Created by Greek composer Spýros Samáaras to words written by his fellow countryman, poet Kostís Palamás, the Olympic Anthem is in fact the oldest property of the modern Games.
The renowned composer was given the task of composing it to give a musical identity to the start of the 1896 Games in Athens, the first modern Games, held two years after Pierre de Coubertin had created the IOC.
Samaras, then aged 35, had already established his reputation across Europe. Ten years beforehand, his three-act opera “Flora Mirabilis” was played at La Scala in Milan. His operas were much enjoyed, and were performed in all the major cities in Europe and the Middle East. He was even considered the equal of contemporary Italian composers Giacomo Puccini, Ruggero Leoncavallo and Pietro Mascagni.
A total of nine philharmonic orchestras and 250 singers
On 6 April 1896, the Games opened in Athens. The Panathenaic Stadium was packed for the Opening Ceremony, with an audience of around 80,000 enthusiastic spectators. King George I of Greece declared: “I hereby proclaim the opening of the First International Olympic Games in Athens,” whereupon, an eyewitness – the gymnast who became a celebrated educationalist and Greek sports leader, Ioannis Chrissafis – wrote: “Once the long applause from the spectators had died down, an orchestra and a choir, of enormous size compared with the city of Athens at the end of the 19th century, took their place at the heart of the stadium to perform the Olympic Anthem composed by the illustrious Greek musician, Spyros Samaras, with words by poet Kostís Palamas inspired by the odes of Pindar.”
Samaras personally conducted a total of nine philharmonic orchestras and 250 singers. Chrissafis went on: “This imposing symphonic array so moved the souls of the spectators, from the King himself to the humblest citizen, that they wished to hear the piece a second time. It was therefore performed again.”
There is another stirring account of this particular moment in the Official Report of the Athens 1896 Games: “These words sung in the open air, in the bright sunshine, by hundreds of voices accompanied by hundreds of instruments, made for a marvellous effect. The harmonious chords of the music floated in the air and fuelled a fire of enthusiasm in the heart of each person listening. Everyone was deeply touched, and the spirit of Antiquity seemed to permeate the Stadium. Mr Samaras’ composition was a great sensation, and was applauded as it richly deserved. The melody, slow and gentle to begin, gradually became livelier, and ended with a triumphant crescendo swelled by all of the voices and instruments in the orchestra. Tumultuous applause rang out from all parts of the Stadium at the end of this Anthem, and unanimous requests for a second performance, with the King himself expressing his approval through vigorous applause, and after it was played for a second time, the composer was rewarded with renewed applause.”
“Descend, reveal yourself and flash like lightning here”
The Olympic Anthem also features the words of famous Greek poet Kostis Palamás, who was born in Patras in 1859. He published his first collection of poems to great acclaim in 1886. “For writers who like Victor Hugo, I advise you to see the Greek poet, Kostis Palamás. He is one of the best placed men to talk about him, as he is himself a Greek Hugo,” was how writer Romain Rolland put it in a letter to essayist Jean Guéhenno.
The Olympic anthem lyrics penned by Palamas to accompany the music by Samaras create a bridge between the ancient and modern Games:
“O Ancient immortal Spirit, pure father
Of beauty, of greatness and of truth,
Descend, reveal yourself and flash like lightning here,
within the glory of your own earth and sky.
At running and at wrestling and at throwing,
Shine in the momentum of noble contests,
And crown with the unfading branch
And make the body worthy and ironlike.
Plains, mountains and seas glow with you
Like a white-and-purple great temple,
And hurries at the temple here, your pilgrim,
O Ancient immortal Spirit, every nation.”
The anthem comes back for good in 1960
Music has always been an important part of the Olympic celebrations, and it was even part of the art competitions held from the 1912 Games in Stockholm to those in London in 1948, with medals awarded for all kinds of musical works: compositions for one instrument, works for choirs and soloists, and compositions for orchestras. But the Olympic Anthem by Samaras and Palamás disappeared from view for more than 60 years.
The reason was that, at the opening ceremonies, either there was no anthem at all (especially at the first Games of the 20th century), or a work by a local composer was used or, failing that, simply the national anthem of the host country. Finally, at the 55th IOC Session in Tokyo in 1958, the work by Samaras was played for the opening by the Tokyo orchestra and choir. Those attending were spellbound. IOC member Prince Axel of Denmark then proposed: “Let us return to this paean rather than what was composed recently, and which the majority of the members do not like.” His proposal was adopted unanimously.
Thus, it was played again for the first time at the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Games held in Palisades Tahoe on 18 February 1960 in front of the spectators in the Blyth Arena, and then at the start of the Summer Games in Rome on 25 August the same year. There, the anthem composed in 1896 rang out in the Olympic Stadium of the Eternal City, with words translated into Italian by Professor Sigfrido Troilo and a musical arrangement by conductor Bonaventura Somma.
After that, the Olympic Anthem became a standard part of the protocol. It is played after the parade of nations and once the Games have been officially declared open by the head of state of the host country. It can then also be used for the gold medallists competing independently, and for example was used in 1992 for the champions of the Unified Team composed of the athletes of the 12 former USSR countries. It is also played at the closing ceremonies.
Kostís Palamás in all languages
The words by Palamás are frequently translated into the language of the host country, like for the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and those in Atlanta in 1996; but the original words in Greek are also used.
At the last Summer Games, Tokyo 2020, it was played in a “classical” way at the Opening Ceremony, it was through the powerful voice of Japanese soprano Tomotaka Okamoto that it resonated throughout the Stadium at the Closing Ceremony, to Palamás’ original words.
The performance of the Anthem has always been a particularly moving moment, and an integral part of Olympic identity.