Playing to Win

The Archaeology of the Olympics: The Olympics and Other Festivals in Antiquity

edited by Wendy J. Raschke
University of Wisconsin Press, 297 pp., $17.95 (paper)

The revival of the Olympic games is a remarkable example of the vitality of classical antiquity, and illustrates their inexhaustible capacity for presenting a different appearance to each successive generation. It was, for instance, obvious to nineteenth-century Englishmen, and to Anglophile Americans and Frenchmen like Baron Pierre de Coubertin, that the great athletic festivals of Greece must have been like the sporting occasions of British public schools. They must have been strictly amateur affairs, the ban on prize money excluding those whom the American sportswriter Caspar Whitney liked to call “the great unwashed” and reserving the games for the “better element.” Writers of books duly echoed the dogma, and the amateur sportsman of the recent past was largely created by a false view of the sporting ethics of ancient Greece.

Now that the cult of the amateur is no longer powerful in our world, we are able to see that it was not powerful in antiquity, either. For, in fact, Greek athletes, from a very early date, won very large prizes. Even the incentives open to tennis players and golfers today are perhaps fewer than the combination of enormous celebrity, rewards in cash, pensions, the chance sometimes of political power, and, for the very greatest athletes, divine status and cult after death. Victorian headmasters liked to emphasize that the actual prize for a victor at Olympia was a garland of wild olive, but in classical Athens an Olympic victor was entitled by law to a cash award, equivalent to several years’ pay for a working man, and to free meals for life. Greeks were not unrealistic about money, and Edwardian eulogies of their disinterestedness and “true sporting spirit” would no doubt have made them laugh.

That story is told well, if rather stridently, by David C. Young in a chapter called “How the Amateurs Won the Olympics” in The Archaeology of the Olympics. The collection covers a wide range, from “Hittite Athletics as Prefigurations of Ancient Greek Games” to “Food for Athletes and Gods: A Classical Diet.” The Olympic games went on for more than a thousand years, and all over the Greek world there were more and less large and celebrated local athletic contests. A successful athlete could go from one to another winning victories at them all, and a successful festival meant money for the city that acted as host to it. Wendy Raschke’s collection of essays gives a good idea of that range, although I missed a straightforward account of what actually happened at Olympia (the chapter by Joseph Fontenrose on the Pythian games at Delphi is a model); one also might have hoped for more on the atmosphere and ideals of Greek athletics. They had strict rules—the first thing an athlete saw, on arriving at Olympia, was a crowd of statues paid for by the proceeds of fines levied on athletes who broke them, an idea perhaps for our tennis administrators—but the rules were not identical with ours, particularly in the ferocity permitted …

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