Form in modern sport
One of the main sources of pleasure for anyone who enjoys sport in the modern world is speculating in advance about who’s going to be in form and who’s going to win. Is Usain Bolt going to overcome his early season dip in form and the good form of his competitors to win again on 5 August? Can Bradley Wiggins really hold his form to win the Tour de France (or the Olympic time trial, for that matter) or has he peaked too soon? (and see here, including the comments at the end, for similarly painstaking speculation about the poor form of his rival Andy Schleck, who has now pulled out of the Tour with a fractured pelvis).
Form in the ancient world
We don’t see much sign of that in the ancient world, and I think that’s one reason why ancient sport can sometimes be hard to connect with at first sight.
That’s partly because ancient sports fans didn’t have the kind of information we have today: it’s harder to speculate about the current form and the strengths and weaknesses of individual competitors if you haven’t seen them regularly on television and if you can’t call up their career histories in a matter of seconds online.
But it’s also partly just because of what survives: most of the ancient sources we have describe victories after the event and in relatively formal terms, in anecdotes or honorific inscriptions. In fact ancient sports fans must have spent time speculating in advance in much the same we do as we do–just that their conversations don’t survive on paper.
We get just occasional glimpses of that kind of thing in our surviving sources. The best place to look, I think, is the preparatory periods just before big festivals, when spectators could see athletes training in advance. Think of all the spectators crowding into the city of Elis for the month of compulsory training in advance of the Olympics and watching the athletes being trained in the gymnasium.
The satirist Lucian (writing in the second century AD) talks about being in Elis in precisely that period. He describes the crowds in the city. And he tells us that he wandered off halfway through listening to a tiresome public debate ‘in order to go and see the athletes’ (Peregrinus 31).
Iatrokles at the Sebasta
There’s a similar description by Dio Chrysostom, probably from the late first century AD, set in Naples just before the great festival of the Sebasta:
Having come up from the harbour, we went straight away to see the athletes, as if the whole purpose of our trip was to view the contests. When we got close to the gymnasium, we saw some athletes running on the track outside, and there was a sound of cheering from the people encouraging them, and other athletes exercising in different ways. We decided not to pay any attention to them, but went instead to where we saw the biggest crowd. We could see many people standing around the Arcade of Herakles, and others approaching, and still others going away because they couldn’t see anything. At first we tried to see by peeping over the crowd’s shoulders, and we managed with difficulty to catch sight of an athlete exercising with his head up and his arms outstretched. Then we gradually got in closer. He was a big and beautiful young man…he looked like one of those carefully wrought statues… (Dio 28.1-3)
They then interrogate a nearby athletic trainer about the athlete and learn that he is a boxer named Iatrokles. And the trainer discusses Iatrokles’ prospects for victory, and his newfound confidence, now that his arch-rival Melankomas has died.
It’s a very vivid portrayal of the crowds and the atmosphere of excitement and anticipation and speculation.
Betting in ancient Greek and Roman sport
I think it’s interesting also that there is very little sign of betting on ancient athletics. That absence of a highly developed betting culture may be another reason why advance speculation about particular athletes is relatively absent from our sources (whenever we talk about ‘favourites’ today we’re using the language of the bookmaker, even if we don’t realise it).
We do have evidence for betting on chariot racing in Rome, although it seems to have been frowned upon. The Latin satirist Juvenal mentions ‘shouting and audacious betting and sitting next to elegant girls’ (11.201-2) at the chariot racing as activities which are suitable for young men. The Christian moralist Tertullian describes chariot-racing spectators as ‘blind with passion and agitated about their bets’ (De Spectaculis 16.1).
But I don’t know of any example at all for a Greek athletic festival. (The best Greek example I can think of is the wager offered by the hero Idomeneus to Ajax, at the funeral games of Patroclus in Homer, Iliad 23.482-7, on which of the chariots is in the lead).
If you search online for ‘betting ancient Olympics’ you turn up a large number of betting websites claiming (in an obviously self-serving way!), that sports betting dates back to the ancient Olympics–but without any sign of where exactly that information comes from.
For example one site tells us that
Thousands of years ago, athletic competitions were held in Corinth, Delphi, Nemea, and Olympus. Events included footraces, hurling the discus, long jumping, throwing the javelin, wrestling, boxing, and a form of free-style fighting. Contestants would dress in full battle array, including body armour and helmets, and prize money was bestowed on the victors. But there was even more to be gained in the viewing stands at these events, where excited spectators wagered on the outcomes, sometimes gaining or losing entire estates in the bargain.
It’s possible that there are one or two sources out there which could be used to support that claim (I can’t think of any personally, but if anyone can I would love to know!) But even if that turned out to be the case, I still think it would be a highly misleading claim. Even if there was betting on ancient athletics every so often it clearly had a pretty low profile very far removed from the practices of the modern betting industry…