Monday, September 1, 2008

Politics And Sports In The Twelfth Century

On the relationship between sports and politics, one of my favorite examples is from a twelfth-century poem entitled, "The Two Lovers," written by a woman named Marie who wrote in the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II.

In the poem (in fact it's a "lai"--a kind of medieval song) Marie de France describes a king who has lost his wife and has only one daughter whom he loves (perhaps a little too much). He is unwilling to share her with anyone, and unwilling to share his kingdom with whoever she may choose to marry. To silence he critics (who do not want to see the kingdom without an heir to the throne) he agrees to let his daughter marry, but only to a man who will be able to carry her to the top of a nearby mountain without stopping to rest.

Many noblemen try, but they all fail. The task proves too difficult for even the strongest.

The princess, however, does fall in love with a young nobleman who is, unfortunately, not the most powerful suitor. But the princess fasts, and has her lover visit an aunt who provides him with a special drink to give him extra strength.

For his part, the king invites everyone in the kingdom to witness the event. And they all come. After all, the future of the kingdom is at stake. They line the entire route to the summit of the mountain, in part to cheer, in part to make sure the young man keeps the rules and doesn't stop.

The event looks much like a stage in today's Tour de France: a difficult climb; spectators lining the route; a beautiful woman at the finish line; and the presence of performance enhancing drugs.

The end of the poem is predictable. The young man makes it to the top but dies from the strain. The princess then dies from a broken heart. The king is left alone and without an heir, punished for standing in the way of love and for trying to control his daughter.

Ultimately, the king's attempt to use an athletic challenge to mask political scandal fails.

The moral? Beware of politicians who play beach volleyball.

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