I’m going to be taking a break from posting here over the next couple of months. In the mean time, here’s an updated index of previous posts. Thanks for reading…
I’m going to be taking a break from posting here over the next couple of months. In the mean time, here’s an updated index of previous posts. Thanks for reading…
The London 2012 legacy
Stories about the Olympic legacy are still appearing pretty regularly in the British press, many of them focused on funding for School sports:
The Observer, 26 January 2013: Fury over lost London 2012 Games legacy as school sport funds dry up.
BBC, 19 April 2013: MPs warn on London 2012 volunteering legacy.
Independent, 28 April 2013: Baroness Sue Campbell: ‘We have wasted the Olympic legacy’.
Festivals and gymnasium education in the ancient world
In some respects the relationship between festival contests and ‘school sports’ in the ancient world was not dissimilar to what we are familiar with. But it’s hard to find parallel concerns about the idea that a specific festival should bring social benefits, for example by prompting an improvement for sport at school level.
Boys and young men from elite families received a significant part of their education in the gymnasium, most importantly for two years around the age of 18 as ‘ephebes’. This system of ephebic training was formalised in Athens in the fourth century BC, and spread to cities right across the Greek speaking world; it persisted into the Roman Empire. Ephebic training included athletic instruction in the events which were contested in the Olympics and in the hundreds of other athletic contests of the eastern Mediterranean. These skills were standardly tested out in competitive festivals held between ephebes in the gymnasium at the end of each academic year. The ephebic system must have been an important starting-point for athletes who went on to distinguished careers as professional sportsmen.
It’s not difficult to find generalising claims about the inspirational capacity of the athletic festival. Lucian, in his Anacharsis (written in the second century AD) writes as follows (albeit in a dialogue where the speaker quoted below, Solon, is repeatedly contradicted and mocked by his interlocutor, the Scythian wise man Anacharsis):
For we think, Anacharsis, that their enthuasiasm for athletic training will increase, if they see best athletes being honoured and proclaimed among the Greeks…And so many of the spectators, those who are not too old for training, go away from seeing such things not a little in love with hard work and athletic virtue. (Anacharsis 36)
Having said all of that , it is also clear that gymnasium education was in some respects very far removed from the culture of the full-time athletes who competed in high-profile festivals. Ephebic training could include all sort of other skills which were pretty much irrelevant to the Olympic tradition: for example we hear regularly of instructors in grammar or rhetoric being employed in gymnasia, and instructors in various military skills. And we have evidence for some odd contests at the end-of-year gymnasium festivals–including contests in ‘discipline’ (eutaxia) ‘good condition’ (euexia), hard work (philoponia); also contests in ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ or even ‘learning’ (polymathia)–more like a school sports day or speech day than an Olympic programme.
Anyone involved in this system would have been perfectly well aware–as most people surely are today, despite the idealistic attempt by British journalists and politicians to reinforce the idea of an Olympic legacy for school sports–that there are limits to how far you can ever expect professional sport to have an influence on athletic education in schools. To some extent they will always be different worlds.
We know about ephebic training partly from the many inscriptions recording the names of ephebes and their instructors, or in some cases recording rules for the gymnasium. There are hundreds of surviving gymnasium inscriptions, but they’re quite hard to get hold of in translation, either online or in the standard athletic sourcebooks. Miller’s sourcebook (Arete, 3rd edition, 2004: numbers 184, 185, 187) has some of the most important texts, but what doesn’t emerge clearly from that selection is the way in which each single inscription tended to be part of long series of inscriptions dealing in a formulaic way with similar subject matter year after year (for example with a new inscription put up at the end of each academic year).
The most detailed series of these inscriptions comes from Athens in the Roman Empire. (Good discussion by Kennell in Pakonstantinou (ed.) Sport in the Cultures of the Ancient World).
Here’s one (IG II2 2044):
And here’s a translation of an extract from a similar text from the same series (IG II2 2021):
The Council of the Areopagus and the Council of the 600 and the people of Athens honour the cosmêtês (i.e. head of the gymnasium), Heliodoros of Peiraios…
In the archonship of Polybius son of Metrodorus from Sounion the ephebes inscribed their own names and the names of their instructors.
Plato of Aithalidai;
as hêgemon, Zosimos of Besa;
as athletic trainer (paidotribês), Demetrios son of Isigenos, of Rhamnous;
as teacher of grammar, Aphrodeisios son of Heliodoros, of Peiraios;
as weapons instructor, Dionysios son of Antipater, of Azenia.
