Issue 14, April 2010
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Homer in Vancouver, home of 2010 Winter Olympics
 

 […] but Achilles stayed the people and made them sit in assembly. He brought prizes from the ships-cauldrons, tripods, horses and mules, noble oxen, women with fair girdles, and swart iron. The first prize he offered was for the chariot races- a woman skilled in all useful arts, and a three-legged cauldron that had ears for handles, and would hold twenty-two measures. This was for the man who came in first…

In Iliad’s book Ψ, Homer offers the first description of athletic games in literature. He describes the games organized by Achilles in memory of his beloved friend Patroclus.  Athletic events were held in ancient Greece to honor the dead and to give warriors a chance for training before the battle. They served as a break from the hardship of war and as a way of steaming off human aggressiveness. Such events may well have served as model for the establishment of the Olympic Games.
Vancouver was the Canadian city that organized the 2010 Winter Olympics. Thus it was the perfect setting for the staging of a dramatic reading of excerpts from Homer’s Iliad that referred to ancient athletic games. It was organized at the Vancouver International Film Centre January 20, 2010, and provided a bold, poignant statement of why games matter along with strong images of breathtaking action and good sportsmanship.

Directed by David Muse, of Washington, D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre Company, from a 1990 translation by Robert Fagles, Striving for Excellence in Homeric Times was a presentation of the affiliate Alexander S. Onassis Foundation and the Hellenic studies chair at Simon Fraser University. Throughout the performance by a cast of local and American actors, David Konstan, a classics professor from Brown University, provided a commentary putting in context the moments culled from the saga that chronicles the bloody final months of the 10-year siege of Troy.

Eight actors read the different parts: Jennifer Clement was Andromache· Sam Tsoutsouvas was Homer· Ian Butcher, Hector and Menelaus· Greg Derelian, Ajax and Diomedes· Ed Dixon, Priam and Nestor· Alessandro Juliani, Achilles· Peter Francis James, Odysseus and Epeus· Kyle Rideout, Antilochus and Dolon.

The dramatic reading was supported by a slide projection of period armaments, beautiful pottery, marbles and friezes. A trio of musicians -Joelysa Pankanea, Jeff Gladstone and Mark Haney in bass, guitar and percussion- accompanied the reading.
According to Homer, Achilles stands judging a wrestling match between Ajax and Odysseus, who battle ferociously but prove themselves of equal strength:

"Fight no more," Achilles intervenes, "and do not wear each other out in agony, you are both victors: Come take equal prizes."

“Games have umpires, though sadly they are lacking elsewhere on our planet,” comments Ian Mulgrew, writer for The Vancouver Sun. “Homer knew that. He knew that we all learn from games: The British Empire was created on the playing fields of Eton, as they say, and what happens on the playground remains forever with us. The spirit, ambition, heart and sportsmanship of athletics can and do connect and inspire. That is their power. That's why Homer included the games in his narrative.

He drove his point home, I think, at the end of the poem when the bereaved Trojan king, Priam, kisses the hand of Achilles, begging him to return the desecrated body of the king's son. Achilles had slain Hector to avenge the loss of his dearest friend and vowed dogs would feast on his corpse. Yet, in spite of his still-white rage, he uncharacteristically succumbs to the humanity of the broken man's pleas. They lament together in a closing scene of extraordinary compassion and common understanding.

Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics”, concludes the Canadian journalist,  “should remind us that sports are important because they transmit values and virtues we all believe in and should exemplify more”.

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