measure to ensure that things are happening within human proportions and that man avoids such tragic dimensions as shown by the playwrights of Ancient Greek dramas.

Thus the impetus behind Poets and the Olympic Truce was to bring about an Anthology of Poets and their Poems connected thematically, geographically and intricately, in order to be linked together with the quest for Olympic Truce to be observed during the Olympic Games being held in Athens August 13 – August 29th and then continued with the Paralympic Games in September.

To start with, a group of poets had been asked to contribute some of their poems to an Anthology on the topic “Poets and the Olympic Truce”. The group is comprised of international poets, in particular Sam Hamill and Mary Lathrop of “Poets against the War|” in America — along with Athens-based Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, Pedro Mateo, Charis Vlavianos, Socrates Kabouropoulos and Hatto Fischer. Then there is Stevan Tontic in Sarajevo, Giulio Stocchi in Milano, Sonja A. Skarstedt in Montreal and Michael D. Higgins in Galway and Brendan Kennelly in Dublin, Ireland.

Poets and the Olympic Truce is centered on a wish that the Games held in Athens 2004 would take place under the auspices of a free poetic spirit. However, these Games were a far cry from such spirit. Instead the VIPS (and not the athletes, volunteers or spectators) attending the Games were over protected by police, cameras, security surveillance from the air, sea and land. As a result many poets went silent even before the Games began on August 13th. They left with so many other Athenians the city. As a result neither the Opening of the Games nor the Closing heard the voices of someone like Elytis.

Looking back, many Greeks did not know what to expect or how to relate to such an international event. Many stayed away out of fear of a pending attack. Others  wished to avoid traffic congestions. It combined well with also those who would leave Athens anyway around that time of the year, August 15th one of the biggest holidays in Greece. It had been planned that way to make transport in Athens that much easier if not 4 to 5 Million people were in the city but only half or even less. Only in the second week did people return and picked up a sense of that international atmosphere. That explains why many competitions took place during the first week with stands hardly filled by people.

The absence of both poets and people at the Olympic Games in Athens 2004 was also due to the fact that artists and people were not allowed to participate in the preparations. Again the fear created by 9.11 pushed aside all considerations going in that direction. Instead things were dictated by all necessary but equally unnecessary security arrangements.

The 1 Billion Euro spend on security is an amount that cannot be justified but it has become a new game of making expenditures break through any budgetary ceiling. In the end there is no one to judge whether it was too much, for who is to say that one more plane in the air was needed to attain that highly evasive security. Retrospectively ‘the success of the Games’ in Athens is linked to the fact that no terrorist attack took place. Instead doping of the two main Greek sprinters cast a shadow over the opening ceremony while towards the nearly perfect record of hosting the Games free from major incidents was marred when a disarrayed Irish Priest sprang suddenly out of the waving crowd near the finishing line of the Marathon race and pushed the lead Brazilian runner into the crowd. It had the consequence that the runner lost his rhythm and with it his nearly secured Gold medal. Of course, there were other mishaps such as volunteers in need of eating the food of the sponsors for nothing else was served once on the grounds of the Olympic stadium and that meant hot dogs, chips and coke or water but nothing else, or else a volunteer being kept all the time on the parking lot and never allowed to see one of the Games’ event, but that is minor. More tricky it became when those in charge of doping control could not get immediately the car they needed at the hotel were they were staying. Also the translators were not happy with what went on in terms of being kept not on line but in a ready position to work when in fact they were never really needed all the time. Here one could say no Games at such scale would be free of such frictions and it is not the purpose of re-accounting the many things seen during the Games, but they turned out to be for people who went to see them quite an experience. Especially for the Greeks it brought home that despite all misgivings they had completed something on schedule and this in conjunction with the IOC to the best of their abilities. Since then Greeks talk about the Games as having discovered their potential self’s in need of such self confidence in order to tackle challenges of the future.

But to return to this Anthology ‘POETRY CONNECTION” the intention was to bring about a debate about the difference between war and peace. There are some deeply moving poems that can further our understanding of ‘truce’ as part of daily life when threatened by ‘terrorism’. For instance, a poem by Brendan Kennelly asks but what can bystanders do if a bomb goes off and nearby innocent children are hit by a cluster of nails and other objects? In the fight against terrorism it should not be forgotten that it is usually the third parties, in particular the innocent bystanders, who are the victims. Indeed poetry must address this random violence if children and innocent bystanders are hit. What can be done to protect human beings against this kind of violent rage mixed with cold calculations that allow the throwing of bombs amongst people just traveling home on a train or else shopping at a market place? Much of it has been seen in the Middle East as part of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, or now in Iraq. The reactions of the authorities transform these kinds of wild attacks into again overreactions as if the emotions of the world could be whipped up over and again by not controlling responses but by taking more and more revenge again and again without further thought about consequences. What to do when caught in such spiral of violence using the unknown caused by arbitrary selection of targets to create fear?