Cheilon son of Eukarpos;
Lysimachos son of Eukarpos;
Agathopous son of Eukarpos;
Archimedes son of Antiochos;
Zopyros son of Heliodorus;
Aristoboulos son of Arist…;
Theologos son of Eraton;
Hedylos son of Sozomenos;
Chryseros son of Karpodoros;
Apollonios son of Zosimos;
Hilaros son of Eisidoros;
Hymenaios son of Epaphrodeitos etc. etc.
You can see here from the list of instructors how the gymnasium is about very much more than just athletic training: it’s about literary and military education too. In that sense at least it’s quite far removed from the world of the athletic festival.
Gymnasium education and ancient elitism
One of the other striking things here is the prominence of the names of ephebes (which goes on a long way beyond where I’ve stopped). Membership of the ephebeia–especially the oldest ephebeia of all, in Athens–brought considerable social cachet, and was available only to those from wealthy families. The text doesn’t at first sight make for enthralling reading, but the cataloguing effect must have been impressive–it conjures up an impression of an elitist institution which was alive and well many hundreds of years after it was first founded–especially when you imagine it standing side-by-side with dozens of other similar inscriptions from the ephebes of previous years. These kinds of inscriptional catalogue are crucial to our understanding of ancient athletic history, but they tend to be missed out of the story in non-specialist treatments in favour of more glamorous sources…
This elitist character of ancient gymnasium education is another very basic reason why it’s hard to imagine any ancient equivalent to our own anxieties about Olympic legacy. We do occasionally see evidence for cities taking great care over the choice of publicly employed instructors in their gymnasia. But there’s nothing in the ancient world to match our own worries about the funding of education (sporting and otherwise) for all social levels, which is clearly one of the things driving the anxiety about this issue in recent media coverage in 2012 and 2013.
Sex and the modern Olympics
There was a stream of news stories last summer about sex and the Olympics, as the newspapers got overexcited about the idea of lots of athletes living in close quarters with each other in the Olympic village. A quick web search turns up dozens of these. Some examples:
–and many more of the same (as well as lots of almost identical stories from previous Olympics/World Cups/Commonwealth Games etc.).
Most of these stories follow more or less the same pattern: examples of famous modern sporting abstainers–Muhammad Ali, Glen Hoddle’s England squad for the 1998 football World Cup, Sylvester Stallone in Rocky etc. etc.–sometimes combined with passing references to similar beliefs in ancient Greek athletics; then quotation of recent studies showing that there is no evidence at all for physiological side effects. Here’s one: ‘Effect of sexual activity on cycle ergometer stress test parameters, on plasmatic testosterone levels and on concentration capacity: a study in high-level male athletes performed in the laboratory’, Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness 40.3 (2000): 233-9.
Sex and abstinence in ancient sport
It is absolutely right that there are ancient precedents for the idea that abstaining from sex could help athletic performance.
Aelian, Varia Historia 3.30, tells us that the athlete Cleitomachus was so abstinent that he never slept with his wife, and that he would turn away if he saw dogs mating in the street. That anecdote picks up on the standard idea of athletes as models of virtue and self-control.
In other sources, the physiological basis of the link between athletic training and sexual abstinence is made clearer. At least in some ancient medical texts loss of semen is associated with loss of strength and masculine vitality. One often quoted example is from the discussion of gonorrhea in Aretaeus, On the Causes and Symptoms of Chronic Disease 2.5, CMG 2.71, quoted in this good piece by Peter Jones in the Spectator–also from last August.
Some authors also suggest that semen production is lowered because the material the body would normally use for it is diverted to muscle-building. Plutarch, Quaestiones Convivales 8.4, 724e includes the following observation (in the course of a discussion of why palm fronds are awarded to victorious athletes, here suggesting that it is because they share the quality of sterility): ‘as for an athlete, its shapeliness uses up all its nourishment for building up the body, so that what is left for the production of seed is very little, and of poor quality’.
Of course that’s not the only side of the story: there are some cases where athletes were renowned precisely for their lack of sexual self-control. The emperor Elagabalus, in the early third century AD, famously took as his lover the athlete Aurelius Zoticus (see here for a translation of the whole lurid story from Cassius Dio 79.16, unless you’re feeling easily shocked).
