Stuff from Way Back #4: Olympic Games

The
founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, summed up the ideal
of the games in a well-known statement: “The  important thing in the Olympic Games is not
to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the
triumph but the struggle.  The essential
thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”  This is a fine sentiment, central to our
notions of amateur athletics, sportsmanship and the Olympics, but it in fact
has about as much to do with the Greeks and the original games as modern
timepieces and computer-designed equipment.

Very
few societies have valued individual athletic competition as much as the
Greeks, and the reason is easy to find: competition was at the heart of the polis
(“city-state”, plur. poleis) society.  Agōn, the need to struggle, to compete,
was far and away the strongest component of the Greek character and manifested
itself in every aspect of their life, from sporting events to drama contests to
constant political upheaval.  Even sex
was viewed as a competition, in which there was a male winner and a female
loser.

One
of the results of this irresistible urge to competition was the fragmentation
of Greece into hundreds of independent and narcissistic little political units, the
poleis, which warred endlessly with one another.  All life revolved around the highly
politicized polis community, which provided the Greek with his primary
identity.  You were an Athenian or a
Corinthian or a Theban, not a Greek, and you would willingly go to war and even
cooperate with foreign powers, like the Persians, to demonstrate the
superiority of your city.  Everything you
did reflected upon the city, which in turn meant that everything you did had a
political aspect.

Sport
was no exception to this, and the ancient Olympic games were consequently
highly politicized, probably more so than their modern successors.  Long before Berlin and Moscow and Washington, places like Epidauros and Chios and Argos had discovered the public relations value of athletic triumphs, and as
national heroes and political symbols, ancient Olympic victors fell short of
their twentieth century counterparts only in their lack of flags in which to
wrap themselves.  And as far as lionizing
our sports figures goes, how many mothers now pray to Wilma Rudolph or Greg
Louganis to cure a sick child?

The
ancient Olympians were also manifestly not the disinterested amateurs who
figured so prominently in the vision of de Coubertin, Avery Brundage and other
leaders of the modern movement.  By the
last quarter of the fifth century BC professionals were already dominating the
games, which were rapidly evolving into pure spectator sport.  These were men who devoted all their time to
athletic training, increasingly for a single event, either living off their
winnings or supported by an individual or even a city, which expected to reap
glory and gain from their victories.  In
fact, a common (and frequently derided) practice was for a city to employ
ringers, paying a successful athlete (and even granting him the jealously
guarded citizenship) to compete as one of their own and thus enhance its
“medal count.”

Even
before the emergence of these professionals, however, the Olympics fell
considerably short of de Coubertin’s dream of pure sport.  The competitors were indeed amateurs, but
hardly in it just for the thrill of competition: they expected serious material
gain from their victories.  Most contests
offered valuable prizes, and although the great festivals at Olympia, Nemea, Delphi and Isthmia provided only wreaths, those victors could expect
substantial material awards from their cities.
Since classical civilization failed to discover the key concept of
product endorsement, these awards came in the form of money, valuable goods,
tax breaks, public support and even political preferences, all of which
immediately calls to mind the “amateur” Olympians of the former East
Block countries, with their cars, apartments and special access to western
goods.

It
is also clear from the ancient evidence that Greek athletes were less inclined
to de Coubertin’s noble idea than to Coach Lombardi’s famous dictum:
“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”  Greek society had little sympathy for life’s
losers or for those who tried their best and failed, and consequently while
winning meant honor, adulation and material reward, losing brought dishonor and
even public disgrace.  Consider the
epitaph of the athlete Agathos Daimon, buried at Olympia: “He died here, boxing in the stadium, having prayed to Zeus for
the crown or for death.  Aged 35.
Farewell.”

For
all the pressure to win, however, we know of remarkably few instances of
cheating in the thousand year history of the ancient games.  The major reason for this is undoubtedly the
fact that the Olympic games were first and foremost a religious festival, one
that honored Zeus, the chief god in the Greek pantheon.  Cheating thus meant not only the risk of
discovery and censure by a committee of officials, but also the certainty that
an angry Zeus would sooner or later be on your case.

In
practice the ancient Olympic games were clearly more like the modern variety
than all those who complain about politicization and commercialization realize.
True, the ancient games were not marketed like the modern ones, but that is
only because the classical world did not have a mass market economy.  If they had, I am convinced Greek businessmen
would have vied for the right to sell the official tunic or kylix or whatever
of the Olympics and would very likely have surpassed us in bad taste.

In
spirit, however, the Greek Olympics were equally clearly different from ours,
celebrating victory and gain rather than simple participation and effort.  They also lacked the universalism of the
modern games, being limited to able-bodied males (the Greeks would find our
Special Olympics an obscene joke) and until the Romans took over, Greeks.  The Greek games may have involved less hype
and hypocrisy, but the internationalism of the modern Olympics takes them a
step towards something greater than those quadrennial competitions held in Elis
some two millennia ago.

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