The Olympics and the Greeks
For those who love to watch the Olympics the New York Times had a very interesting story in today's paper.
August 9, 2004
OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR When the Games Were Everything
By THOMAS CAHILL
The ancient Greeks were the world's first sports fans. They loved games of all kinds, which they called "agones.'' That's how we came by our words "agony'' and "antagonist,'' which should give us a good idea of how the Greeks viewed their games: as agonies in which antagonist is pitted against antagonist until one comes out on top. A better English term for what they had in mind might be "contest'' or "struggle'' or even "power performance.''
Ancient Greece was a society of alpha males who took their fun seriously. Whether they were at war with one another (which they often were, and which they got a huge bang out of) or enjoying more peaceful pursuits, they insisted that certain rules be followed and that there always be, right in the middle of everything, an agon.
In war, there was nothing that thrilled them more than a fight to the death, one army's champion pitted against the other's. In peacetime, they couldn't just take in a poetry reading, listen to a concert or watch a play. They had to enliven the proceedings with a poetry contest, a music contest, a drama contest. There always had to be a declared winner on whom the laurels could be heaped and at least one miserable loser. Even their parties, which easily developed into orgies, included contests over which participant could deliver the most eloquent toast or tell the funniest joke or get the farthest with the flute girl. Needless to say, it was the flute girl who lost.
If by sports we mean only a few guys kicking a ball around, the Greeks were not the inventors. Soccer in its simplest form has been with us ever since the invention of animal husbandry, soon after which some playful young shepherd probably kicked an inflated sheep's bladder or a decapitated sheep's head in the direction of another shepherd, who was inspired to kick it back. Certain bloodthirsty Celtic and Mesoamerican tribes - the Irish and the Aztecs, in particular - preferred human heads rather than sheep parts for such diversions, which soon developed into rudimentary team sports.
But if by sports we mean a series of organized contests of physical prowess, conducted according to acknowledged rules in the presence of enthusiastic crowds and scheduled well in advance to encourage participation by all the best athletes available for the sheer glory and fame of winning, we are talking about a purely Greek invention.
Nothing raised Greek spirits more than winning (or even just watching) an agon.
There is no greater glory for a living man
Than all that he can win by his own feet and hands.
So come, compete, and from your heart cast care away!
These are the words of the Phaeacian prince Laodamas in Homer's "Odyssey,'' as he invites the great hero Odysseus to join in the games the Phaeacians have arranged in his honor. Let's see if you're really as good as your reputation, is what Laodamas is thinking, but he is also hoping to be thrilled out of his mind by Odysseus' performance. (He is, after Odysseus effortlessly wings across the field a discuss that lesser men cannot lift.) The ancient Greeks knew a lot about the natural highs that strenuous physical exercise can produce and the elevation of mood that spectators can experience just by watching a first-rate athlete perform at his best.
The Greek word for best is "aristos" (from which we derive aristocrat). It was the word the free-born adult male applied to himself and his friends. Everyone else - women, boys who had not reached their majority, slaves, resident aliens, barbarians - belonged to the lesser orders of existence, and most could be treated whimsically, abusively or violently any time an aristos was so inclined.
Though the wedded wife of a male citizen was off-limits in this regard, others were not. Athletes who performed at the Olympics and other Greek games usually belonged to the category of youth, the time between childhood and adulthood, between peach-fuzz pubescence and the appearance of a full beard, the mark of full citizenship. These youths, who always competed nude, attracted spectators of many kinds, but especially older men.
Married women, however, were not permitted to enjoy this feast but were kept at home, where they had to make do with occasional visits from their aging husbands, normally a decade or two older than the wives. Though matrons were banned, girls were invited to ogle and fantasize about future husbands. They were also allowed to compete with one another in a single footrace, clothed in revealingly skimpy undergarments.
If sex - "eros,'' as the Greeks called it - was never far from these games, neither was death. The Greeks knew perfectly well that the games were a sort of ritualized, theatrical version of death on the battlefield, an imitation of their favorite sport: war. The games taught and reinforced favorite Greek themes of honor and glory, of winning over others, of triumph in combat. But they also underscored a different message altogether: you can't win all the time, and one day you will lose. The poet Archilochus, a sensational athlete of the seventh century B.C. but also a realist, gave himself this advice:
O heart, my heart, no public leaping when you win;
no solitude nor weeping when you fail to prove.
