Poetry of Sport

Classic poems on themes of sports, athletics and competition

Our collection of poems about sports, athletics and competition begins with the five classics gathered below, but we’d like your help in adding to our anthology. Be sure to use the link at the bottom to suggest your favorite poems about specific sports, athletic endeavors in general, inspiration and competition, winning and losing.

01
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“Olympian Ode I,” by Pindar (476 B.C., trans. Ernest Myers, 1874)

Women sprinting at 100 meters
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This is the original Olympic poem, written by Pindar to celebrate the victory of Hieron, ruler of Syracuse, in the horse race at the Olympic Games of 476 B.C. It also retells one story of the origins of the Olympic Games: Pelops wished to marry Hippodameia, the daughter of Oinomaos, who had decreed that any prospective suitor must win a chariot race against him or lose his own head (and who had already killed 13 of his daughter’s suitors, according to Pindar). After he won the race (by cheating, according to many sources, although Pindar attributes his victory to the gift of “a golden car and winged untiring steeds,” granted by Poseidon in response to a prayer), Pelops celebrated his victory, the death of Oinomaos, and his marriage to Hippodameia with the first Olympic Games, in honor of Zeus.

02
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“Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos,” by Lord Byron (1810)

George Gordon, Lord Byron made himself the image of a Romantic hero—not the pale and wasting poet but the swashbuckling athlete—compensating for his congenital clubfoot by completing open-water swimming feats like the one he wrote about in this poem. On May 3, 1810, Byron swam the Hellespont (also called the Dardanelles), the strait which connects the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, crossing the nearly 3-mile distance entirely by breaststroke and thereby becoming the first person in recorded history to accomplish this swim. In classical myth, of course, someone else had done it before him: Leander, who crossed nightly to see his love Hero.

03
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“To an Athlete Dying Young,” by A.E. Housman (1896)

A.E. Housman’s poem links the glorious celebration of a young athlete carried on the shoulders of a cheering crowd “the time you won your town the race” to its parallel when the same townspeople carry his casket, “shoulder-high we bring you home” after his early death. It’s a meditation on the fleeting nature of glory, and counts the dead youth lucky because he will not outlive his fame.

04
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Countee Cullen wrote this poem, his only known work of free verse, when he was only 14 years old—he turned it in for a class assignment at DeWitt-Clinton High School in New York. It embodies a young teenager’s reflections on the consonance between an athlete’s action and his heart, between appearance and inner soul.

05
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John Masefield’s sonnet captures in its 14 lines the intensity and focus of the champion when the finish line has come into view, when “he laughed, he took the moment for his mate” and finished knowing “beauty, the spirit, scattering dust and turves” (the plural of “turf”).