How to spot a sexually active athlete
As so often, Philostratus’ Gymnasticus is one of the best places to look for the question of how these views impacted on day-to-day training:
Those who come to the gymnasium straight after sex are exposed by a greater number of indicators when they train, for their strength is diminished and they are short of breath and lack daring in their attacks, and they fade in colour in response to exertion, and they can be detected by signs of that sort; and when they strip, their hollow collar-bones give them away, their poorly structured hips, the conspicuous outline of their ribs, and the coldness of their blood. These athletes, even if we dedicated ourselves to them, would have no chance of being crowned [i.e. winning victory] in any contest. The part beneath the eyes is weak, the beating of their hearts is weak, their perspiration is weak, their sleep, which controls digestion, is weak, and their eyes glance around in a wandering fashion and indicate an appearance of lustfulness…. If an athlete has just had sex, it is better for him not to exercise. In what sense are they men, those who exchange crowns and victory announcements for disgraceful pleasures? But if they must undergo training, let them be trained, but with the caveat that their strength and their breathing must be closely observed; for these are the things which are damaged most by the pleasures of sex. (Gymnasticus 48 and 52)
Whether Philostratus’ instructions for spotting one of these people could ever be effectively applied is far from clear!–presumably this is based more on a set of assumptions about what sex is likely to do to an athlete than on experimental research.
But it does show very vividly just how much weight abstinence seems to have been given within ancient sport. It also shows just how vulnerable and precarious the athletic body was thought to be.
Wrestling and climbing in the modern Olympics
The IOC has recently announced that both forms of Olympic wrestling (‘Greco-Roman’ and ‘freestyle’) are going to be dropped from the 2020 Olympics to make way for a new sport.
(This is the 2012 London Olympics 74kg Greco-Roman wrestling final between Roman Vlasov and Arsen Julfalakyan).
Or to be more precise wrestling will join a shortlist with seven other sports competing for a single space: baseball/softball, karate, roller sports, sport climbing, squash, wakeboarding and kung fu.
Personally my vote would go for the climbing. Here’s a video of climbing sensation Adam Ondra, who should be one of big medal contenders even in 8 years time (he’s only 20 now). And here he is at the junior world championships at Valence in 2009:
I’ve written before about the arbitrariness of the choice of sports in the modern Olympic programme. Dropping wrestling would have seemed particularly odd to an ancient sports fan: it was one of the most prestigious of all ancient events (e.g. Philostratus, Gymnasticus 11). And the idea of including climbing as part of the Olympic programme would have seemed utterly bizarre.
Having said that, it’s clear that the Greeks were willing to make a competition of just about anything–just not within the context of one of their oldest festivals. This was a society where competition and competitiveness were deeply rooted (although there is a tendency in a lot of modern scholarship to oversimplify that stereotype–lots of ancient writers worry about the effects of competitiveness too).
There is in fact one text which gives a nice parallel for competitive climbing in the ancient world–from Arrian’s account of Alexander the Great’s capture of the Sogdian rock and its seemingly impregnable fortress, in what is now Uzbekistan. Here it is:
Then Alexander announced that twelve talents would be the prize for the first man to climb to the top, eleven talents for the second, and so on for the third, with 300 gold darics as the final prize for the last. This announcement spurred on the Macedonians, who were already keen, all the more. Three hundred men assembled who had experience of rock-climbing (petrobatein) from previous sieges. They prepared small iron pegs, used for securing tents, for driving into the snow where it seemed firm, or into patches of ground not covered by snow, and securing these with strong ropes made of flax, they set off, when night fell, to the steepest and therefore least guarded section of the rock. And driving in these pegs either into the earth, where it showed through, or into the patches of snow which were least likely to give way, they hauled themselves up by a variety of routes up the rock. Thirty of them died during the climb: their bodies fell in various places in the snow, and were not recovered for burial. But the rest of them, reaching the top of the rock around dawn, waved linen flags in the direction of the Macedonian camp, as Alexander had ordered them to do. (Arrian, Anabasis 4.18-19)
And here’s a video reconstruction.
Maybe the idea of a climbing as a competitive sport would not have seemed so odd to an ancient Greek after all, even if it could never have made it into a traditional festival programme.