Can poetry contribute towards making a truce possible and then continue to work on the conditions of peace? There is Sudan, while the security situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating around the time of the Olympic Games so rapidly that unarmed aid workers of  “Doctors without Frontiers” no longer felt save to operate there. In Iraq the way to democracy has been over sanctions, invasion, occupation and suppression all while the key principle, namely a peaceful transition of political power, has not been observed. Here the West failed to uphold democratic practice and continues misusing not only humanitarian grounds, but also arguments for freedom and against dictatorship to overthrow governments by violent means. As if full cooperation and compliance are the prerequisites of this new World Order. Indeed, there is a need to ask what world we live in if aiding human beings in need – starvation as much as bleeding – is prevented for the sake of tactical moves at the bargaining table?

Yes, poetry must be perceived as a sign of respect for such human relationships yet to evolve so as to ensure peace between all people and states. Once that figure of peace can be found and articulated so as to hold out the tension between conflicting parties in a positive way, then this would bring to human situations a sense of justice and a truer dimension of communication with the world. The latter can only then be considered a human community when people are not abandoned and competition does not lead to false national claims and further aggression.

All this puts into doubt the sense of ‘competition’ as interpreted and implemented in the modern Olympic Games. Consequently it has to be acknowledged that the organizers of Athens were successful only in an extremely limited sense. In reality, the organizers failed to bring about an alternative Olympic event that could uphold the peace process and free people from the need for false competitions since the hunger and prestige for more medals leads not to international friendship but exactly to more doping scandals and young athletes ruined in their health for life.

The modern Olympic Games have become a gigantic PR exercise in terms of global business and managing practices. It merges in a clever way over commercialization of an old idea with systematic exploitation of any place willing to host them. When appraising the costly infrastructure put in place in Athens, then the Games mean just that: the locally being taken hostage by the onslaught of international capital that demands things as seemed fit for hosting the Games for but two weeks. There is no real sustainability about them but in its wake the Games leave behind a few winners and an entire city and even nation confronting a huge debt for years to come. It is a burden put upon future generations that cannot be justified. But precisely the race is on that the next Games must still be bigger, better, faster, there is no way that modest Games could be held at human scale where once ancient athletes competed more with the winds while accompanied by the shouts of the poets to ensure that the herald of things could be heard.

In terms of the Olympic Games 2004 the biggest contradiction between what Athens used to be, namely a safe city in which people could easily walk in the streets in the night without fear, and what it has become as a result of the Olympic Games, namely an over defended city with all sorts of armies and security officials in plain clothes, that can be seen in view of what Pericles said in Ancient Times when giving his ‘Funeral Speech’: “Athens does not need armies to protect itself, but active citizenship”. The fact that no active citizenship appeared anywhere while the Games were prepared and then hosted, that is the surest sign that the Athens 2004 Games were no success but quite the opposite.

There is still another question to be answered. It can be asked but why do poets object to the term ‘competition’ even if the Olympic Games are presented in reference to the Olympic Truce as if athletes from different nations compete with one another under friendly conditions? First of all, the competition between athletes is not at individual basis nor are they selected as coming from cities or the countryside to distinguish them somehow. No, they come from sport schools of nations and reinforce the myth of the competitiveness of the nations they represent. At the Athens Games it was very much observed how well the Chinese athletes performed and this naturally leads to expectations with regards to the next Summer Olympic Games since being held in Beijing 2008. Still, even if they have no distinguished background as being recognized by fellow citizens, they could represent some amateur circles created in the neighborhoods of cities in support of international friendship. But the increasing professionalisation of sport competition has not made halt at the Olympic Games. Tennis stars known all over the world in terms of their tennis circuits compete at the Olympic Games just as professional players earn their money through sport and more so through lucrative advertisement contracts. In short, the Olympic Games is no longer what it should be in terms of laying the foundation for future observance of truce: an opportunity to make international friends and go beyond national borders in understanding the beauty but also plight of mankind. Instead the Olympic Games reinforce more than anything ‘Nationalism’ of its worst kind as if the strength (and wealth) of a nation depends upon how many medals its athletes win at the Games.