Rejoice at simple things; and be but vexed by sin
and evil slightly. Know the tides through which we move.
The last sentence is quietly ominous. The tides through which we move - the highs and the lows, the peaks and the troughs - tell us repeatedly that nothing lasts and that all life ends in death. Let us temper our excitement and agitation, whether for the ecstasy of battle or the ecstasy of sex, whether over great achievement or great loss, and admit to ourselves that all things have their moment and are gone. In such high-minded resignation lie the aristocratic origins of sportsmanship.
Once Rome overwhelmed the Greeks in the second century B.C., the Romans had to be invited to the games. The Emperor Nero, history's most famous spoiled brat, proved himself a very bad sport by insisting that the Olympics be rescheduled so he could attend, and then demanding first prize for every event he entered. The lower orders of Greco-Roman society were never invited to participate in athletic competitions, nor were the unthinkable barbarians who lived their brutish lives beyond the borders of the Empire. But the Olympics and similar Panhellenic games nevertheless always had a heady internationalism about them, for they welcomed representatives from all over the known world - so long as they could speak Greek.
Once the Christian church came to influence the Roman political establishment, however, Greek paganism - the prayers to the gods, the fierceness of the games, the nudity, the sexual shamelessness - was trounced, and disappeared underground by the sixth century A.D. But as with most human artifices, its spirit never died out completely. It was still there to be resurrected in the Renaissance and exploited once more in the Enlightenment.
It was the outer wave of the Enlightenment that brought the Olympics back to Greek shores when the International Olympic Committee was formed and the modern games were established at Athens in 1896. This was largely thanks to the vision of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a stylish, relentless, enlightened Frenchman with a profound appreciation for what the ancient Greeks had accomplished, as well as very Judeo-Christian hopes for world peace and international cooperation.
Being a baron and a 19th-century male, Coubertin failed to perceive the perniciousness of European classism and universal sexism, so invitations to participate in the first modern Olympics were issued to "gentlemen" only. But a young Greek shepherd named Spyridon Louis, who was allowed on the Greek team at the last minute, won the first modern marathon. Afterwards, he turned down all honors - gold, cash, jewelry, free meals, free haircuts, free coffee for life - that the ecstatic Greeks pressed on him, even an offer of marriage from an aristocratic beauty, who in offering herself before the race to the winner-to-be had presumed that only a member of her own class could win. The modest winner accepted the olive wreath that was his due, returned to his little village of Marousi, and married his sweetheart.
This startling crack in the class barrier presaged the I.O.C.'s tearing down of other culturally determined barriers, including gender. Nor has Spyridon Louis been forgotten: the new Olympic stadium at Athens is named for him, and "to do a Louis" - to carry the day so unexpectedly - has become part of the Greek language.
We in the West are Greco-Roman Judeo-Christians, the inheritors of a double tradition that has had incalculable effect on the entire world. We are in a position to pick and choose from the abundant variety of our shared past. We hardly need to imitate ancient Greek bellicosity, racism, classism and sexism, or to laud the supreme worth ancient Greece placed on domination. (Actually, there are not a few among us who continue to admire just such things, but our society as a whole no longer pays special lip service to these values.)
But we must remain exceedingly grateful to the Greeks for introducing us to the peaceful uses of competition and the thrilling experiences made possible by organized athletics, not least of which is the sense of human solidarity that comes to bind athletes from so many different places to one another and also gives the immense Olympic audience an abiding feeling for the interconnectedness of the human family.
Finally, there is tremendous ecumenical value in humanity's abandoning its daily preoccupations and spending a couple of weeks riveted on a cooperative world of physical grace and human perfectibility: all that one can win by his own - or her own - feet and hands.
Thomas Cahill is the author of "How the Irish Saved Civilization'' and, most recently, "Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter."
Last edited by Aunt Joyce; 08-09-2004 at 10:54 AM.