Postscript: mountains in the ancient and modern world
Lying behind all of that is a series of wider questions about mountains in ancient and modern imagination. I do think there is a tendency to oversimplify ancient attitudes to mountains and to overestimate the degree to which they were different from our own. That’s not to say that mountain climbing of the kind Arrian describes here was widespread in the ancient world: clearly mountaineering as a widely practised leisure activity is a very distinctively modern phenomenon. But it’s not as hard as one might think to find examples in ancient texts of people climbing mountains (Waldo Sweet’s sourcebook Sport and Recreation in Ancient Greece, published in 1987, includes this Arrian passage as one of fourteen examples). And even if we accept that ancient Greeks and Romans used high places for very different reasons from our own, I still think that the ancient world is treated in much too cursory fashion in recent scholarship on the cultural history of mountains. But that’s for another time…
Ball games in Roman culture
Ball games tend to get a relatively low profile in our accounts of ancient sport. The reasons for that are pretty clear: they were not part of the standard athletic festival programmes, at Olympia or anywhere else.
And yet Roman society was a society obsessed with ball play.
Ball games were standardly played in bath-houses and in gymnasia, for entertainment and for health. The rules are very hard to reconstruct from our sources. Most of the websites which turn up on search engines really underestimate that difficulty, and also the variety of ancient ball games (more on that below). Many of them also overemphasize the links with modern sports–especially football. But if you want a basic survey the Wikipedia pages on (for example) harpastum or episkyros at least give some of the key sources in translation.
I’ve just been reading the Latin satirist Martial, and the letters of Pliny the Younger, along with some other authors who were more or less contemporary with them (late first/early second century AD), and it’s striking how often they mention people playing with balls. It turns up over and over again, as if it’s a standard part of day-to-day elite life.
For example, Seneca complains in one of his Letters (56) about the noise from the bathhouse under his lodgings: the grunting of people lifting lead weights, the sound of massages, the sound of pickpockets being arrested. He also complains about the noise made by pilicrepi shouting out the score: the last straw, Seneca suggests. That word pilicrepus doesn’t turn up often in surviving Latin, and we’re not quite sure what it means, but this is presumably either a ball-player or a scorer. Either way, Seneca’s referring to him as if he’s a common sight (or sound) (too common for his liking) in the baths of Rome.
Medical writers talk a lot about ball play too, most importantly the great second-century AD medical writer Galen in his work On Exercise with the Small Ball. Galen hated athletes and athletics and especially athletic trainers for the damage they did to the human body and for the way they encroached on his medical expertise. But he also gave detailed instructions for alternative, more moderate types of exercise which were beneficial to the body: and the small ball is one of those.
There’s a lot of ball play also in Roman art.
This image is from the small town of Sinj in Croatia, from a tombstone for a boy called Gaius Laberius, who has died aged 7 according to the inscription (although oddly the individual depicted seems to be much older than that). It dates as far as I can tell from the second century AD. He’s depicted here holding a ball made of hexagons, much like a modern football–presumably an attempt by grieving parents to commemorate one of the things he loved.
It’s clearly a local landmark, and a source of local pride, and taken as evidence for the origins of football not just in the Roman empire, but actually in the pre-Roman local population: for example here. There are photos here of one attempt at a recreation match, inspired by the tombstone. And the monument also apparently featured on the front page of the FIFA newsletter in 1969.
I haven’t; been able to work out exactly what those arguments are based on. On the face of it it’s hard to see what is special about this ball image compared with lots of others which survive similarly in Roman imperial art, but maybe I’m missing something… (more details gratefully received, if anyone knows).
Antyllus on the small ball
Many of the key passages on ancient ball games are listed in the standard introductory books on ancient athletics, so I won’t plough through any more of them here.
But here’s one which isn;t easily available in translation. It’s by the medical writer Antyllus, writing in the second century AD.
It’s in the context of a wider discussion of other exercises too: running, horse-riding, hoop-rolling, swimming, wrestling and shadow-boxing.
