Ancient Comments on Athletes before the Superbowl

Yes, as a New Englander I will be watching the Superbowl tonight. But every buzz needs a little kill to it…

Isocrates, Panegyricus 1

“I am often amazed that when men first summoned the great gatherings and established athletic contests they believed the accomplishments of the body to be worth great gifts, but for those who have toiled in private for the public good and who have prepared their minds so they may help others, they have apportioned no honor even though it is right to plan for this. If athletes were to double their strength, it would be nothing more to the rest of us; but when one man advises well, all men who are willing to share his insight can benefit.”

Πολλάκις ἐθαύμασα τῶν τὰς πανηγύρεις συναγαγόντων καὶ τοὺς γυμνικοὺς ἀγῶνας καταστησάντων, ὅτι τὰς μὲν τῶν σωμάτων εὐτυχίας οὕτω μεγάλων δωρεῶν ἠξίωσαν, τοῖς δ’ ὑπὲρ τῶν κοινῶν ἰδίᾳ πονήσασι καὶ τὰς αὑτῶν ψυχὰς οὕτω παρασκευάσασιν ὥστε καὶ τοὺς ἄλλους ὠφελεῖν δύνασθαι, τούτοις δ’ οὐδεμίαν τιμὴν ἀπένειμαν, ὧν εἰκὸς ἦν αὐτοὺς μᾶλλον ποιήσασθαι πρόνοιαν· τῶν μὲν γὰρ ἀθλητῶν δὶς τοσαύτην ῥώμην λαβόντων οὐδὲν ἂν πλέον γένοιτο τοῖς ἄλλοις, ἑνὸς δ’ ἀνδρὸς εὖ φρονήσαντος ἅπαντες ἂν ἀπολαύσειαν οἱ βουλόμενοι κοινωνεῖν τῆς ἐκείνου διανοίας.

The contrast between the effect of a wise-advisor and an Olympic champion is also invoked by Socrates:

Plato, Apology 36   

“What is right to give to a poor man who has done good work and needs the time to advise you? Athenian men, there is nothing more appropriate than feeding this sort of man at the public expense, more rightly than if one of you has achieved a victory on horseback or chariot races in the Olympian games. The first makes you seem to be fortunate, while I do it for real. He lacks no resources, but I do. If I must be honored justly for my worth, I merit this, meals at the public expense.”

τί οὖν πρέπει ἀνδρὶ πένητι εὐεργέτῃ δεομένῳ ἄγειν σχολὴν ἐπὶ τῇ ὑμετέρᾳ παρακελεύσει; οὐκ ἔσθ’ ὅτι μᾶλλον, ὦ ἄνδρες ᾿Αθηναῖοι, πρέπει οὕτως ὡς τὸν τοιοῦτον ἄνδρα ἐν πρυτανείῳ σιτεῖσθαι, πολύ γε μᾶλλον ἢ εἴ τις ὑμῶν ἵππῳ ἢ συνωρίδι ἢ ζεύγει νενίκηκεν ᾿Ολυμπίασιν· ὁ μὲν γὰρ ὑμᾶς ποιεῖ εὐδαίμονας δοκεῖν εἶναι, ἐγὼ δὲ εἶναι, καὶ ὁ μὲν τροφῆς οὐδὲν δεῖται, ἐγὼ δὲ δέομαι. εἰ οὖν δεῖ με κατὰ τὸ δίκαιον τῆς ἀξίας τιμᾶσθαι, τούτου τιμῶμαι, ἐν πρυτανείῳ σιτήσεως.

Image result for Ancient Greek Athletics

Euripides, fr. 282 (Autolycos)

“Of the endless evils plaguing Greece
None is worse than the race of athletes.”

κακῶν γὰρ ὄντων μυρίων καθ’ ῾Ελλάδα
οὐδὲν κάκιόν ἐστιν ἀθλητῶν γένους·

Homer, Odyssey 8.147-8 (Euryalus to Odysseus)

“For as long as he lives, a man has no greater glory
than that which he wins with his own hands and feet”

οὐ μὲν γὰρ μεῖζον κλέος ἀνέρος, ὄφρα κεν ᾖσιν,
ἢ ὅ τι ποσσίν τε ῥέξῃ καὶ χερσὶν ἑῇσιν.

Pindar, Pythian 5.12-13

“The wise carry even their god-given strength better.”

σοφοὶ δέ τοι κάλλιον
φέροντι καὶ τὰν θεόσδοτον δύναμιν.

Xenophanes, Fragment 2. 16-19

“Swiftness of feet—the thing honored most in all of man’s acts of strength in the contest—could never make a city governed well.”

οὐδὲ μὲν εἰ ταχυτῆτι ποδῶν, τόπερ ἐστὶ πρότιμον,
ῥώμης ὅσσ’ ἀνδρῶν ἔργ’ ἐν ἀγῶνι πέλει,
τούνεκεν ἂν δὴ μᾶλλον ἐν εὐνομίηι πόλις εἴη·

Anarchasis the Scythian, Diogenes Laertius 1.8 103-105

Οὗτος τὴν ἄμπελον εἶπε τρεῖς φέρειν βότρυς: τὸν πρῶτον ἡδονῆς: τὸν δεύτερον μέθης: τὸν τρίτον ἀνδίας. θαυμάζειν δὲ ἔφη πῶς παρὰ τοῖς Ἕλλησιν ἀγωνίζονται μὲν οἱ τεχνῖται, κρίνουσι δὲ οἱ μὴ τεχνῖται. ἐρωτηθεὶς πῶς οὐκ ἂν γένοιτό τις φιλοπότης, “εἰ πρὸ ὀφθαλμῶν,” εἶπεν, “ἔχοι τὰς τῶν μεθυόντων ἀσχημοσύνας.” θαυμάζειν τε ἔλεγε πῶς οἱ Ἕλληνες νομοθετοῦντες κατὰ τῶν ὑβριζόντων, τοὺς ἀθλητὰς τιμῶσιν ἐπὶ τῷ τύπτεινἀλλήλους. μαθὼν τέτταρας δακτύλους εἶναι τὸ πάχος τῆς νεώς, τοσοῦτον ἔφη τοῦ θανάτου τοὺς πλέοντας ἀπέχειν.

“He said that the vine bears three grapes: pleasure, inebriation, and disgust. He said that he was surprised how among the Greeks experts competed and amateurs judged them. When he asked how someone could avoid being a drunk, he said “if you keep the shame of drunks before you.” He also used to say that he was surprised how the Greeks make laws against arrogance when they honor athletes for hitting each other. When he learned that a ship’s side was four-fingers thick, he said that the sailors were only that far from death.

Xenophon Memorabilia, 3.5.14

“I think that just as certain Athletes lose ground to their opponents after they have won with too much ease, so too the Athenians have become worse because they stopped caring for themselves.”

᾿Εγὼ μέν, ἔφη, οἶμαι, ὁ Σωκράτης, ὥσπερ καὶ ἀθληταί τινες διὰ τὸ πολὺ ὑπερενεγκεῖν καὶ κρατιστεῦσαι καταρρᾳθυμήσαντες ὑστερίζουσι τῶν ἀντιπάλων, οὕτω καὶ ᾿Αθηναίους πολὺ διενεγκόντας ἀμελῆσαι ἑαυτῶν καὶ διὰτοῦτο χείρους γεγονέναι.

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