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.


Sansone presses on further with the same reconstruction. At the transition from hunting animals to the less strenuous business of killing animals that were domesticated and did not need to be hunted, not only did the feeling of obligation persist that parts of the victim should be “given up,” a feeling that led to the rituals of blood sacrifice; there also was a hiatus left in the mind, which had become used to the rule that killing involves the expenditure of energy. That expenditure was no longer strictly necessary, but to fail to make it produced anxiety and dissatisfaction. Consequently new rituals were invented in order to use up that energy and to assuage that anxiety. They could be competitive, in a way analogous to the procedure known to anthropologists as the potlatch: supreme prestige is won by the man who can waste, destroy, and sacrifice the greatest quantity of wealth. In a similar way, the winner of the race or the contest is worthiest of honor because he “has the greatest amount of energy to sacrifice.”

The analogy is not exhausted. The victor is both sacrificer and victim, and the fillets that distinguish the victor are the descendants of the ribbons on the ox that is led to the altar; while the crowns of leaves won at the games represent the clumps of vegetation with which early men camouflaged themselves as they stalked their prey. Greek athletes rubbed themselves down with olive oil: that is a continuation of the custom of the hunter masking his scent from his quarry with mud or scented plants or the dung of animals. The nudity of Greek athletes is a survival of the same kind: clothes could carry the hunter’s smell. Competitors at Olympia were required to live a life of sexual abstinence and special diet for a period before the games; that continues the old taboos on sex and food to which the hunter used to subject himself, and indeed similar superstitions are observed by athletes to this day.

Sansone’s theory is capable of all sorts of unexpected additional explanations. Thus: the rule imposing silence on the participants at religious ceremonies is descended from the silence observed by hunters. The feeling that sexual acts are shameful derives from the custom of hunters, too; for since abstinence had always accompanied the supremely important activity of hunting, it came to be felt that it must in itself be pleasing to the gods. The mask, and with it the origin of drama, comes from the hunter smearing his face with gypsum “on account of its value in inhibiting perspiration.” This explanation is to hold good not only for Greek athletics but for sport generally. The transition from nomadic hunting to a settled existence is the biggest, and must have been the most traumatic, change in human history, and its scars are everywhere.

Sansone’s book is a pleasure to read. It is not—the point is worth making—needlessly long; and its style is taut and civilized—except, perhaps, for a sentence that says, “The only reference that Bengtson gives is to an essay by the Nazi Richard Harder.” That is not, I think, the right tone. There are many other pithy descriptions of writers that may come crowding in if we accept this one: “the homosexual Oscar Wilde,” “the Communist Pablo Picasso,” “the Jew Sigmund Freud.” Harder was an able scholar who produced some very good work, and his political blunders must not discredit it all by association. Sport is certainly a highly ritualized business, and anyone who has ever had a moose head mounted, or a salmon stuffed, will follow with interest as Sansone traces his action to the rituals of Stone Age men. We also get such enlivening asides as this: “There are parallels from other societies for nakedness in connection with initiation (as I can attest from my early fraternity days).” But the silence traditionally imposed on those who go through such initiations is honorably maintained, and Sansone does not tell us where he studied as an undergraduate.

But is the central thesis tenable? Is there a single origin for sporting activities, and, if so, is it to be found in the area of primitive sacrificial ritual? The inventor of an explanatory theory naturally feels more and more delight in it, the more things he can apply it to; but, by a sadly symmetrical reflex, the reader can find himself less and less convinced as he sees it used to explain everything he can think of. So it was, perhaps, that as the theory of Sansone spread to explain not only sport but also theater and even the origins of sexual shame, I felt my resistance rising. Masking and the theater can surely not have come into existence without a complex of motives, including pure play and the attraction of disguise and travesty for itself—the license to mask oneself as an animal, or a woman, or a spirit. They also involve music, in a way much more central than this sort of analysis seems to allow; for not all music can readily be seen as evolving exclusively from the sphere of hunting. As for sexual shame, that too requires a more various origin, which surely cannot be dissociated from taboos on excretion and from the observation of the behavior of some animal species which seem to practice discretion in those activities. A guess of the reviewer, perhaps no less wild, is that an important factor here may be the disappearance in the human animal of a breeding season, and the extension of sexual activity throughout the year. It also must be connected with the incest taboo, which in some form or other characterizes all human societies.

What of the origins of Greek sport, and of the Olympic games? I begin with a striking omission: that of athletics for women. This is a subject on which we are not well informed by our surviving sources, because women’s athletics was a matter for women, as men’s was for men, and the record is mostly the work of males. But Thomas F. Scanlon contributes an interesting chapter on it to the collection edited by Raschke, saying reasonably that “we may infer from the few extant examples that women’s athletic contests, particularly foot races in cult contexts, were probably more widespread than our sources indicate.” Most important, there was at Olympia a women’s festival in honor of the great goddess Hera, which seems to have been in parallel to the familiar men’s games in honor of her husband Zeus. A body called the Sixteen Women organized it, and its central point was a footrace for unmarried girls, arranged in three age classes. The victor received an olive crown, as did the men at the Olympics; and as the winner of the men’s race set fire to the sacrificial offerings, the winner of the race for girls received parts of the sacrificed animal.

