Committee on International Relations
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515-0128
Remarks of The Honorable Henry J. Hyde
Olympic Laurel Wreath Presentation Ceremony
U.S. BOTANIC GARDEN
Tuesday, September 28, 2004
Thank you, Mr. Hantman. It is my honor to be with you today at the U.S. Botanic Garden to present three Olympic laurel wreaths from the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. The Olympic Games are a unique opportunity to bring together nations from around the globe in celebration of unity and athletic achievement.
This past August, as the Games returned to their ancient birthplace of Athens and the city of their revival, the world beheld with awe the Olympic stage framed by the Parthenon on the Acropolis and the ancient stadium in Olympia where the original Games were held in 776 B.C. We also witnessed the renewal of the tradition of placing a laurel wreath upon each victor’s head. Each award ceremony reminded us of the thousands of years of athletic achievement and historic celebrations that preceded the one before us.
The wreaths which I am presenting today to the U.S. Botanic Garden also symbolize peace and purification. Classicists tell us that the ancient Greeks awarded wreaths to athletes who won competitions in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Throughout time, the wreath has been awarded to distinguished artists and scholars, although in different forms. In England, the Regent traditionally appointed a poet laureate from among the foremost poets of the day. The tradition survives to this day. The United States embraced the practice in 1937, and since that time has appointed the likes of Robert Penn Warren, William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost as poets laureate.
Ironically, the symbol of the laurel wreath that we associate with achievement, peace, and purification finds its roots in less praiseworthy circumstances. The story goes that Apollo, the god of the Sun, offended Eros, the Greek god of love, by derisively comparing Eros’ delicate golden arrows to his own heavy iron ones. An argument ensued, and Apollo told Eros to leave the arrows to the “strong.” Eros then shot Apollo with a golden arrow, causing him to fall in love with Daphne, a lovely and innocent maiden. Eros shot Daphne with one of Apollo’s iron arrows, forever turning her against him. Thus, Apollo was doomed to pursue Daphne, who was fated to flee from him. In the end, Daphne’s desire to resist Apollo was so great that she was turned into a laurel tree. From that day on, Apollo wore a wreath made from the leaves.
Fortunately, the story of the laurel wreath has a happy ending. To honor Apollo, victors at the first Pythian Games were crowned with laurel wreaths. Thus began a gradual process by which a symbol of hatred and pride became a symbol of achievement and of peaceful victory—a welcome departure from its origins in Greek mythology. Not surprisingly, this transformation was the result of the peaceful gathering of nations around the medium of sport, of international dialogue and exchange.
The olive branches, from which these Olympic laurel wreaths are constructed, also have special significance to the United States Congress. The Founders argued at length about the iconography associated with the Great Seal of the United States. The Great Seal design specifies that the American Bald Eagle hold in his right talon an olive branch, and in his left a bundle of thirteen arrows. The Olive branch and arrows denote the power of peace & war which is exclusively vested in Congress. We appreciate the good work of Senator Ted Stevens, the Chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress, and Representative Vernon Ehlers, the Vice-Chair of the Committee and Alan Hantman for keeping this spirit alive in the Botanic Gardens.
Barbara Bush once said, “The Botanic Gardens are to nature what the Smithsonian is to art.” I can see no more fitting home for these coveted wreaths than our Nation’s Gardens. With the laurel wreath’s symbol of peace enshrined on the Peace Monument only steps between the Gardens and our Capitol, visitors can pay respect to the honor and excellence that are represented in the spirit of these wreaths.
I would specifically like to thank the Government of Greece and the Athens Organizing Committee for the gift of these wreaths to our Nation. Also instrumental in bringing these wreaths to the American public was the American Ambassador to the Hellenic Republic of Greece, Tom Miller. We are also grateful to Chuck Azukas and Ed Moreno of the U. S. State Department for their significant contribution to this effort. Finally, I’d like to congratulate the United States Olympic Committee for shepherding our American athletes to “one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Games of all time.”