Here’s another athletic death. It’s an inscription (from western Turkey) recording the death and funeral of a young man called Markos Alfidios at Naples, and honouring him for his sporting achievements. It seems most likely that he was a combat athlete—a boxer, wrestler or pankratiast—but the inscription doesn’t tell us enough to know for sure. Nor can we be sure whether he died in competition or not. As far as I know it hasn’t been translated into English before. (It’s discussed by Louis Robert in L’Antiquité Classique 37, 1968, if anyone wants to follow it up).

Death in Naples

The guild of worldwide sacred-victors and their trainers at the games at Naples have decided this. Markos Alfidios…was outstanding in his physical excellence and took his training to the highest level, gloriously winning many sacred and isaktian contests; he was never defeated by anyone in the circuit games, having won some of the circuit contests; he was confidently expecting to win others. He was taken away by some envious deity, dying at the high point of his youth at the games in Naples. This disaster was not only upsetting for everyone because of the general good-will towards him, but also greatly harmed his fellow athletes, cutting off their greatest example of moderation and skill. Therefore it has been decided by the guild of worldwide sacred-victors and their trainers, in a unanimous vote, to celebrate in his homeland this most amazing man Markos Alfidios, who was unworthy of dying young, and to celebrate the unparalleled good sense and gentleness he displayed in his whole career, in which he progressed so quickly, and his unsurpassed skill, and to show the sympathy of the other sacred victors towards him. For they gathered together spontaneously and with one mind at his funeral, and both collectively and individually they honoured him in the accustomed way and mourned him as one would a family member, and all together they accompanied his funeral procession, with the most renowned of all the sacred victors supporting and accompanying his coffin. And the worldwide sacred victors proclaimed him and crowned him in their association with golden crowns and with painted portraits on golden armour and with statues inscribed with the following text: ‘The guild of worldwide sacred-victors and their trainers have honoured Markos Alfidios, the sacred victor, taken away in the high-point of his career, a man most gentle towards everyone, and outstanding among his peers for his skill and for his moderation and decency. [And then in the last couple of lines a brief and garbled mention of a ‘friend from childhood’…]

Circuit games and the athletic guilds

There are some very obvious differences between ancient and modern here. For one thing the slightly stilted language of ancient honorific decrees sounds a bit alien if you’re not used to it.

There’s also a lot of jargon relating to specific institutions of ancient sport.

For example, the sacred/isaktian games mentioned here are the top rank of most prestigious festivals. And the ‘circuit’ contests make up a more elite sub-group within that bigger category—these are the ‘grand slam’ occasions of the ancient festival calendar—the Olympic, Pythian, Isthmian and Nemean festivals, and a few others in addition which were added in the Roman period (the inscription doesn’t mention the Olympics specifically, but Markos Alfidios was clearly competing at the very highest level, and presumably would have competed at Olympia too).

The ‘athletic guild’ also needs some explanation. This was an empire-wide organisation which represented the interests of athletes—almost like an athletic union. It spent a lot of its energy on honouring successful athletes: there are quite quite a few other inscriptions like this one where the guild members have paid for inscriptions and statues for one of their colleagues.

Markos Alfidios and Wouter Weylandt

At the same time there are some striking similarities.

It makes me think in particular about the reaction to the death of the cyclist Wouter Weylandt in a crash in stage 3 of last year’s Giro d’Italia, just over a year ago.

Racing in the next day’s stage was neutralised. All 206 riders rode the 216 km route together, wearing black armbands. At his funeral a week later six of his Leopard Trek teammates escorted his coffin, surrounded by photographs of Weylandt, and the whole ceremony was televised on large screens outside the church.

Particularly striking is the image of unanimous action in both cases, ancient and modern—sporting rivals putting aside their differences and uniting almost spontaneously in a display of solidarity. Striking also is the shared imagery of family: Weylandt’s team member and friend Tyler Farrar described him as having been ‘a brother’ to him. And both cases have in common the desire for visual commemoration, and perhaps too the desire to immortalise the deceased sportsman: Weylandt, like Markos Alfidios, has had a string of memorials set up in his honour, and his Giro number 108 has been permanently retired from the race.

Conclusion

Obviously those similarities are to some degree coincidental. You could probably find similar parallels from other modern sports if you looked for them. But I think the comparison with cycling is nevertheless quite a useful one. Modern athletics isn’t always the best point of reference if we want to understand ancient sport.

For one thing, athletics today doesn’t on the whole share the dangers of the ancient contests, with their ultra-violent combat sports. But in professional cycling life is a bit more precarious. The cyclist is a very vulnerable figure in high-speed racing descents, on roads without reliable barriers, or in training, from traffic. Professional cyclists die or suffer very serious injury every year. Presumably any professional road cyclist will always be aware of that in the back of his or her mind.

Cycling is also one of those modern sports where team-mates and even rivals can be thrown together for very long periods, especially in the three grand tours (the Giro, and also the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España, each of which is three weeks long, and involves cycling in the peloton sometimes for as much as five or six hours a day). That must have been true also on the ancient athletic circuit, which involved so many months away from home—especially for the Olympic festival, where competitors had a month of compulsory training together in the city of Elis before the contests began.

Maybe it’s no surprise to see that the cycling world has overlaps with ancient athletics in its reactions to the deaths of friends and team-mates.

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