'Victory or Death' Ancient Olympic Sports

By Dawson, Katherine | VFW Magazine, August 2012 | Go to article overview
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'Victory or Death' Ancient Olympic Sports

Dawson, Katherine, VFW Magazine

Athletics in the ancient world were often seen as preparation for war. And two age-old questions will always be debated: do sports serve a useful purpose in military training and do great athletes make great warriors?

An epitaph at Olympia sums up ancient Greek views on sport nicely: "Agathos Daimon, nicknamed 'the camel,' from Alexandria, a victor at Nemea. He died here, boxing in the stadium, having prayed to Zeus for victory or death. Age 35. Farewell."

Another inscription proclaimed: "A boxer's victory is gained in blood." At the 564 B.C. Olympics, ultimate fighter Arrichion took that to heart, during his final round, he "died seeking victory," it is said.

Such inscriptions epitomize the Greek sense of perseverance rooted in honor and zeal for victory even to the point of death. And explain why the Greeks cultivated brutal athletic contests. As one orator said, "You know that the Olympic crown is olive, yet many have honored it above life."

That the phrase "victory or death" is honorably recorded on the tombs of Greek soldiers is no coincidence. Greeks saw the demonstration of courage, tenacity and resourcefulness on the sports field- the same qualities necessary on the battlefield-equally beneficial to the defense of their city-states.

British writer George Orwell's phrase war minus the shooting "seems especially apt for application to ancient Olympia," Nigel Spivey wrote in The Ancient Olympics: A History, "where war's encroachment upon athletic activity was overt and frequent." Indeed, "events were contested to the point of serious injury and fatality; and the entire program of athletic 'games' could be rationalized as a set of drills for cavalry and infantry fighting... all games were war games."

Greek competitions may or may not have been a metaphor for mock combat, but they enthralled their audiences nonetheless. The ancient Olympics were spectator sports at their most exciting, filled with hard-core action, thrilling moments of tension and personal feats of glory.


Sports and war were intertwined in ancient Greece. So-called combat athletes were often equated with warriors who fell in battle against the dreaded Persians. "There was a popular assumption that great athletic achievement signals military prowess," Michael Poliakoff wrote in his Combat Sports in the Ancient World: Competition, Violence, and Culture.

Athletic accomplishment brought honor and status in society. Tombstone inscriptions bear this out in that athletes received praise similar to that of soldiers. The tradition of the sportsman-soldier is ancient. In fact, more than a few great Greek warriors also were Olympians. The difference between now and then is that Greek athletes doubled as warriors by necessity.

In some periods of Greek history, combat sport substituted for wartime heroism. In The Iliad, a boxer named Epeios makes athletic victory a surrogate for achievement on the battlefield, for example. Philosopher and author Philostratus, in commenting on the lives of great athletes, said, "They made war training for sport and sport training for war."

Athletic training in ancient Greece was essentially intended to keep male citizens physically fit for war. "No male activity could be far removed from warfare in a society in which hand-to-hand combat was a constant and periods of peace exceptional and short," wrote Mark Golden in Sport and Society in Ancient Greece.

Indeed, the word "athletics" is derived from the Greek verb "to struggle or to suffer for a prize."

"Wrestling, boxing, javelin-throwing, the pankration and the rest were all easily conceived as ideal ways of preparing young men for armed hand-to-hand combat," concluded Moses Finley and H.W. Pleket in The Olympic Games: The First Thousand Years.

During the ancient Greek battles for survival against the Persians at Marathon and Thermopylae, when warriors were forced to fight unarmed in hand-to-hand combat, they soon discovered the usefulness of athletic skills honed in the highly competitive "combat sports.

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