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What would the ancient Greeks make of London 2012?

By Nigel Spivey

Overheard somewhere near London’s Green Park tube station, amid a throng of spectators for the 2012 Olympic triathlon: “What would those ancient Greeks make of this?”

I had no opportunity there and then to attempt a response, but it still seems worth considering. What indeed? Triathlon, for a start, they should comprehend; an ancient Greek word (meaning ‘triple challenge’), it would seem like some fraction of the ‘Twelve Labours’ (dodekathlon) undertaken by Herakles, and the winner duly heroized. Archaic ‘kudos’ and contemporary ‘celebrity’ elide across thousands of years. Crowds with painted faces, flags and accolades, the winner’s podium – the core gestures and sentiments here are essentially unchanged (though ancient victors, to judge from their commemorative statues, affected a fetching demeanour of downcast modesty). And for ancient athletes, as for today’s, winning was not just about fame and entering the record lists. Substantial material rewards awaited the best performers.

Of course Pierre de Coubertin didn’t recreate the Olympics in a spirit of historical accuracy. His own vision of gentlemen amateurs, tussling in a spirit of muscular Christianity and international bonhomie, seems now a Victorian-Edwardian period piece, much of it outdated. (If Nietzsche had been a founding father, the story would be different.) Ancient Greeks wouldn’t recognize our respect for failure, however plucky (can anyone put the phrase well done for trying into Homeric verse?); at Olympia, there was scant honour in second place.

Many competitors at London — surprisingly many, I thought — made the sign of the Cross prior to their effort. One can’t rule out the possibility that some athletes at the ancient Olympics during the centuries of Roman administration, before closure circa AD 400, did likewise. But even if the specific symbolism of the gesture were obscure to a pagan observer, its intention would be clear. Divine favour plays some part in mortal triumph; piety will have its reward. And how often was the adjective ‘incredible’ deployed by pundits at London 2012? The tally must run into thousands. If it denoted a physical feat beyond the scope of human reason and experience, this too seems attuned to an ancient acceptance of supernatural forces at work in the stadium. Mythical figures — Pelops, Odysseus, Achilles — were athletes; historical Olympic victors, such as Milo of Croton, became the stuff of mythology.

They were idealized as such. The canonization of the hero-athlete by sculptors such as Myron and Polykleitos has left an aesthetic legacy to what constitutes physical beauty; it also amounts to a sort of ‘body fascism’. With regard to the Paralympics, accordingly, our classical mentors are uninspiring. Physical misfortune was widely derided in the ancient world, with effigies of such unfortunates used to avert the evil eye. As losers in a race were subject to public scorn, so the disabled won no sympathy.

Under the Romans, access to the Games widened; one of the last recorded victors came from Persia. But the Greeks rigorously excluded contestants of non-Greek ethnicity and made no secret of their general disdain for ‘barbarians’.

What of women boxing, and women throwing hammers? Baron de Coubertin would certainly not approve; by contrast, Plato — admittedly, not your typical ancient Greek — might be more open-minded. Whether demonized as Amazons, or heroized as Atalanta, females in action were at least conceptually acceptable to the Greeks. (As a character in Athenian drama observes — not quite in these words — if you can give birth to a child, anything else, including fighting in the front line, is a piece of cake.)

A final question is hard to resist. How far would the prizewinning heroes of ancient Olympia be able to compete against the likes of Usain Bolt? Skeletal analysis tells us that people in antiquity were generally shorter in stature, and their life expectancy tended to be much shorter too. From Taranto, once a Greek colony in southern Italy, we have the excavated grave of a fifth-century BC individual who appears — from the possessions buried with him — to have been a successful competitor, perhaps in the pentathlon. He was just 1.70 metres tall and died in his mid-thirties, but appears to have been robustly built, as he would need to have been for the various disciplines of running, jumping, discus, javelin, and wrestling. We don’t have absolute records from the ancient games, though certain extraordinarily long jumps are alleged, and also some remarkable feats of strength. From Olympia comes a large sandstone boulder, weighing 143 kilos, with an inscription stating that one Bybon threw it over his head with one hand. Gazing at a gallery of athlete-victors, including the formidable ‘Terme Boxer’, my guess is that these ancient athletes would have pulverized us in any of the combat sports, and held their own in many other events. But such is idle speculation. As athletes, perhaps, we have not come a long way from Olympia. From a humanitarian perspective, by contrast, the distance is immense.

Nigel Spivey is Senior Lecturer in Classical Art and Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, where he also is a Fellow of Emmanuel College. He is the author of The Ancient Olympics. As an undergraduate he won honours at the Oxford-Cambridge athletics match, and set the university record for throwing the hammer. He went on to study at the British School at Rome and the University of Pisa. He has written widely on Classical culture and beyond: among his previous publications are the prize-winning Understanding Greek Sculpture (1996) and the widely acclaimed Enduring Creation (2001). He presented the major BBC/PBS television series How Art Made the World in 2005.

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