This institution, it can hardly be doubted, is ancient; the Greeks themselves tell us that at the men’s games the footrace was the oldest event. It is to be connected with that surprisingly large group of myths that tell of races to win the hand of a bride. Sometimes this was a race among men, as when (we are told) Danaus arranged his forty-eight daughters along the finishing line and the competitors each in order took his pick as he came puffing in, but sometimes it was a race with a woman, as with the fleet-footed Atalanta, who would marry only a man who could outrun her. At Olympia itself a foundation myth told a similar story. The king Oenomaus had been told that his son-in-law would kill him, so he forced every suitor for the hand of his daughter Hippodameia to enter a kind of race. The suitor drove off with the princess in his chariot, while the king sacrificed an animal; at the conclusion of the ritual he gave chase, caught the young man up, and killed him. Finally Pelops, who is buried at Olympia, tricked and killed the old man…and that, O best beloved, is the origin, according to the myth, of the races at Olympia.

It was seen by Francis Cornford2 that a repeated mythical pattern like this must correspond to a reality: a custom of racing to win the right to a woman. (In the case of the Pelops myth that motif has become combined, in a way typical of mythological creation, with another, the idea of the possessive father who tries to prevent his daughter’s marriage and must be defeated.) This strongly suggests that fundamental to the Olympic games, the most ancient sporting festival of Greece, was a pair of races that produced a couple, male and female, with religious significance. The role of each in the sacrificial ritual survives from what presumably was originally also a sexual union; and the erotic atmosphere which, as we have seen, pervaded parts of the historic games will be connected with that ultimate origin.

But none of this is easily compatible with the theory of Sansone. Women did not hunt; they were excluded from connection with the hunt by a sharply schematic polarity—women at home, men out hunting. Consequently, it would seem, they cannot have had any role in the early stages of sport. It is in accordance with that fact that his book makes no allusion to women’s athletics.

Further objections come to mind, some of them not so much to the idea that there may be some truth in the hunting ritual theory as to the insistence that the theory exclusively explains the origin of all sport. It seems perverse to argue that the superiority of the victor in a boxing or wrestling match consists in his having sacrificed more energy and being analogous to a victim to be sacrificed. The point, we want to protest, is being missed: it is the loser, if anyone, whose bloody and prostrate form resembles that of a victim. Another theory that, in various shapes, has found many advocates over the years associates the origin of sporting contests with funerals and celebrations in honor of the dead. The first games in Western literature are those at the funeral of Patroclus in the twenty-third book of the Iliad, and so on. That also is a strand of argument too widespread and too plausible to be wholly dismissed, especially for sports involving bloodshed, and for such phenomena as the gladiatorial games at Rome, first held at aristocratic funerals.

It must also be said that Greek athletics are in many ways not very typical of the athletic activities of the world, as Greek myths are in important ways untypical of the world’s mythology. Anthropologists report many peoples as practicing what appear to be sports, but without real competitiveness: the point is not to produce a winner. That is utterly unlike Greek procedure, which concentrated on victory and on recording the names and achievements of victors. Similarly, as we have seen, Greeks were not really interested in team games, and there were none in the Olympics, whereas many peoples of the world go in at least as much for group races and mock battles as for single contests.

Another peculiarity of Greek athletics is its insistence on the full nudity of the contestants. According to Sansone’s theory this is a survival of something very ancient, the precaution of the hunter against the chance of his quarry scenting his clothes; but the Greeks themselves regarded it as an innovation, as indeed it seems to be (wrestlers in Homer catch hold of each other’s belts), and as something that marked them off very sharply from their non-Greek neighbors. The Romans, when they became aware of it, disapproved strongly. It is not easy to see how the memory persisted, all the way from the hunting period, and nudity was then revived as a specially Greek idiosyncrasy; and, even more awkwardly, hunters do not seem to have gone completely naked. “It is very common among American Indians to wear nothing but a loincloth while engaged in sport or while hunting”: but that is not at all the same thing. The removal of the loincloth is a step into something importantly different, and it is sleight of hand to say only that “the traditional costume of the Greek athlete became even more extreme in its scantiness.” Athletes in the 1980s wear abbreviated shorts by comparison with their predecessors, but if a sprinter at Seoul strides out totally nude it will not be simply a further abbreviation. For the Greeks this was an aesthetic decision, and one of great importance: that barbarians could not see its beauty simply showed how truly barbaric they were.

Sansone’s book, then, is suggestive rather than convincing. Sport is not a simple phenomenon, and probably no single explanation will do justice to it; but Sansone’s idea will have to be taken seriously.

This Issue

September 29, 1988