Athletics According to the Ancient Greeks


Athletics According to the Ancient Greeks

by Dr. Themis Goulionis

What must be said at the outset is that the ancient ideal of organized athletics -- that is, to compete honorably against honored opponents in a spirit of friendship and camaraderie -- has remained a goal to be attained ever since these events were first initiated by the Greeks around the 3rd millennium B.C. This ideal will remain the same so long as humanity continues to seek excellence and to strive for to kalon. The finest expression of this ideal was to be found in the Olympic Games (sic) of ancient Greece.

Nowadays, a lot is heard about the sad state of athletic competition. Even the modern-day Olympics -- considered sacred by the ancients -- have been tainted by over-commercialization, doping problems, and other scandals. All of these things, however, have nothing to do with the ideals the Greeks strove so hard to realize when they competed in the Olympics they gave to the world. Such violations were to be expected once the Olympics were internationalized (something that would not have met with the approval of the Greeks). Similar problems occurred when they were held outside of Greece for the first time in 88 B.C., at the behest of the Roman general Sulla (c.138-78 B.C.) in Rome. Sulla wanted to move the grandeur of Olympia to the Colosseum by bringing Greek athletes to Rome to be confronted by man-eating animals and blood-crazed gladiators. The result, of course, was disappointing to say the least, and this farcical but bloody event has been referred to ever since as the "Non-Olympiad," and was considered by the ancients as never to have happened. .

Nothing of this sort was tried again until the year 1900 A.D., when the Olympics were held outside of Greece for the first time in the modern era. The result again was as expected: totally unacceptable. From the very first day the Olympics were confused with the notion of "games": In fact, they were even given the inappropriate title of "Olympic Games." The unfortunate result of this unacceptable action was that all non-Greeks (and, sadly, too many Greeks) were left with the impression that an "athlete" [contestant] and a "player" [of games] were one and the same thing. Moreover, three totally foreign concepts -- represented by three foreign (Latin!!) words -- were added: citius, altius, fortius, which mean "higher," "faster," "stronger." As a result, the modern-day, frenzied quest for "championship" began: something that is officially (and piously) denied, but is frantically lusted after. This charge can quickly be verified by the universally (though indirectly) applied pressure on athletes for new "world records," in the pursuit of which androgens and other chemical substances are routinely used.

Such things were completely shunned in ancient Greece. In fact, to avoid what would have then been considered gross violations of the Olympic Spirit, each Olympiad would see javelins of differing lengths, discuses of different weights, and race tracks of varying distances! This meant that the competitors [agonistes] would not be thinking of besting the "record holder" of the event in which they were competing (and who might have even been dead by then), but would, instead, be seeking a victory over their opponents under conditions that were applicable at that time and for that event.

So we now witness the modern, tragi-comic fiasco of national authorities of sporting events making strong statements against the use of chemical substances, while at the same time creating an atmosphere where, in order to achieve the "world records" they crave so desperately, such substances are knowingly tolerated. This is the situation that exists in all of the nations of the world, and no one seems to be the least bit ashamed! On top of this all-too-disgraceful outrage, an International Olympic Committee was put in place in order to monitor and manage these things, but its headquarters are not even located in the country that gave birth to and nurtured the concept of organized athletics generally, and the Olympics in particular, in the first place.

Characteristic of the contempt in which the Hellenic-inspired athletic ideal of the Olympics is held, is the fact that in ancient Olympia the judges (Ellinodikes) of the agones [contests] were elected by lottery for a term of one year, and not one -- in the 1277 years of which we have knowledge -- was ever accused of a violation. Today, these self-anointed "protectors" of the Olympic Ideal have decided that they should serve for life, and, more than that, that they should be known as ... "The Immortals" [!!]. And as far as their respectability is concerned, let us not, at this time, go into the many scandals that have arisen around this "august body," without any one of them feeling the least bit of pressure to resign, nor can anyone from the outside do anything about it since they are "Immortals" and serve for life. These fools then, having no clue as to what Hellenism is all about, and being totally unaware of the sacred and awesome responsibility they hold in their hands, went so far, in their abysmal ignorance, of having the Colosseum of Rome inscribed on the medals that were given at the Australian Olympics! The idea that a medal, upon which is inscribed a monument dedicated to the spilling of innocent blood, would be the very worst thing that one could give to a winner at the Olympics, seems never to have occurred to these "immortal" nitwits, and heralds a return to the barbarity of general Sulla in 88 B.C.

