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·
With football season fast upon us, it is useful to remind ourselves that Western culture has had a fixation with sport for quite some time. But one big difference in Ancient Greece is that sport was a leisure activity, not big business like the NFL. (Or, to be realist, like NCAA division 1). In the Odyssey, Odysseus finds the Phaeacians delighting themselves in competitions after banquets, where they, the prototypical ‘loungers’, claim that nothing is greater.
“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.
Or so a Prince Dandy says to the long-suffering war veteran Odysseus. Sports and games are ritual substitutes for war and distractions from the fact that the soldier faces far higher stakes than the sportsman. It is no accident that this scene happens among the Phaeacians who live a charmed life far from all other men…until Poseidon drops a mountain on them. And it is also no accident that the other characters who spend time playing sports in the Odyssey are the suitors back in Ithaca…
That we have an entire genre of ancient poetry dedicated to Athletic victories is telling (Epinician poetry). Also telling is that in this poetry the victory of an athlete is reflection of the virtue of his family and city. Not too far off from our civic pride in our own sports teams (often ironically manned by players from far off).
Pindar, Pythian 5.12-13
“The wise carry even their god-given strength better.”
σοφοὶ δέ τοι κάλλιον
φέροντι καὶ τὰν θεόσδοτον δύναμιν.
And, yet, we do find some anxiety in the ancient world about the worship of sports and their heroes. Xenophanes complains about this in a way that may help us to understand Euripides’ lines above. His concern is that what men value on the contest ground is mistaken for a virtue that will help order their city well. (And there may be a dig at Achilles here.)
“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·
The fact is that sports developed in ancient Greece as an aristocratic ritual that eventually took the place of actual bloodletting. They allowed the nobles to compete for honor without killing each other. Our modern blood-sports, however, aren’t the province of our moneyed classes (well, they own the teams). Instead, mostly lower-class youths compete for a rare opportunity for glory. And the deck is stacked against them in many ways.
“Sport tends to give rise to heated strife and anger, anger in turns brings savage feuds and war to the death”.
ludus enim genuit trepidum certamen et iram, ira truces inimicitias et funebre bellum.