Absolutely Olympic

There is something about the Olympics that always gets to me. Like the pull of the planets around the sun that marks the changing of the seasons or the spin of the Earth that regularly turns day to night, the arrival of the Olympic Games—the winter version followed inevitably by the summer—offers assurance of a rational rhythm in the order of things. And here they are again. This time just up the road in Vancouver, B.C. You can almost hear the hiss and whoosh of ski on snow, blade on ice, right here in Tacoma.

But the allure of the Olympics resides in much more than its status as spectacle or sign of eternal return. It is in the compelling stories of the athletes engaged in what the Greeks called the agon, individuals and teams from around the world who strive beyond all limits to reach a goal, who see a record as a thing to be broken, an obstacle as a challenge, a mountain as a thing to be mastered.

Don’t worry, I won’t get all misty-eyed on you. All of us have seen the Olympic ideal of a planet united in sport overshadowed by subplots of politics and economics and commercialism. I am old enough to remember the raised fists of Mexico City, the mayhem of Munich, and the boycott of Moscow. And no one could help but note in the recent summer Olympics a daunting political statement by China as well as a display of national pride and hospitality. No wonder that more than a half-century ago the great novelist and essayist George Orwell referred to serious sport like the Olympics as nothing less than “war minus the shooting.”

The fact is that even at their founding in ancient Greece, the Olympics were political. They then took place during a time of truce declared specifically for the games. Scholars tell us that such a declaration was necessary because there were so many wars constantly being waged in the Greek world at any given time. That’s why the athletes (from the word athlos, meaning “misery”) engaged with such fervor in those agons (as in “agony”): The spear throwing, chariot races, boxing, and wrestling matches sometimes involved, in the games just as in war, fights to the death. The pankration was a favorite event in the ancient Olympics, a hand-to-hand combat translated as “total force” because it was a contest without rules. Even the marathon, seemingly the most pacific of all events, was, so goes the legend, created after a soldier ran 26 miles from the coastal Greek town of Marathon to Athens to report a great victory in battle. Once the messenger delivered the news, he died from exhaustion. War minus the shooting.

OK, but even with the somewhat less death-defying modern-day political intrigue surrounding the selection of Olympic sites, the inconsistency in the enforcement of rules, the rumors of doping, and the suspect mysteries of judging and scoring, there is still nothing more thrilling than some of the moments the Olympics deliver us: Who could forget Phelps’ incredible performance in the “Cube” in Beijing, defying even our own eyes as he willed his way through the water and touched the edge of the pool before his opponent a record eight times? There were so many other inspiring performances; and many more still will take place in Vancouver in the coming weeks.

We are promised that will be the case in this issue of Arches by Greg Groggel ’06. Greg’s interest in the Olympics began as a young man, long before he came to campus. That interest became a discipline and was shaped into a calling at Puget Sound as a result of Greg’s training in international political economy combined with his talent in photography. And it then became an expertise, thanks to the internships Greg secured here as a student and the Watson Fellowship he was awarded that took him around the world after graduation to chronicle the political and economic impact of Olympic sites. Next, he won an Emmy for his coverage of the Beijing Olympics, and now he’s on staff with NBC in Vancouver. When I think of Greg’s story, it excites me as much as the Olympic Games do, and it calls to mind the dedication and devotion of an Olympic athlete busting barriers and earning medals.

So do the commitment and talent focused by a team of faculty members upon an ancient mystery of astronomy and a seemingly insoluble puzzle of classical history. There is a story about that in this issue, too. It’s centered, fittingly, on a device from ancient Greece with a name that sounds like an Olympic event itself—the Antikythera. Professors Jim Evans and Alan Thorndike are discovering how the inventors of the Olympic Games also invented an elaborate machine to trace the movement of stars and planets and created for that purpose an intricate time machine that has taken decades for scholars to fully understand. Alan and Jim built a model of that machine against all odds, and they are breaking through the barriers of knowledge about it, challenging old assumptions.

For my money, Greg and Jim and Alan are champions in their own right. Absolutely Olympic. And even more than the games, they inspire in me a sense of the rhythm of a pretty spectacular order of things here at Puget Sound. While I’m being amazed by the blurs of speed on the giant slalom at Whistler and the intricate carvings of grace by the speed skaters and figure skaters in the rinks of Vancouver, I’ll be thinking of them, too, and the other stories that seem so plentiful around here—stories of people with determination and skill insistently defying the odds.