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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 in boxing and wrestling. Public opinion expected displays of determination and refusal to surrender which can make gruesome reading, and a few contestants were greatly admired for accepting death rather than defeat.

The Greeks took sport seriously. Every man took exercise, and the gymnasium to which a man belonged served as a kind of club where he might spend the whole day. Greek society was intensely competitive; when tragedies were staged, it seemed natural to do so in the form of a tragedy competition, and the first, second, and third places taken by Aeschylus and Sophocles were carefully recorded. In sport, too, the aim was to win. The successful athlete was a glamorous figure, not only sexually privileged but on occasion achieving political power. National prestige was felt to be raised by victories at the Panhellenic festivals, which were the only occasions when all Greeks met and fraternized and competed, but there were no national teams, only brilliant solo performers.

Certain striking features differentiate the ancient from the modern Olympics. One is the complete absence of team events, which did not interest Greeks. Glory shared was, apparently, glory spoiled. Women were excluded from the men’s games; as we shall see, they had a separate contest. The whole festival was closely tied to religious cult, held at a religious center, surrounded by myths. Sport was not separated, as it is with us, from religion and also from art. The great temple of Zeus at Olympia was decorated with sculptures of mythical scenes involving wrestling and racing, that is to say with images immediately drawn from the sporting events that were held close by; and lyric poets like Pindar wrote poems for musical performance in honor of Olympic victors. At the games at Delphi, though not at Olympia, there were musical as well as sporting contests. It will be a surprise if a notable work of art is inspired by the 1988 Olympics.

A final difference: whereas modern sport seems to exist solely for the purpose of creating and breaking records, the absence of exact timekeeping devices in antiquity went with a lack of interest in anything of that sort. What mattered was that the victor had won, not that he was .03 of a second slower than last year’s winner. But one can find a sad point of resemblance, in an age when countries compete bitterly to hold the games, boycott them, hold rival Friendship games: there were wars in antiquity for the control of the sites of the great athletic festivals. And a suggestion for our time: from 300 BC or so, many cities in the Greek world tried to increase the prestige and profit of their local games by officially declaring them to be “the equal of the Olympic games,” isolympic. Nobody was really deceived, but some hungry country nowadays might try it on.

Along with the comparative disregard of the atmosphere and ethics of the games, unfortunate in a book that as a whole gives a good account of ancient athletics, goes a reticence about their homosexual aspect. The games at Olympia were closed and taboo to married women as spectators, though not apparently to virgins—it would be interesting to know whether, at what are always depicted as all-male gatherings, many, or any, virgins actually attended—and the poems of Pindar, brilliant glorifications of the achievement of athletic victors, give us some glimpses of the atmosphere at the events for boys, when a young athlete, “handsome and with the bloom of youth performed deeds to match his beauty”:

What shouts greeted him as he went round the whole arena, after defeating his opponents by his speed and guile, without once falling himself.

That was sung of a boy wrestler, victor in a ferocious sport. Such boys were anything but effeminate, yet the atmosphere surrounding them combined (in our terms) a sporting occasion with something like a beauty contest. Packed together, hot and excited, away from their womenfolk, men were highly inflammable.

Professor David Sansone is a bolder man: he goes not for description but for explanation. Why does sport, and why specifically did Greek sport, take its particular forms? He starts by attempting to answer the obvious objection that “sport” is not a universal phenomenon at all but one created in nineteenth-century England, with the result that all other languages have had to adopt the English word “sport” for something that had no name, because it had no existence, before they met the Anglo-Saxon culture. These are dangerous waters. When we see a German nightclub, for instance, advertise “6 sexy Frauen,” in what sense can it be true that the idea of “sex,” for which there was no word in German (“6 geschlechtstriebanregende Frauen” is somehow different, and not only in being less snappy), was, or was not, universal before 1945? After four books Michel Foucault had by no means exhausted the complexities of sexual discourse and its varying implications through history.

Sansone says jauntily that he has “steadfastly resisted defining” his concept of sport. It emerges, however, that it is an activity “humans have always engaged in.” It is different from play, which is common to many animals, and it emerges that it is “a form of ritual behavior”; but many animals have rituals, too, as readers of Konrad Lorenz are aware. There also is a problem about separating sport from art: when ice dancing or ballroom dancing became competitive events, then in some way they must have changed from being akin to ballet, “pure” exhibitions for an aesthetic end. Another interesting book on a related theme, Michael B. Poliakoff’s Combat Sports in the Ancient World (Yale University Press, 1987), offers the suggestive hint that “sport, as opposed to play or recreation, cannot exist without an opponent,” but it too shows how difficult these questions are, and how subjective, by going on to exclude gladiatorial contests as “not a sport but a form of warfare for spectators.” Sansone, by contrast, includes even solitary occupations such as mountain climbing.

The definition of sport finally proposed by Sansone is “the ritual sacrifice of physical energy.” In reaching this striking conclusion he takes his departure from the work of the classical scholars Karl Meuli and Walter Burkert,1 who have produced important work on Greek religion. It will emerge that by “sacrifice” Sansone means no mere dead metaphor but something closely in line with the sacrificial procedures of the religions of the ancient world.

Meuli set out to explain some features of Greek sacrificial rituals. The animal should give the appearance of consenting to its own death, and there were various ruses for creating that appearance. Both water and fire were used to purify the knife and the action of killing. As the blood flowed, the women raised a piercing cry. The bones of the slaughtered animal were laid on the pyre in order, the skin stretched out, the skull placed on high: the victim was symbolically reinstated. These and other details, which the Greeks of the classical period themselves found puzzling, fall into place as survivals from the procedures of men in the age of hunting, before agriculture, anxious that the killing of their prey should not lead to the withholding, by inhuman powers, of further victims. Hunting was a chancy business. Those actions survived into the succeeding age as rituals, performed because they had always been done and because they had apparently always worked, so that they were felt to be comforting. They also helped to allay a fresh anxiety, now that men were killing not wild animals but domesticated ones, the tame oxen and goats and pigs that were felt to be in a way members of the community, and yet that had to be killed and feasted upon. Guilt and rejoicing, death and life, went inextricably together. Such an account makes satisfying sense of a large number of strange and apparently separate phenomena.

  1. 1

    Karl Meuli, “Griechische Opferbraüche,” in Phyllobolia für Peter von der Mühll (Basel, 1946); reprinted in his Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. II, pp. 907–1018. Walter Burkert, Homo Necans, trans. P. Bing (University of California Press, 1983), pp. 55–60.

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