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Does Shakespeare have the winning words?

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Will Gompertz | 12:08 UK time, Friday, 10 December 2010

The challenge has been set, the bar has been raised - the competition is afoot. The nation has been asked to suggest inspirational poems to be inscribed throughout the athletes' village at the London 2012 Olympic Games in order to give our boys and girls a competitive edge.

It is not a new idea and if you take If as the modern standard-bearer of inspiring-poetry-in-sporty-places, not necessarily a very good one for us Brits. Two lines from Kipling's famous poem are written above the entry to Wimbledon's Centre Court that might well have served to inspire all sorts of wonderful tennis players, but conspicuously few of a British hue.

Two lines from Kipling's If above door of Centre Court

Maybe Kipling is a bit romantic and brings out our sensitive, terribly decent side. After all, if you treat triumph and disaster the same, why bother fighting for every point?

Perhaps we'd respond better to something that doesn't give houseroom to the notion of failure. And for that we need look no further than William Shakespeare. Frankly you could adorn the entire village with rousing Shakespearian passages (and thereby make it part of the World Shakespeare Festival), but I will point to two of the more obvious examples of his adrenalin-inducing rhetoric.

This from Julius Caesar (Act 4, Scene 3) where Brutus is discussing war with Cassius:

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Or, if it's more of a rallying cry required, there's always the Henry V's speech in Act 3 of Henry V (edited for the most pertinent bits). A bit hackneyed perhaps, and the word English would need to be re-written to include the rest of Britain - but other than that, it should hit the spot.

Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.

But if they insist on If, they should cut out all that triumph and disaster business and put this passage up instead near the cabins of the long distance runners/rowers.

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on."


  • Comment number 1.

    William McGonagall - an adapted version of the Tay Bridge Disaster referring to the 2012 Olympics "Beautiful Railway Bridge 'or the Silv'ry Thames"

    John Betjeman - Slough (again adapted) "Come friendly bombs fall on Stratford"

    Self deprecating humour may protect us from the undoubted worldwide ridicule for the petty and gross failures which will without doubt befall us at the Austerity Games - the only question left to answer is will the 2012 games be better or worse than the 1948 Games? My bet is far worse!

  • Comment number 2.


    You take things too seriously and all too earnestly. This will make it doubly painful fro you when things do not go to plan in 2012.

    We need the 'stand up' games live at Trafalgar Square or at some free entry site (anywhere without the exorbitant entry fee.) We need The Comedy Olympiad - comedians from all round the World and a man with a gong!

  • Comment number 3.

    "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
    Look on my works, ye mighty and despair!"
    Nothing beside remains...

    ah, the brevity of power and fame !

  • Comment number 4.

    I think that one of the marvellous poems by the late and largely forgotten English painter, Martin Wolk, would be very apt:

    I run and jump,

    I run and jump,

    I run and jump,


  • Comment number 5.

    I object to Shakespeare's mighty words being used to promote the Olympic Games, that obscenely corrupt exhibition of athletes attempting not to win the race fairly and for the love of sport, but to become enriched by corporate advertising or government stipend by passing the finish line by any means possible. "Plate sin with gold, / And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks."

  • Comment number 6.

    'Play Up! Play Up! And play the game!' from Sir Henry Newbolt. It's like a combination of school Sports Day and a war out there.

    But Henry V's injunction to '....stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage' might be more like it. As long as they don't start giggling.

  • Comment number 7.

    Can we not reintroduce the Art Competitions to the Olympic Games? From 1912 (Stockholm) to 1948 (London) there were medals in architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture for works inspired by sport-related themes.

    Failing that can we have poetry that promotes the idea, not of personal glory, but of the unity of nations?


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