Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

The Spirit of Competition (Agon) in the Olympic Games: From the Ancient to the Modern World

Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

The Spirit of Competition (Agon) in the Olympic Games: From the Ancient to the Modern World

Article excerpt

The purpose of this paper that celebrates the achievements of Ion Ioannides both in sport and in studies of Greek antiquity is to examine various features of the ancient Olympic Games that made them unique, bearing in mind the changes that took place over the thousand years and more of the ancient program. Since this is a mixed audience, as it were, I will include some Pindar and Latin for the Classicists, Coubertin for the historians, and twentieth century famous athletes for the sports fans, and somehow try to make it form a coherent whole, while following the basic theme of the spirit of competition, or agon, in the Olympic Games.

The Ancient Olympics as Contests (Agones), not Games

First of all we should define our terms. The Olympic Games are Games, are they not? It is often assumed (but of course not by Ioannides lecturers) that the ancient Olympics were Games. Even so eminent a scholar as Allen Guttmann, seeking to arrive at a definition to distinguish spontaneous and regulated play, comments: "we do, after all, speak of the Olympic Games, ancient and modern." (1) He continues: "this much linguistic latitude is not too much to ask." But is it? Here, I am not singling out Guttmann-for his general point is a good one but the Olympic Games were not actually the Olympic Games in ancient Greece, as several scholars have pointed out, and they were far from play. (2) Guttmann's linguistic latitude really makes a difference to our understanding of the ancient Olympics, since they were not diversions or amusements, but the subject of real competition with everything it implies.

Competition (or the agon) permeated the society of the Greeks. According to the distinguished Classicist Bernard Knox, "this competitive spirit had its roots in the disparate nature of their political organization, the cities all vying for territory, for predominance." (3) Researchers such as the Swiss scholar Jacob Burckhardt in his famous work on the agon, and before him Ernst Curtius the early German excavator at Olympia, have observed that the agon distinguished Greece from other early societies such as Egypt, although this is somewhat of an exaggeration, as Ingomar Weiler has observed. (4) Here, I should explain that the word agon (plural agones) has many connotations in ancient Greek. It is derived from the verb agein to bring or lead, and connected with competition, gatherings, military struggles, legal actions, and other concepts. For our purpose, I will generally discuss the competitive element of the agon. (5)

The ancient Greeks themselves did not call the Olympics "Games," but olympiakoi agones, or Olympic contests. The mistranslation, or perhaps misinterpretation, of the word "agones" probably comes through the Latin term "ludi," meaning games or play, but this adds a new dimension not found in the ancient Olympics. The Romans no doubt referred to the Olympics as "ludi" to fit their own concept of public games as spectacles, shows, or exhibitions that could include chariot racing, gladiators, and Greek athletics. (6) A search of the word Olympics in Latin literature reveals nine examples of the expression ludi Olympici, or similar. (7) The Romans, however, did know the word agon, for it appears ten times in reference to Greek athletic games in general, although only twice in relation to Olympia, and we may add in late sources, namely commentators on the epic poet Vergil. (8)

I have not traced the term "Olympic Games," or similar, from Roman times, but the first reference to the Olympics in France (in 1574) appears in Robert Garnier's Cornelie as "jeux olympiens, or so Karl Lennartz informs us." (9) Thomas Kyd interestingly translates this passage into English as "Olympian sports." Milton in Paradise Lost written in 1667 speaks of the Olympian Games. The title of the first modern comprehensive monolog on the ancient Olympics in 1732 by the Dutch scholar Theodorus Antonides also refers to the Olympics as "Games," Olymp-Speelen. …

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