Ball exercise makes people more agile and strengthens their vital energies. There are different types of exercise according to the different types of ball. The types are the small ball, the large ball, the medium ball, the good-sized ball, and the hollow ball. There are three types of small ball, each with a separate type of exercise. The first is very small…The exercise from this is very good for the legs…Then there is another ball, a little bigger than this one…And this is the best of the ball exercises, for it makes the body healthy and nimble, and it sharpens the sight without causing congestion in the head. And then there is a third ball bigger than these two which they play standing apart at a distance. There is a stationary version and a running version. In the first they stand and throw the ball repeatedly and forcefully. This exercises the arms and the eyes. The running version exercises the arms and the eyes in the same way as the previous one, but it also benefits the legs through running, and the backbone through the twists and turns which place during running. (CMG 6.1.1, 185-6)
And much more of the same…
It’s a fairly austere account. It doesn’t help us to reconstruct the rules. But what is amazing, I think, is all the complex subdivisions here. Clearly ball play in the ancient world came in a vast variety of different forms. It had something for everyone (or something for every part of the body, if you’re a medical writer like Antyllus).
We can at least see that ball play had its own very rich and complex culture in the ancient world, even if the nuances and the details are lost to us…
We’re quite used to the idea of people making money from sport. But one ancient commercial activity which is very hard to parallel is the selling of sweat from the gymnasium.
It was standard practice to cover yourself in olive oil before exercising in the gymnasium. It was seen as beneficial for health. After exercising you would then scrape off the oil and sweat on your body with a metal scraper called a ‘strigil’.
Gymnasium employees had the task of collecting it so that it could be sold for medical purposes. It’s mentioned in quite a few medical texts. It had a range of uses, but it seems to have been used in particular to reduce inflammations. It was spread on to the affected area rather than ingested. Sometimes it was used in combination with the dirt scraped off the walls or statues of the gymnasium.
Gloios mattered for ancient gymnasia because it provided a significant revenue stream. One famous inscription, the gymnasium law from Beroia, gives us a glimpse of that process in a passing reference to the sale of the rights to the revenue from the gymnasium’s gloios–which suggests that this was happening on a fairly large scale
(There’s a really good piece on all of this, and on other aspects of olive oil use, by Nigel Kennell in M. Joyal ( ed.) (2001) In Altum: Seventy-Five Years of Classical Studies in Newfoundland, but it’s relatively hard to get hold of, and certainly not available online as far as I know…)
I think the most fascinating aspect all in all of that is the role of the gloios-collectors.
These people are barely mentioned in surviving ancient texts. But they must have been a common sight in gymnasia and bath-houses across the Mediterranean world. Presumably we have to imagine them as a constant background presence, going around collecting the scrapings and scratching at the walls while the exercisers went on with their training, or perhaps at the end of the day (although it’s hard to believe that could ever have been a full-time job–it must have been combined with many other duties in the gymnasium too).
The main reason for their invisibility in the sources is surely their low status, by contrast with the members of the elite who were the primary clientele of the gymnasium buildings they worked in. This can’t have been a prestigious profession, despite the value of the product they collected (there’s an obvious parallel in the role of fishermen in ancient culture–the fish they caught were highly valued, but they themselves had very low status and low incomes). Presumably many of the gloios collectors were slaves.
Here’s one rare ancient witness: Valerius Maximus, in his work Memorable Deeds and Sayings, a huge collection of anecdotes and exemplary stories, written in Latin in the first half of the first century AD. The extracts here are from 9.14, a collection of stories ‘On physical likeness’:
The father of Pompey [first-century BC Roman general, rival of Julius Caesar] appeared to resemble his cook, Menogenes, to such an extent that he was powerless, despite his military pre-eminence and his warlike spirit, to dislodge that man’s name from himself…
A young man of outstanding nobility, Cornelius Scipio, despite his plentiful supply of distinguished family names, was associated against his will with the slave-like name Serapio by popular gossip. This is because he was exceptionally similar in appearance to a sacrificial assistant of that name. Neither the respectability of Scipio’s behaviour nor respect for the many death masks of his ancestors, brought him any relief from being stained by this insult…
Hybreas of Mylasa was a prolific and energetic orator. But the whole of Asia Minor more or less assumed that he was brother to a slave of the city of Kyme who collected the scrapings from the gymnasium, so similar were they in the outlines of their faces and in all their limbs.
Status is the thing Valerius is fascinated by here above all, both in the Hybreas story and in the others in the chapter. The idea of high- and low-status individuals with identical appearance threatens the common ancient idea that elite identity was automatically linked with bodily beauty and dignity. Hybreas was an orator from the city of Mylasa in Caria (now south-west Turkey) from the first century BC. He was renowned for his enormous wealth and his political control over the city. But presumably this connection with the unnamed gloios-collector (from Kyme–another nearby city in Asia Minor) is a detail that could have been exploited by his political enemies, all the more so given that Hybreas seems to have risen from humble origins himself (Strabo 14.2.24).
