Cult of the 'Body Beautiful' ; the Ancient Greeks Admired Athletes and Immortalized Their Heroes in Art

By April Austin writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 13, 2004 | Go to article overview

Cult of the 'Body Beautiful' ; the Ancient Greeks Admired Athletes and Immortalized Their Heroes in Art


April Austin writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


If a citizen of ancient Greece visited a modern-day training facility for Olympic athletes, he would likely feel at home. High- protein diets. Personal trainers. Strength training. Seclusion. Like today's competitors, the Greeks followed training regimens - whatever would improve their performance. The difference was that they ran, jumped, threw, or wrestled for the glory of their gods - and to attain the Greek ideal of a beautiful body housing a beautiful mind.

But today's athlete would be startled to learn that not only did the Greeks compete without Adidas endorsements and fancy athletic shoes, they competed without any clothes at all. (But more about that later.)

Such comparisons are just one element that stands out in a smartly timed exhibition "Games for the Gods" at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA).

Many a museumgoer has hurried past displays of ancient Greek vases and statuary in the world's great art institutions with only the vaguest idea of what these represent.

The vases serve as snapshots of life in Greek times, says Christine Kondoleon, a curator of the MFA's exhibition.

These artifacts - which include vividly painted jars, plates, and basins, small metal statuary, and large marble sculpture - point to a society in which athleticism was more than celebrated - it was part of a larger religious ritual that involved the attainment of "arete," or virtue.

The modern Olympics is descended from the most prestigious of the many athletic contests held regularly throughout Greece. These festivals served as proving grounds for Greek-speaking freeborn young men from wealthy families.

Starting about age 12, boys were taught philosophy, music, and athletics at complexes that often included the palaistre (wrestling school) and the gymnasium (derived from the word gymnos, or "naked"). Each boy was paired with an adult male mentor.

In the setting of the gymnasia, where women were excluded, these young men were initiated into their duties and privileges as citizens. The gymnasium provided a context for the nudity that was customary and compulsory. Without clothing, each man was equal in the gods' sight, according to Ms. Kondoleon.

Older men served as coaches and referees. These figures appear in Greek art as fully clothed and wearing beards. The youths, by contrast, are depicted as slim and beardless; these boys trained and competed in the nude.

Along with all this male bonding came a closeness between student and mentor that could cross over into pederasty. From what scholars have been able to determine, the Greeks encouraged young men to seek the wisdom and experience of their elders in matters intellectual, physical, and spiritual. It's clear, however, that the Athenians, at least, wanted to prevent after-hours, unsupervised contact between older men and young boys at the gymnasium. They set opening and closing times to be followed by the trainers.

At the same time, the Greeks greatly admired athletes who were able to abstain from any sort of sexual activity, believing that such behavior preserved their vigor.

While other cultures - most notably the Romans' - copied many aspects of the Greek games, they conspicuously dropped the Greek emphasis on nudity and relations with boys.

Among Greek contestants, the only exception to competing naked appears to be the charioteers. (This would seem prudent. Few of us would like to imagine being dragged behind a horse without even our skivvies.)

Humiliation was not unheard of in athletic contests, in which only victory mattered - there was no second or third place. It was believed that the winner was favored by the gods, and so brought honor and glory to his village. Other competitors who failed to measure up returned home in disgrace.

An athlete who cheated, if discovered, paid a fine that was used to make a bronze statue on which his offense was inscribed. …

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