The Magazine

Olympic Games

Athletics, ancient and modern.

Jun 7, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 37 • By BRUCE THORNTON
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Ancient Greek Athletics

by Stephen G. Miller

Yale University Press, 288 pp., $35

THE MODERN OLYMPIC MARATHON derives its name, of course, from the famous victory of the Greeks over the invading Persians in 490 B.C. at the town of Marathon, about twenty-six-and-a-half miles from Athens--which is the distance the runner Pheidippides covered to bring home the news of the victory, after which he dropped dead. As it happens, the story is a myth. Even the distance between Athens and Marathon isn't accurate. The modern race actually duplicates the distance from Windsor Castle to the Olympic stadium, established at the London games in 1908.

The truth about the marathon is just one of many debunking facts that Stephen G. Miller presents in Ancient Greek Athletics, his well-researched, comprehensive survey of ancient sports. A professor of archaeology at the University of California at Berkeley, Miller directs the excavations at Nemea, a site of one of the major ancient games. In Ancient Greek Athletics he combines evidence from archaeology, art, and literature into a detailed panorama, from the origins of ancient athletics in Homer to its professionalization in the Roman period. Along the way Miller gives an entertaining survey of everything from the mechanics of starting blocks to the layout of the festival sites--all aimed toward demonstrating the central place of athletics in the culture of the Greeks.

Then as now, sports conjures up within us all sorts of mythic longings and meanings that cry out for analysis. Unfortunately, the current interpretation of athletics--both classical and modern--reflects the anticapitalist prejudices of a worn-out Marxist cultural criticism.

This received wisdom tells us that competition and hyper-masculinity are really nothing more than a training-program for the shock troops of capitalist and imperialist hegemony--although sports also provide a distracting and profitable spectacle for the oafish middle classes. Remember that old 1970s antiwar documentary Hearts and Minds, which juxtaposed scenes of jungle carnage with a hysterical high-school football coach slapping his players' heads? The atrocities of Vietnam, so the claim goes, were born on the playing fields of America.

YET THE LARGER SIGNIFICANCE of sports is much more interesting than these tired clichés, and as Stephen Miller's knowledgeable and entertaining book shows, that meaning will be found among the ancient Greeks, the inventors of athletic competition. All the goods and evils, all the contradictions and values associated with our athletic obsessions, existed among the Greeks as well.

WHEN THE FIRST MODERN Olympic games were held in Athens in 1896, various legends and pseudo-classicisms were ginned up to claim a continuity with the ancient games, held from 776 B.C. until the Emperor Theodosius abolished them in A.D. 393. Debunking all this is great fun, but it obscures the parallels the modern games actually have with the ancient. The idea that the ancient games were apolitical celebrations of amateurism, for instance, is an invention of the late Victorians, who projected their idealizations of the Greeks back onto a reality that was as obsessed with money and prestige as our own times. To be sure, athletes in the stephanitic ("crown") games like the Olympics received only a crown made of olive leaves or celery, but the prestige attending victory in these games often produced more practical benefits, such as free meals for life at public expense, gifts from the city, and exemptions from taxes and civic duties: rewards as profitable as today's endorsement contracts for Olympic victors.

Then there were the "money" games, numerous competitions besides those held every four years at Olympia, in which the value of prizes could reach as high as what today would be half a million dollars. Theagenes of Thasos, active in the early fifth century B.C., earned what translates as around $44 million from his fourteen-hundred athletic victories. The late-sixth-century trainer Demokedes earned the equivalent of a quarter-million dollars a year after rival city-states twice lured him away with better offers.

SUCH LUCRATIVE PAYOUTS encouraged a professionalization of training and competition that by the Roman period had turned athletes into full-blown professionals who earned their living solely from sports. (Pliny the Younger, for instance, records the complaints of athletes who felt their free room and board provided by the emperor during training wasn't generous enough.) And this professionalization was attended with the same evils--fixing, bribery, trade unions, and raiding athletes and trainers--that characterize the modern world with its greedy, peripatetic free agents.