There is another, poetic reason. Giulio Stocchi points as to why poets are against such kind of competition. To him ‘war is just another type of competition but a very bloody one’. He reasons that even competition amongst poets should be avoided. The human spirit requires the ability to work together. It requires that people give recognition to one another as active human beings willing to take on the responsibility of citizenship in the world. That requires an awareness of each others’ needs and a way of dealing with thoughts and ideas that reflect a human spirit based on sensitivity. Therefore, Gulio Stocchi concludes, poets should defend things at risk to be lost in the world created by the Olympic Games, one of those things being ‘sensitivity’. The human spirit without such sensitivity will not be able to perceive the needs of the others nor be able to guarantee them that they shall be well treated.

Hatto Fischer


Athens August 2004

[1] Taken from Kathimerini, English Edition as part of the International Herald Tribune, Saturday – Sunday, August 14 – 15, 2004


There is another kind of oath, the one Penelope made to Odyssey, namely to remain faithful in love but then modern Greek poets like Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke contradicts this usual interpretation.



The vessels can barely be seen Iphigenia

Incense covers the stairs down to the sea.

Your step, your dress, your hair

messengers of the wind.


The nights come one by one two by two

they sit on the tips of your fingers

and on your neck

the sun never sets.


Incapable of counting your vineyards

your land and your olive groves

you were lost in a summer dream.


There on your wooden balcony

geraniums were growing wild

next to domestic birds

and you always playing

with sunset beads

and love stories.


You, a king’s daughter,

would forget your beautiful sandals

when the lion-born sky

in a female moment of his

would rest on your knees.


Iphigenia every boat and a wild April

every gorgon on the prow

and a festive shore.


Old wise men

before the beginning of the trees

old omniscient men

had told us

–even before Aphrodite was born

behind the clouds–

the story of the girl

who was friendly to the winds.

And you

–marble light imprisons your head–

you talked to the sea Mother of God

tenderly bending

over her son September

about the warriors

and their evil thoughts.


Warriors are non-believers.

They are Taurus’s

with suns painted on their armor

and their calves

heavily planted in the earth.

They don’t believe in the fruit of waiting

in the ocean returning

even richer

in the renaissance of the bottom of the sea.


We need the time of the pony

of the tall cactuses

of the water snake

and of the stars until they reappear.

We need the eternity of trust.


But they only talk about the battle;

they feed it together with the horses

and the wild partridge.

Everything is ready they say.

The pointed weapons, the reins

the dug-up earth gaping for bodies,

anger, the laments of women.

And the wind?

The first dolphins emerged. Iphigenia.

Gulls and ships will follow.

Kindness blossomed in your garden

like lemon blossom.

Yet your neck becomes

the invisible path for evil.


Commotion on the shore.

Men stepping, running on the harbor tiles

messages, faces.

She refused they said

Iphigenia refused.

For the sake of love she said

for a mellow heart

for peaceful towns

for us to look after our fruit trees

to receive rain in its time

for the pastures

for the Angels


She refused


So that the warriors would never get there

the castles shine

under the ivy

for the children she said

to grow into giants.

For the sake of joy she said

and ascended to heaven


Stunned the soldiers

postponed the war

and they found Helen

humbly preparing dinner.


Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke




Proposal for Athens 2004: A Poetic Olympic Oath

A policy maker would say: upgrade what already exists

Make structures visible

Then turn around and see again what has been created

With not Orpheus competing

But others who








beating time


the others

and the crowd watching

who makes it first, second, third

and at all to the


but what is a goal

a test

an achievement


with doors opening

others closing

thereafter once Athens 2004 has been completed


for success has its own reason and price

as far as commitment to stay true to this test is concerned.


There is the Olympic Oath

And a dream belonging to all mankind

Where bridges of understanding have been found

In time to make the Olympic spirit move on,

Despite contradictions and hard fought for assumptions

About man’s ability to compete in fair and open games,

In order to claim within this world some perspective of peace.


If anything, paths taken, critical reflections articulated,

emotions sailing with the winds out to the islands,

and other thoughts not mentioned but written down somewhere,

the cultural dimension will only become something like a rainbow

if it reflects the movement of man in time and space,


Provided there is added freedom of thought based on dialogue,

poetic understanding and philosophical perspectives opening up

man’s creative ability to unfold to the love of the world

expressed in words of wisdom.


Hatto Fischer

Athens 22.10.2002



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