It is not a flattering association. For Valerius Maximus collecting other people’s sweat is very far removed from the cultured behaviour appropriate to the political elite.
When future sports historians look back at the months following the 2012 Olympics, what they’re most likely to remember is surely the stripping of Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour de France victories, prompted by the release of USADA’s reasoned decision on 10 October.
Most cycling fans had begun to realise what was going on, but it’s still hard not be shocked (also if you read Tyler Hamilton’s book, The Secret Race) by the scale of the cheating, and by the assumption of invincibility among those who were doing it; also by the brutal control tactics Armstrong especially seems to have adopted; and by the uselessness of all the drug testing which clearly failed to detect all but occasional cases.
The whole affair is a pretty sobering counterweight to the more idealising vision of sport which was on show in the Olympics earlier in the summer.
Luckily for the much reported Olympics feel-good factor, none of the UK’s new cycling stars is closely involved: there’s general agreement that things have got better in the last few years.
Nevertheless there are many many people still involved in cycling as riders or managers who lived through the bad times. Many of these will be getting worried: clearly there are more relevations to come. Even Team Sky and their manager Dave Brailsford (who is also performance director of British Cycling) have had some uncomfortable questions to answer: see here or here. And the UCI, the sports governing body, is increasingly facing accusations of incompetence and even collusion.
Cheating in ancient sport
Cheating in the ancient Olympics has been one of the most frequently treated ancient-sport topics in the popular media over the last few decades. There are countless discussions on ancient Olympics web-sites too.
Most of these accounts cover very similar ground, relying on the same few familiar sources, none of which really takes us very close to ancient athletic experience.
That usually involves a fairly uncritical repetition of various anecdotes from Pausanias, usually with passing mention of famous heroic cheats like Pelops (who is said to have cheated in his chariot race against King Oinomaos: victory in the race gave him the hand of Oinomaos’ daughter, Hippodamia, in marriage).
The problem is that it is very hard to find alternatives to those often quoted sources.
Just to take one example, it’s hardly surprising that the evidence of the inscriptions (which provide some of our best evidence for ancient sport) are silent about cheating, given that their main aim is nearly always honorific: to honour prominent athletes and benefactors.
Philostratus on selling victories
Even so, I think there is more to say about the way in which ancient writers thought about cheating and talked about it, even if we can’t find any new evidence for what corrupt ancient sportsmen actually did.
The text quoted here (Philostratus, Gymnasticus 45; see Miller, Arete, 2004, no. 214 for alternative translation) suggests some striking similarities and differences between ancient and modern treatments.
This kind of luxury…started the habit of rule-breaking among athletes for the sake of money and the buying and selling of victories…A boy won the Isthmian wrestling after agreeing with one of his opponents a price of three thousand drachmas for victory. When they came the next day to the gymnasium, the defeated contestant demanded his money, but the other said that he did not owe it, since he had won the victory over an opponent who had been unwilling to lose. And since their argument remained unresolved they entrusted the matter to an oath and came to the temple of the Isthmian god [i.e. Poseidon], and the one who had sold the victory swore an oath in public that he had sold the contest of the god and that three thousand drachmas had been promised to him. And he admitted to these things in a clear voice, speaking without any hesitation…And I do not absolve the trainers themselves from responsibility for this corruption. For they turn up at training sessions with money, and they make loans to the athletes at levels of interest higher than those which are normal among sea-going merchants, and they pay no attention to the reputation of the athletes but instead act as their advisers in buying and selling, out of a concern for their own profit, which they secure either by giving loans to those who want to purchase victories,or by taking repayments from those who have made sales.
There are some vague overlaps with the stories which have been emerging from the cycling world over the last few weeks and years.
Most obvious is the blatant, unashamed quality of the way in which the two boys talk about their deal, as if it’s an absolutely commonplace happening (again, Hamilton’s book is a good place to look for parallels: there are lots of stories there of professional cyclists referring to their doping in very casual, matter-of-fact fashion among themselves, even if they didn’t do so in public like Philostratus’ two boy athletes here).
Philostratus’ worries about trainers corrupting young athletes also look familiar: there are more and more stories coming out of young cyclists being pressured into doping by their teams.
Idealising the past
The obvious difference is in Philostratus’ treatment of the past.
