Funding for the modern Olympics
There’s a range of different ways in which athletes are funded for the modern Olympics.
Some rely heavily on finding their own funds—often vast amounts of money that are hard to raise. (One recent example: the New Zealand taekwondo athlete Logan Campbell, who has taken a rather unorthodox route in his attempts to raise the NZ$300,000 needed for his training and attendance at the 2012 Olympics).
Others are funded by their own international athletic federations and other equivalent sporting bodies, which receive various degrees of government funding.
In some cases these bodies struggle to find the money they need, as the recent shortage in the Greek athletic federation has made clear. (The latest position is that they have suspended home competitions, in protest against funding cuts which have left coaches and suppliers unpaid for months—although they still plan to bring their athletes to the Olympics this summer).
Funding for ancient athletes
In the ancient world, similarly, athletes could be funded in a range of different ways. Many clearly paid from their own pockets—more so than is the case now. That’s one of the factors that led to the association between athletic victory and elite identity. A trip to the Olympics must have cost a lot of time and money (travel, payment of a trainer, expenses for the month of compulsory training in the city of Elis before the beginning of the festival).
But there is a lot of debate in recent scholarship on the degree to which talented sportsmen from less privileged backgrounds could break into the elite monopoly. And we do have some examples of state involvement in generating funding for athletes, which suggest that personal wealth might not have been the only possible route to stardom.
Two cases from Ephesus
Here are two examples from the city of Ephesus, dating probably from the fourth or third century BC.
The first relates to an athlete named Athenodoros, who had been given Ephesian citizenship after dedicating an earlier athletic victory to the city. This inscription tells us that his trainer has appeared in front of the city’s ruling Council asking them to grant citizenship to two individuals who have donated money to fund his training expenses (in effect selling citizenships to raise funds).
The second one seems to record a similar situation, except in this case it’s the athlete’s father rather than his trainer who has spoken to the Council.
[These texts have been discussed before in debates about the social status of ancient athletes—for example in Mark Golden’s 2008 book Greek Sport and Social Status pages 25 and following. But as far as I can see there aren’t English translations available of either of them.]
Here are the key bits of number one:
This is the decision of the Council and the people, proposed by Kleandros. Athenodoros son of Semon has previously won at the Nemean festival in the boys’ category, and is likely to win other contests too in the future, and to dedicate his victories to the city. His trainer Therippides, standing before the Council…[several fragmentary lines here apparently about the costs of training]…but since there is not enough money, it has been agreed by the Council and the people to make two citizens…to cover the expenses of training and travel… (I.Eph. 2005)
And here’s the second:
This is the decision of the Council and the people, proposed by Herogeiton. Timonax son of Dardanos has previously won at the Isthmian festival in the boys’ category and has now dedicated to the city his victory at the Nemean festival, and is likely to win other contests too in the future, and again to dedicate his victories to the city. The father of Timonax, standing before the Council, has requested that they provide for… [the text breaks off here] (I.Eph. 1416)
These two texts are certainly not decisive in helping us to work out whether athletes from low- or medium-income backgrounds were common. It’s perfectly possible that these two were both from wealthy backgrounds.
But it is a small step—it does at least show us that there were mechanisms for a degree of state involvement in raising funds. And it probably does make a difference that there are two of these texts, using almost identical wording. That suggests that this may have been a familiar procedure.
(Incidentally, it’s interesting too to see an athletic trainer standing up and speaking in front of the Council—it seem likely that at least some athletic trainers were well educated men, perfectly able to use the rhetorical skills associated with elite education when they needed to).