Ancient Sports and the Importance of Winning
“EVERY man taking part in a contest exercises self-control in all things.” “If anyone contends . . . in the games, he is not crowned unless he has contended according to the rules.”—1 Corinthians 9:25; 2 Timothy 2:5.
The games to which the apostle Paul referred were an integral feature of ancient Greek civilization. What does history tell us about such contests and the atmosphere that surrounded them?
Recently, an exhibition on the Greek games, Nike—Il gioco e la vittoria (“Nike—The Game and the Victory”), was held in Rome’s Colosseum.* The exhibits offered some answers to that question and give food for thought regarding a Christian’s view of sports.
An Ancient Institution
Greece was not the first civilization to engage in sports. Even so, in perhaps the eighth century B.C.E., the Greek poet Homer described a society animated by heroic ideals and a competitive spirit, in which military prowess and athleticism were highly valued. The earliest of Greek festivals, explained the exhibition, began as religious events to honor the gods at the funerals of heroic figures. For example, Homer’s Iliad, the oldest surviving work of Greek literature, describes how noble warriors, companions of Achilles, laid down their arms at the funeral rites for Patroclus and competed to prove their valor in boxing, wrestling, discus and javelin throwing, and chariot racing.
Similar festivals came to be celebrated throughout Greece. Says the exhibition handbook: “The festivals constituted a basic opportunity in which the Greeks, out of respect for their gods, put aside their endless and frequently violent disputes, and succeeded in sublimating their typical competitive spirit into a peaceful but equally sincere achievement: that of athletic competition.”
Groups of city-states adopted the practice of regularly convening at common centers of worship to pay homage to their deities by means of athletic competitions. In time, four such festivals—the Olympic and the Nemean, both dedicated to Zeus, and the Pythian and the Isthmian, dedicated to Apollo and Poseidon respectively—grew in importance until they attained the status of Panhellenic festivals. That is, they were open to contestants from all over the Greek world. The festivals featured sacrifice and prayer and also honored the gods by superlative athletic or artistic competitions.
The oldest and most prestigious of such festivals, said to date back to 776 B.C.E., was held every fourth year in honor of Zeus at Olympia. Second in order of importance was the Pythian festival. Held close to the most celebrated oracle of the ancient world, at Delphi, this too included athletics. But in honor of the patron of poetry and music, Apollo, the emphasis was on song and dance.
Compared with modern athletics, the number of disciplines was quite limited, and only men took part. The program of the ancient Olympics never featured more than some ten events. The statues, reliefs, mosaics, and paintings on terra-cotta vases exhibited in the Colosseum offered snapshots of them.
There were footraces over three distances—the stadium, of about 220 yards [200 m]; the double course, comparable to today’s 440 yards [400 m]; and the long race, of some 5,000 yards [4,500 m]. Athletes ran and exercised completely nude. Contenders in the pentathlon competed in five disciplines: running, long jump, discus, javelin, and wrestling. Other matches included boxing and the pancratium, described as “a brutal sport that combined bare-knuckle boxing with wrestling.” Then there was chariot racing over a distance of eight stadiums, with light open-backed vehicles mounted on small wheels and drawn by two or four colts or adult horses.
Boxing was extremely violent and sometimes fatal. Around their fists, contestants wore strips of stiff leather studded with devastating metal inserts. You can imagine why a certain contestant named Stratofonte could not recognize himself in a mirror after four hours of boxing. Ancient statues and mosaics testify that pugilists became horribly disfigured.
In wrestling, the rules restricted holds to the upper part of the body, and the winner was the one who first grounded his opponent three times. By contrast, in the pancratium no holds were barred. Contestants could kick, punch, and twist the joints. The only prohibitions were eye gouging, scratching, and biting. The aim was to immobilize one’s opponent on the ground and force him into submission. Some considered it to be “the finest spectacle of all Olympia.”
The most famous pancratium encounter in antiquity is said to have taken place at the Olympic final in 564 B.C.E. Arrhachion, who was being strangled, had the presence of mind to dislocate one of his rival’s toes. His opponent, overcome by pain, submitted the very moment before Arrhachion died. The judges proclaimed Arrhachion’s corpse the victor!
Chariot racing was the most prestigious of the events and also the most popular among aristocrats, since the winner was not the driver but the owner of the chariot and horses. Critical moments in the contest were at the start of the race, when charioteers had to stay in lane, and above all at each turn around the posts at either end of the track. Errors or fouls could provoke accidents that made this popular event even more spectacular.