For Philostratus, this corruption is a sign of the influx of money into the sport. He contrasts it with a glowing portrait of the old-fashioned virtues of the heroic athletes of many centuries before, who lived simple lives and ate simple diets. (I think the importance of Philostratus’ text in reinforcing the amateurist ideology of the late 19th and early 20th centuries hasn’t always been recognised).
By contrast there’s not much sign of this kind of idealisation of the past in relation to the Armstrong scandal.
That must be partly because of the disillusionment which is prominent these days in the professional cycling media. It’s becoming increasingly clear that these problems date a very long way back–into the 1960s at least–even if they were at their worst from the early 90s onwards.
But I think it’s part of a trend which is common in other sports too–a wider lack of interest in idealising visions of a past sporting golden age. It’s increasingly rare these days to find the language of moral virtue attached to the sports stars of the earlier ages. Maybe our increasing cynicism about some aspects of present-day sport makes us less inclined to look for perfection in the great figures of the past too…
Now that the Olympics season is nearly over, with the Paralympics finishing next Sunday (9 September), I’m going to be posting here less often: probably monthly from October onwards rather than weekly.
In the mean time, here’s an index of previous posts. Thanks for reading…
The Paralympics are about to begin.
What would an ancient spectator have made of them?
Ancient Greek and Roman culture aren’t renowned for their sensitive treatment of the disabled.
Most of the examples we have of ‘sporting’ appearances by athletes who didn’t conform to ancient notions about ideal body shape involve mockery.
The emperor Domitian is said to have exhibited dwarf gladiators in the arena:
Next come the bold ranks of dwarfs. Their brief growth, abruptly ended, has tied their bodies once for all into knotted lumps. They join in combat, they inflict wounds, they threaten death with their tiny hands. Father Mars [i.e. the god of war]…marvels at these fierce boxers. (Statius, Silvae 1.6.57-64)
It’s very difficult to find more positive examples.
There are a few injured war heroes from Greek mythology who might conceivably be appropriated as icons of physical achievement in the face of disability.
The obvious example is Philoketes, who is said to have been abandoned on an island by the Greeks on their way to Troy with a terrible wound in his foot from a snake bite. Fortunately for him they left him with his bow, the famous bow of Herakles, which he used to catch food. Finally the Greeks went to collect him and brought him back to be healed, in response to a prophecy that Troy could not be captured without his bow.
Guillaume Guillon-Lethiere: Philoctète dans l’île déserte de Lemnos gravissant les rochers pour avoir un oiseau qu’il a tué, 1798 (Paris, Musée du Louvre).
The Egyptian wrestler Mys
But that’s a fairly tenuous connection with modern Paralympic ideals.
A better bet are the various stories about ancient athletes who emerged stronger after a period of illness (like Lance Armstrong perhaps), or even turned their illnesses to advantage.
The Egyptian, Mys, so I have heard from some older informants, was a little chap of no great size, but he wrestled beyond the normal limits of the art. At one point after he had been ill his left side grew bigger; he had already decided to give up competing when a dream appeared to him telling him to have no fear of the illness, for he would be stronger in the damaged parts of his body than in those which were healthy and unharmed. And the dream was right; for he used to use the damaged parts of his body to make wrestling holds which were very hard to defend against, and that made him very difficult for his opponents to deal with, and he benefited from his disease through being strengthened in the afflicted parts of the body. This is an amazing thing, and let us take it as a one-off incident, rather than as something which happens regularly, and let it be viewed more as the work of a god revealing a great sign to humans. (Philostratus, Gymnasticus 41)
The vast majority of ancient texts do take a pretty negative view of physical disability, even if they don’t always go quite so far as the emperor Domitian and the spectators who flocked to his shows.
But this text does suggest that there is another side to the story. Admittedly the final sentence on divine intervention jars a bit with the modern idea that the Paralympic athlete takes control over her or his own destiny by hard work and determination and self-belief. In making that claim Philostratus echoes the ancient tendency to described odd body shapes and disabilities as marvels and oddities–albeit without the unflattering, dehumanising connotations that language usually has. It’s also striking that this boxer isn’t attested in any other source, and there’s really no way of saying how reliable Philostratus’ account is, or how widely known this story was.
But even so, this passage does show that a more positive account of disability, and specifically sporting disability, was at least conceivable to some ancient authors.