5th-graders relive glory of Greek Olympiads

Waldorf athletes aren't rated on performance, but encouraged to take their place in the world
Thursday, May 15, 2008
The Oregonian

The tunic-clad fifth-graders used to be judged on how far they threw the javelin in a meadow next to the Sandy River.

But over two decades of regional Olympiads for area Waldorf schools, the methods of measuring have changed, said coordinator Michael Cromie, a movement teacher at Portland Waldorf School.

The student's throw isn't really about distance, said Portland osteopath Dr. John Takacs, another movement coach, but about reaching deeply and following through, about celebrating the beauty of the movement -- a physical metaphor for moving an individual's intention into the world.

"We used to measure distance, and have first and second places," Cromie said. "Now, we just let kids throw," as they have every Mother's Day weekend for almost 20 years.

When Waldorf education -- a philosophy of educating heart, hand and mind -- started 90 years ago, Olympiads weren't part of the program. The concept was introduced in 1989, when a group of teachers decided fifth grade was the perfect time to physically experience their study of ancient Greece, with its focus on sport and the ideal form.

"Fifth grade is a balancing point in childhood. It's very harmonious -- the changes of puberty haven't started," Cromie said.

The first local Olympiad included schools from Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. But as the Waldorf movement has grown, the event split into smaller state and provincial competitions. This year, the Oregon schedule at Camp Namanu near Sandy included more than 100 students from nine private and public charter schools in the state, including Portland Waldorf School in Milwaukie, Cedarwood School in Southwest Portland, Swallowtail School in Hillsboro and Shining Star School in Northeast Portland, as well as a visiting class from Germany.

Waldorf groups hold about 40 Olympiads throughout North America and Europe, Cromie estimated. A related group, called Hands in Peace, has organized Olympiads for children from areas of conflict, including Northern Ireland and Israel, encouraging the concepts of peaceful competition, said Takacs, who is a chairman of Hands in Peace.

The schools train for weeks or months with an emphasis on safety, Cromie said.

Each Oregon Olympiad starts with a Friday night Greek feast prepared by a Camp Namanu cook. Students from each school make a related presentation, such as a play about Jason and the Golden Fleece.

Then, the schools are divided among Greek city-states, so students compete not with classmates but on teams with those they have just met.

After a night camping with new friends, the students participate in five events: running, broad jump, javelin, discus and an upright form of wrestling, in which competitors hold hands and try to force one another from a circle. At the end, each competitor is crowned with a laurel wreath as a judge describes what they contributed in citizenship and grace.

"It is an absolute marker in their experience. . . . I've had many kids say, 'It's the coolest thing I ever did at school,' " Cromie said. "So few things are markers in life for kids anymore. This is a little bit like that -- you're stepping out on the field of life. . . . It's not a small step. It's a big step for these kids."

Catherine Trevison: 503-294-5971; ctrevison@news.oregonian.com

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