In conclusion, the Olympias agones, to the ancient Greeks, was not an "ideal" in the sense of today's meaning of the word. It was the biggest (among many others) festival of athletics enjoyed by Greeks from all over the world, but still, it was only a festival. The "Ideal" was athleticism itself, not the festival, per se. This unique Hellenic creation was considered, during the zenith of its observance, equal to the ideals of Knowledge and Art, with which it formed the triumvirate that constituted the paideia of a properly educated individual: that is, gentlemanly competition, dignity, honesty, vigor, and perseverance. In short, to encourage that singular characteristic which exists in the souls of all young people, everywhere, virtue [areté]. Today, unfortunately, since we've separated Athletics from Paideia, we have instituted what, in the final analysis, must properly be referred to as "games." This is what we have done to our modern-day "Olympics." They are more properly seen as "bread and circus" spectacles, financial transactions, marketing tools, public relations events, or even as biotechnological challenges, but by no stretch of the imagination are they what the common ancestors of us all, the ancient Greeks, would approve of were they here to see them. By doing this, we wound once more the spirit of Hellenism, which is the inheritance bequeathed to all of us. The vital question being: Do we have sense enough to know the difference? And knowing the difference, are we wise enough to keep it?

Source Elliniki Agogi. Sept. '01. pp. 70-75.(Emphasis not in original was added. Translation by TGR staff is ©)

Editorial comment

Just a few among the many citations from ancient sources having to do with the Olympic Agónes, which, though it is by no means certain, are generally thought to have taken place at the first full moon after the summer solstice.

Tigranes [a Persian military officer] ..., when he heard that the prize was not money but a crown [of olive], could not hold his peace, but cried, "[Good god], Mardonius, what manner of men are these that you have brought us to fight withal? 'tis not for money they contend but for glory of achievement." Herodotus, Book VIII. 26


Greek athletes competed as individuals, not on national teams as they do nowadays. This struggle (agón) for excellence through competitive sports, was tied to the Greek ideal of manly virtue (areté). Those who achieved excellence, whether in athletics, public or military service, or in such fields as rhetoric, poesy, or philosophy, won permanent (not fleeting) glory. Their deeds were sung by the rhapsodists (such as Homer, Archilochus, Pindar, Hesiod, et al) down through the ages.

Do you think, fellow citizens, that any man would ever have been willing to train for the pancratium [no-holds-barred wrestling] or any other of the harder contests in the Olympic [agónes] ... if the crown were given, not to the best man, but to the man who had successfully intrigued for it? No man would ever have been willing. But as it is, because the reward is rare ... and because of the competition and the honor, and the undying fame that victory brings, men are willing to risk their bodies, and at the cost of the most severe discipline to carry the struggle [agón] to the end. Aeschines, Contra Ctesiphon,179

Naturally, being human beings, there were of course those who did not live up to the standards expected of them. One of these was "Sotades, [who] at the 99th Festival was victorious in the long race and proclaimed a Cretan, as in fact he was. But at the next Festival he made himself an Ephesian, being bribed to do so by the Ephesian people. For this act he was banished by the Cretans."

Pausanias, Book VI. Ellis II. xviii. 6.

Athletes who did not live up to this code of excellence were fined. The money collected was used to make bronze statues of Zeus, and these statues were used to line the road leading to the stadium. The statues were used as warning notices for they were inscribed with the names of the offenders, and let contestants know what to expect should they be caught cheating. These statues were known as Zánes (figures of Zeus), and besides having warnings inscribed upon them, they also reminded the athletes "that an Olympic victory is to be won, not by money, but by swiftness of foot and strength of body." Pausanias. Book V. Ellis I. xxi.4.

Such were the standards of a people who were competing honorably in athletics, enjoying wonderful plays in their theaters, creating unparalleled architecture and science, and debating great ideas (which, for the most part, would be incomprehensible to the masses today) under democratic institutions that have yet to be rivaled. It is for this reason that there exists, and have always existed, malevolent culture-destroyers who despise these qualities, because they bespeak a breed of man who cannot be manipulated and controlled for their own self-serving purposes.

Only a return to the virtues of Hellenism will prevent humanity from falling into the dark abyss created by its absence.

(Greco Report - 01/2002)