Dec 27

The Athlete in the Classic Greek Olympics

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Several years ago in my lecture series ‘Sociology of Sport’ and ‘International Perspectives of Sport’ I presented on the Classic Olympic Games and the role of athletes within the Olympic concept of that  time. I like to share this with you.

The metaphysical foundation of the Olympic Games may be found in Pindar’s Odes of Gods, Heroes, and Mortals, a chain of participation in which Mortals (athletes) shared something with Heroes (former athletes who transcended), and … these Heroes, in turn, shared something with the Gods. Mortals were entirely located in Time and Space… Heroes were partially located in Time and Space because they once were Mortals.

The Gods stood beyond Time and Space except when by choice they became involved with the actions of Mortals. Within this set of relationships, the pursuit of excellence in sport was important because it offered Mortals a chance to transcend themselves and temporarily alter their position in this chain. Through the pursuit of excellence in sport, Mortals could emerge from their mortality to commune briefly with the Gods, and ultimately, participate in the reality, which was animated by the Gods.

Therefore, the Games and the Athletes remained closely linked to the Gods, who also could and did choose ‘sides’ by supporting their ‘favorites’ toward victory against another God. The athlete was, therefore a ‘religio athletae’ (‘spiritual athlete’ – See Coubertin and the Modern Games, October 2014 Newsletter). The Athlete felt that any violation of the rules of the Games was an act of sacrilege and displeasing to the Gods, which helped to preserve the purity of the contests at Olympia, even when competition became fierce at other Games. Preserve the purity of the games! O boy! How about those doping scandals in modern athletics!

The athletes of the early classical era were considered at first Non-Professionals as Sparta dominated the Games. Later, men began to choose athletics as a profession and as a means of earning a livelihood. When athletes started to specialize, Sparta as the leading nation disappeared from the Games. Only during the later times were athletes ‘groomed toward Professional status.’ The Greek civilization then made athletics popular, and spectators appeared to watch the athletes perform.


AND NOW compare that to our modern day Society, Fans and Professional Athletes!

… “Professionalism was at its height, and men took more pleasure in sitting at their ease, watching the performances of the athletes, than in themselves toiling at the exercises”…(Plato)

…“Of the myriad evils that press on Hellas, there is no greater evil than the athlete folk”… (Euripides)

And according to Pindar:

…“Later on, a heavy diet of meat was prescribed for the athletes, and they became notorious for their gluttony, their surfeited sleep, and brutish stupidity”…

AHA! We should probably add here ‘drunkenness’, marijuana consumption, and stupidity of modern day Olympic heroes!

Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle also … ‘swelled the chorus of condemnation’… Universally, among thinking people, professional athletics were in disrepute! Over-specialization and the increase in the value of prices caused the Games to deteriorate but not before a new concept toward athletics became apparent to the world. So, there you go! … AND where are we Now?

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