Athletic victory in London 2012

It’s quite striking that media references to Olympic history are actually less frequent now that the games are underway. That’s maybe not a surprise–we have more urgent things to preoccupy us. The reason for watching sport is to see people win. When we watch Usain Bolt, or Jessica Ennis or Mo Farah or countless others in the moment of winning, it’s easy to forget everything else. If we care about who wins, even from the other side of a television screen, sport can pull us in to identify with the athletes we’re watching–it gives us a desire for victory.

We can feel an emotional engagement in watching the losers too: Lu Xian crashing into the first hurdle, or Tyson Gay in tears after his fourth place in the 100m.

Here’s Billy Mills winning a surprise victory in the 10,000 metres in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics–a great picture, I think:

Athletic victory in Pindar

Ancient literature is full of attempts to recreate precisely that kind of exhilaration, and the celebration that follows it.

Most famously it’s everywhere in the work of Pindar–the Greek poet who wrote his victory odes in the 5th century BC. Here’s his (often quoted) praise of the wrestler Aristomenes of Aegina for victory in the wrestling at the Pythian games of 446 BC (Pythian 8.81-97) (also in alternative translation in Miller, Arete (2004) no. 249).

You fell on the bodies of four opponents from on high and with cruel intent. For them no happy return home was allotted at Delphi, as it was for you, nor did sweet laughter bring pleasure to them when they went home to their mothers. Instead they slink along alleyways, staying aloof from their enemies, bitten by misfortune. But the man who has won some new fine thing is made splendid, and flies beyond hope on the wings of his manly deeds, nursing ambitions greater than wealth. But mortal pleasure flowers quickly, and quickly falls to the ground, shaken by an unpleasant thought. Creatures of a day. What is somebody? What is nobody? A human is just the dream of a shadow. But whenever a ray of sunshine comes as a gift from the gods, then a brilliant light falls upon men, and our life is gentle.

Athletic victory in early Christian writing

Oddly enough some of our other best descriptions of victory come from early Christian texts. A lot of early Christian writing uses athletic imagery to describe spiritual victory. Some examples are well known: for example it’s common in accounts of the deaths of martyrs, who are often compared to athletes or gladiators, and Paul’s letters are famously full of examples–they even get their own Wikipedia page.

But early Christian and late antique literature is still a huge untapped resource for scholarship on ancient athletics: there are hundreds and hundreds of more obscure passages which don’t get so much attention.

There are some good examples in a piece by Michael Poliakoff from IJHS 1984, freely available online here.

Job’s victory over Satan

Here’s one of his passages, from the tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia, the Suda. It’s an account of the Old Testament figure of Job, who was often described as a wrestler, wrestling against Satan. That’s paradoxical, given how weak he often is in the traditional imagery. He’s the one on the right here, covered in boils (this image from the sixth- or seventh-century ‘Syriac Bible of Paris’)–he doesn;t look as though he’s in a position to wrestle with anyone:

Here’s the passage (quoted here from Poliakoff’s translation, with a few adjustments):

Job was that truly great and noble competitor for the truth who first opened the athletic stadium shared by the whole world, who threw down his opponent in every wrestling bout, who received blows and bruises to his very bones yet remained undefeated, who was full of worms yet also crowned (i.e. crowned as victor). Death was not able to lay him out or to put dust on his shoulders, but he stood immovable like a statue or an anvil, unstruck, wrestling throughout his whole life and smashing his opponent. He raised a monument of victory over the Evil One, not by contesting at Nemea, Olympia, the Isthmus, and Delphi…The Opponent’s madness and envy were not sated up until the point when he challenged this athlete naked to the dung heap, making him completely spotted with sores and full of worms and until finally the Cursed One brought the defeat upon himself and drew the lot of final shame….Job gained the ultimate and finest prize from his contests, to be raised with Christ…

This Byzantine fascination with athletic imagery is odd in a way, given that the old athletic festivals had died out many centuries before. The Olympic festival was held for the last time roughly in AD 400.

But maybe that just shows all the more clearly how deeply embedded these ideas of victory were in the Greco-Roman traditions which influenced early Christian and Byzantine culture…