Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

WELL done, the lads! Lions all, and greeted like conquering heroes on their return from soccer's World Cup in France. But they lost.

The poet Pindar (c. 518-440 BC) composed poems on commission for athletes who won at the various games held around the Greek world, and he has nasty things to say about losers. Here he writes in honour of the young wrestler Aristomenes who at the Pythian games in Delphi beat three opponents on his way to victory, `with evil intention flattening them heavily from a great height onto the ground and leaving them no happy homecoming. As they ran back to their mothers they heard no joyous laughter to give them delight: no, they slunk furtively home through the back alleys, bitten by the pain of defeat.'

There were generally no prizes for coming second. When Odysseus and Ajax in the Iliad are neck and neck in a foot race, Odysseus prays to his patron goddess Athene for help and she so engineers things that Ajax slips up in and takes a nose-dive into some bull's dung. Odysseus duly wins and Ajax, spitting out dung, complains that Athene has looked after Odysseus again, as usual, `and all the rest of the Greeks laughed happily at him'. Gods support only winners in the ancient world. …

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