Olympic criticism and the torch relay

There has been quite a lot of criticism of the London Olympics from the UK press for several years now, much of it focused on the expense. During the last couple of weeks that has focused above all on the arrival of the Olympic torch in the UK. The bulk of the coverage is pretty positive, but there are very many exceptions (one example here). And the comments sections in the Olympics sections for all of the mainstream UK newspapers are full of responses by readers, some of them quite irritable. Some want to see the positives in the torch relay; others are cynical about what they see as the expense and commercialisation of the whole exercise.

Criticising athletes in the ancient world

I don’t want to take sides in that discussion here. (I’ve written in an earlier post about the history of the torch relay). What I’m more interested in for now is criticism of athletics in the ancient world.

It’s quite striking that most of the negative accounts of the games in the modern media are focused on organisational issues rather than sporting ones. It’s relatively rare to come across direct criticism of Olympic competitors and their trainers.

In the ancient world the situation was different. It’s hard to think of close parallels for attacks on the organisation and expense of the Olympics or the hundreds of other smaller athletic festivals. That seems to be taken for granted as a necessary feature of civic life, a key part of the way in which cities displayed themselves to the rest of the Greek world.

But what we do find is criticism of athletes and sport more generally. There’s a strong strand of this in ancient philosophical and rhetorical and medical writing, focused especially on the idea that athletic training is unhealthy, and that the obsession with sport is useless to society. Clearly that was a minority view in ancient culture, which was as sports-mad as we are (collectively). But even so it’s a recurring theme in the ancient sources.

Galen

The most strongly worded examples come from the work of the medical writer Galen. He sees professional athletics as a threat to public health and civilised intellectual life. And he portrays athletic trainers as ignorant figures who encroach on his own areas of medical expertise.

Here’s one example (Protrepticus 11). This text is relatively well known, and cited often in athletic sourcebooks (e.g., Miller, Arete, 2nd edition, no. 215), but it’s hard to resist quoting from it just because it’s so fantastically bad-tempered:

They [i.e. athletes] do not even know that they have a soul, so far are they from understanding its rational qualities. For they are so busy accumulating a mass of flesh and blood that their soul is extinguished as if beneath a heap of filth, and they are incapable of thinking about anything clearly; instead they become mindless like the irrational animals.

He comes back to similar themes in other texts too, especially in another work called the Thrasyboulos, which doesn’t make it into the sourcebooks so often. There we also get a glimpse of his cynicism about athletic trainers–they too are described as ignorant, animalistic figures, their voices compared with the screeching of pigs (and Galen goes on to give an account of how he has humiliated an athletic trainer in a public debate about medical issues):

Therefore the healthy city hates and loathes this practice [i.e. athletics], viewing it as an activity which destroys all the kinds of strength which are useful for real life, and which leads to a bad state of health…For athletes end up being useless for any kind of walking, similarly for military affairs, and even more so for politics and farming…They are in fact just as bad at these activities as pigs. Nevertheless the most unfortunate of them, all the ones who have never won anything, immediately start to call themselves trainers, and then they begin screeching, just like pigs, in a discordant and barbarous voice. (Thrasyboulos 46).

It’s hard to find anything quite like that even in the most uncharitable of modern Olympic commentators.

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