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.