History: Greek athlete was the god of the Olympic stadium

When the Greek athlete was the god of the Olympic stadium

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In a month, Olympic fever will take over the planet. Athletes will compete, spectators will get excited, champions will be crowned. Nothing very new under the sun: the roots of the modern Olympics, which have been taking place in the form we have known since 1896, go back into the distant past. It was in ancient Greece that the practice of sport was forged, with its rules and prohibitions, and that the figure of the athlete established itself in the social panorama. In a fascinating essay entitled “Sport. Story of the first times”, the historian Jean-Manuel Roubineau looks back at the origins of this phenomenon born in the West but now universal.

When did the first traces of sport date back to Antiquity?

If we understand the term sport in the strict sense, that is to say a series of motor activities, codified, institutionalized and competitive, the turning point occurs in the 6th century BC. It was then that gymnasiums and stadiums appeared, that a calendar of regular competitions was established and that the social figure of the athlete appeared in Greek cities.

But there are, well before that, iconographic traces of gymnastic exercises, still unregulated, particularly in Egypt and Mesopotamia. On the scale of the Greek world, the first stories relating episodic competitions can be read in Homer in the 8th century BC, for example the funeral competition in honor of the hero Patroclus, recounted in “The Iliad“.

What are the main disciplines of these games?

The particularity of the repertoire is that it is made up only of individual disciplines, with the exception of torch relay races. There are two main families of sports: those called light – stadium, double-stadium, middle-distance or weapons races – and those called heavy – combat sports: wrestling, boxing or pankration – which are their preferred domain. massive athletes, due to the lack of weight categories.

Between heavy sports and light sports, there is the pentathlon, which combines stadium running, wrestling, long jump, javelin and discus throws. It is the favorite area for jack-of-all-trades athletes.

Watercolor of Olympia by Jean-Claude Golvin.

You point out the link between sporting practice and citizenship. Does the athlete embody a political ideal?

Yes. The athlete is both an avatar of the warrior and the citizen. Greek citizenship involves action and participation. Everyone is led, sooner or later, to take up arms in order to defend their city or attack a third city. This requires physical and moral qualities that sport helps to cultivate.

Ancient sport is a virile and elite affair.

It is conceived as a characteristic of free men. It mainly concerns boys from wealthy families, who have early access to physical education at the gymnasium, but also those who, if they have predispositions, can be identified at the time of military service. During a good part of Antiquity, slaves were excluded from competitions, like women. Only young girls have, in certain cities, access to a few rare competitions, like the Heraia in Olympia. Their number increased during the imperial period.

Two pugilists on a marble statuary base from the end of the 6th century BC. AD, National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

The Greeks cultivate a masculine body ideal. What is it?

Two main qualities structure athletic practice: strength and velocity, with, between the two, an intermediate quality, a fusion of the two previous ones: impetuosity. Above all, the bodily ideal is structured by the practice of athletic nudity, a practice which culturally distinguishes the Greeks from other peoples around the Mediterranean. Its origin is unknown but it seems to satisfy two objectives: on the one hand, an aesthetic objective, of valorization and eroticization of the male body and, on the other hand, a more immediately practical objective: the athlete was anointed with oil and dusty from head to toe, practices which are undoubtedly incompatible with wearing clothes.

What does the athlete aspire to when participating in competitions?

To be the best! To win the title again, to mark the era, in an aspiration for immortality quite similar to that which we observe among athletes today. The difference is that there is no participatory ideal: the first objective is victory, the second is to engrave one’s exploit in the collective memory. If an athlete knows he is going to lose, he prefers to give up before the event, particularly in heavy sports, where the risk of injury is great.

Bronze statue called “Pugilist of the Baths”, second half of the 4th century BC. AD

Was there a monetary interest?

Some athletes make a career out of their condition. Competitions allow you to win money and champions can also receive privileges from their city of origin. For example, an Athenian holding an Olympic title received a bonus of 500 drachmas, the equivalent of more than two years’ salary.

How can you imagine the atmosphere in the stands?

Lively, noisy and excited. We applaud, but we also make fun, we direct sarcasm to the competitor whom we are trying to discredit or weaken. The public is part of the competition, like today!

Panathenaic amphora, pancratiast biting an opponent, British Museum.

You describe a spring of support very close to what we currently see…

The first spectator support mechanism is oriented towards the athletes in their own city. In the stadium of Nemea, in the Peloponnese, coins from different cities were found on the stands. Their location shows that spectators from the same city sat side by side to watch the spectacle and support their fellow citizens engaged in the competition. But sometimes, we simply supported a champion we particularly admired.

Does the current celebration of champions come from the Greek world?

Indeed, we have seen since Antiquity this desire to isolate individuals in their exceptionality. Statues are erected to them, and we sometimes worship them. One of the most telling examples is that of Theogenes of Thasos, Olympic boxing champion in 480 and pankration in 476, who was the subject of a healing cult attested at least until the 2nd century AD. AD

The historian Jean-Manuel Roubineau.

Curiously, the sport experienced an eclipse of almost a thousand years.

It died out at the very end of Antiquity. It has long been explained that it disappeared at the end of the 4th century AD. BC, following an anti-pagan edict from the Christian Roman emperor Theodosius (347-395 AD). However, the last competition of which we have trace was held in Antioch in Syria at the beginning of the 6th century AD. AD!

In fact, the end of sport did not result from a sudden political decision, but from a gradual process of disaffection. Added to this is the fact that the sources of financing for gymnastic competitions gradually dried up, because the main donors, the notables of the cities, favored careers in the Roman imperial administration which did not involve such investments.

When does it resurface?

Sport as a culture was reborn in 18th and 19th century England, before spreading around the world. Politically, the contexts of its appearance in Greece and Great Britain more than a millennium apart are similar. In the 6th century BC. BC, the first democratic regimes appeared: they were characterized by shared power, with citizens who, unarmed, debated, confronted their ideas and voted for laws and decrees.

Sport then constitutes a sort of physical counterpart to these jousts: a confrontation, without weapons, of bodies. A comparable process is observed in 18th century England, under the effect of the appearance of parliamentarism, the notion of political fair play, and its variation in the sporting field.

What are the legacies of ancient sport for current practice?

Ancient sport bequeathed an ideology centered on the valorization of victory. In addition, he transmitted a very androcentric conception of sporting practice: if we have been living, for several decades, a historical phase of rebalancing, for a long time, contemporary sport has been a masculine citadel. Remember that boxing as an Olympic discipline has only been open to women since 2012! Since Antiquity, we have also observed a tension between professional sport and health sport.

While ancient doctors and philosophers denounced the ravages of the athletic life (read above)​, they have always underlined, at the same time, the interest of physical exercise. The development in our societies of the ideal of long life, which increasingly infuses our physical practices, constitutes the distant heir of this idea.

“The sport. Stories from the early days”, Jean-Manuel Roubineau, PUF, 184 p., 18 fr.

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