The Magazine

Olympic Games

Athletics, ancient and modern.

Jun 7, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 37 • By BRUCE THORNTON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Unlike tragedy, however, the games had winners. Yet the victory was merely a transitory respite from the relentless forces of existence that ultimately defeat everyone. Pindar, the fifth-century celebrator of aristocratic athletic prowess, makes explicit this link of the tragic view of life and athletic competition: The happiness of man grows only for a short time / and then falls to the ground, / cut down by the grim reaper. Victory in the games is like a ray of sunshine, a gift of the gods, / a brilliant light that settles on men, then fades, leaving only memory behind.

But we live these days in a therapeutic world, rather than a tragic one, a world in which, as in the Caucus Race in Alice in Wonderland, "everybody has won, and all must have prizes." We reject the notion of permanent limits, and expect the world to cater to our whims and feelings and to answer our desires. Competition is hurtful, creating losers and wounded self-esteem, and highlighting the differences in talent and hard work that contradict our notions of equality. But here, too, the ancient Greeks are instructive. As Plato and Aristotle both observed, the radical democracy in Athens, where all citizens had equal access to nearly every office in the state, promoted a radical egalitarianism, for as Aristotle noted, democracy promotes the notion that "those who are equal in any respect are equal in all respects." A consequence of egalitarianism is a leveling of the citizens, a reduction of the distinctions based on talent and ability that give the lie to absolute equality. So relentless is this process that in Athens, Plato only half-joked, "horses and asses have a way of marching along with all the rights and dignities of freemen."

Here arises the paradox, for the Greeks and for us: How can competitive athletics, which creates winners and losers and thus a hierarchy ranking the better over the worse, coexist with the radical egalitarianism promoted by democracy?

IN ANCIENT GREEK ATHLETICS, Miller claims the ancient games, apart from events like the very expensive chariot races, were an expression of democracy's equal access. This is superficially true, but misses the deeper Greek conflict between the aristocratic and democratic sensibilities, a clash also evident in tragedy, comedy, and political philosophy. The games always retained a strong aristocratic flavor, for they highlighted the arête--excellence--the manly virtue that was the hallmark of the aristocratic hero. This is particularly so in Homer, where athletic events are the purview of the nobility and function, as does war, to express the aristocrat's innate superiority, what Pindar called the splendor in the blood.

In ancient Athens, athletic competition embodied the conflicted feelings the non-nobles had for the aristocrats. On the one hand, the nobles, though possessing no more political power than the masses, nonetheless retained the glamour and allure of unique achievement and excellence owed not to law or procedure but to sheer superiority.

Yet at the same time, that achievement threatened the fundamental premise of democracy, that all are equal and equally capable of ruling. The games provided the masses opportunities for being "noble," at least for a while, and for showing the nobles that the ordinary citizens were as good as they--even as deep inside they suspected that they weren't. Why else would they try to imitate the nobles in all those ways Aristophanes relentlessly mocks in his comedies?

OUR ATHLETES have a similar meaning for us. At some level we know that therapeutic egalitarianism is a lie--that differences of talent and achievement are real, that losing and failure are a defining part of human life. Excellence and achievement are rare, and the cost of both is objective proof of mediocrity and defeat. We all aren't winners, and we all don't deserve prizes. That tragic truth is what sports both ancient and modern is all about.

Bruce Thornton is author of Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization.