The Original Olympians; When Ancient Greek Athletes Vied for Glory

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 13, 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Original Olympians; When Ancient Greek Athletes Vied for Glory


Byline: Michael B. Poliakoff, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The attempt to understand what sport, play and games mean is not a trivial pursuit. In the 19th century Jacob Burckhardt, author of the monumental "Greek Cultural History," had argued that the distinguishing feature of the archaic age of Greece was its pursuit of the agon (contest); in Burckhardt's vision the agon was the very catalyst of Hellenic civilization.

The great medieval historian Johan Huizinga extended Burckhardt's vision yet wider and identified play as "older and more original than civilization." His writings posed a powerful challenge to the Marxist ideology - which he termed a "shameful misconception" - that civilization originated and is consummated in economic and material considerations. With the rich resources of the historian and anthropologist, Huizinga demonstrated that it is in play that redemptive and culturally constructive activity takes place.

Especially in Olympic years, the legacy of Greek sport quite properly tends to hover over discussions of athletics and the public policy issues they involve. We are fortunate that Stephen Miller has now given us a fine new book on the athletics of ancient Greece that provides a wealth of detail and a strong factual base for understanding how the civilization we look to for inspiration pursued its sports.

Mr. Miller is at his best explaining what the sports and games of the ancient Greeks were - their equipment, facilities, rules, and participants. This is not an easy task: Far more of the evidence of ancient life has been lost than has come down to us. A professor of archaeology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the excavator of the ancient stadium at Nemea in southern Greece, Mr. Miller brings a wealth of information on the details of ancient life.

Along with these details, he provides guidance, albeit at times only tantalizing, for addressing the second, yet more important challenge: What did this all mean, what does it tell us about ancient society . . . and about ourselves?

At all times, Mr. Miller's writing is lucid and engaging. His book demonstrates that the athletics of ancient Greece were most assuredly not the playing fields of Eton. In the combat sports, for example, there were no weight classes, which is to say that a talented and spirited boxer who weighed 120 lbs. was simply out of luck against a man who weighed 190 lbs.

There were no rounds and no rest periods, and matches continued until one competitor was unwilling or unable to continue to fight. Contests took place in the full sunlight and heat of midsummer in southern Greece. Sunstroke and heat exhaustion were an ever-present threat.

Although the Greeks had padded boxing gloves, presumably like modern ones, that were used in practice, for competition they used only ox-hide thongs that grew more lacerative over time. The Greeks were also quite fond of a combat sport called pankration, which allowed all forms of unarmed combat except biting and gouging.

In contrast to this unwillingness to level the playing field - or to take simple precautions to guard the life and limb of the contestants - Mr. Miller shows us how careful the ancient Greeks were to prevent false starts in the footraces.

Based on years of careful excavation, the author has reconstructed the evolving technology of ensuring that no runner could get the edge on his fellows through a catapult-like release mechanism that slammed the starting barriers to the ground. He observes that the only acceptable competitions at the highest level were those with "strictly objective criteria."

Mr. Miller does a splendid job explicating the conundrums of how the athletes performed the field events - how they used the throwing thong to hurl the javelin, and how they employed jumping weights for the long-distance jump.

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