“Runners in a race all run,” said the apostle Paul, “but only one receives the prize.” (1 Corinthians 9:24) Winning was all that mattered. There was no silver or bronze, no second or third place. “Victory, ‘Nike,’ was the ultimate goal of the athlete,” explained the exhibition. “Only this would suffice since only this was the true reflection of his personal character, both physical and moral, and the pride of his hometown.” The attitude is summed up with a line from Homer: “I have learnt to excel always.”
The prize accorded to a winner in the Panhellenic Games was purely symbolic—a crown of leaves. Paul called it “a corruptible crown.” (1 Corinthians 9:25) Yet, the prize was charged with deep significance. It represented the very force of nature that bestowed its powers upon the winner. Victory, pursued with single-minded determination, meant no less than the bestowal of divine favor. Exhibits documented how ancient sculptors and painters imagined Nike, the winged Greek goddess of victory, extending the crown to the victor. A win at Olympia was the culmination of any athlete’s career.
Olympic crowns were made of wild olive leaves—Isthmian of pine, Pythian of laurel, Nemean of wild celery. The organizers of games elsewhere offered monetary or other prizes to attract contestants of the highest caliber. Several vases on display at the exhibition had been awards at the Panathenaic Games, held in Athens in honor of the goddess Athena. These amphorae originally contained precious Attic oil. A decoration on one side of one of the vases depicts the goddess and bears the phrase “prize for the contests of Athena.” The other side has a depiction of a particular event, likely the one in which the athlete gained his victory.
Greek cities enjoyed sharing the fame of their athletes, whose victories transformed them into heroic figures in their home communities. The victors’ returns were celebrated with triumphal processions. Statues to them were erected as offerings of thanks to the gods—an honor not otherwise accorded to mortals—and poets sang of their valor. Winners were thereafter accorded the first places at public ceremonies and received pensions at public expense.
Gymnasiums and Their Athletes
Athletic competition was considered an essential element in the development of the citizen-soldier. All Greek cities had their gymnasiums, where physical training for young men was combined with the teaching of intellectual and spiritual disciplines. The buildings of the gymnasiums were arranged around large open spaces for exercise, surrounded by porticoes and other covered areas used as libraries and classrooms. Such institutions were frequented, above all, by young men of wealthy families who could afford to dedicate time to education rather than to work. Here, athletes subjected themselves to long, intense preparation for the games with the help of trainers, who would also prescribe diets and ensure sexual abstinence.
The Colosseum exhibition offered visitors the opportunity to admire fine representations of ancient athletes, mostly Roman copies of original Greek sculptures. Since in classical ideology, physical perfection corresponded to moral perfection and was the exclusive possession of the aristocracy, these well-proportioned bodies of victorious athletes represented a philosophical ideal. The Romans appreciated them as works of art, many of which decorated stadiums, baths, villas, and palaces.
Among the Romans, violent spectacles were always popular, so of all Greek disciplines staged in Rome, boxing, wrestling, and the pancratium won the highest approval. The Romans regarded such sports, not as competition between equals to determine their respective virtue, but as simple entertainment. The original concept of sports as the collective participation of elite warrior-athletes as part of their education was abandoned. Instead, the Romans reduced Greek games either to healthy exercise before the bath or to a spectator sport practiced by lower-class professionals, much like gladiatorial contests.
Christians and the Games
Obviously, modern sports do not honor pagan gods. Yet, is it not true that some sports are surrounded by a near-religious fervor, comparable to that which existed among the ancients? Moreover, as reports over the last few years have shown, in order to win, some athletes have been willing to take performance-enhancing drugs that endanger their health and even their lives.
For Christians, physical achievement is of very limited worth. Spiritual qualities of “the secret person of the heart” are what make us beautiful in God’s eyes. (1 Peter 3:3, 4) We recognize that not all who take part in sports today have a fierce competitive spirit, but many do. Will association with them help us to follow the Scriptural exhortation to ‘do nothing out of contentiousness, or out of egotism, but to have lowliness of mind?’ Or will such association not result in “enmities, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, contentions, divisions”?—Philippians 2:3; Galatians 5:19-21.
Many modern contact sports have a potential for violence. Anyone attracted to such sports does well to remember the words of Psalm 11:5: “Jehovah himself examines the righteous one as well as the wicked one, and anyone loving violence His soul certainly hates.”
In its right place, exercise can be enjoyable, and the apostle Paul did say that “bodily training is beneficial for a little.” (1 Timothy 4:7-10) When he spoke of the Greek games, however, Paul appropriately referred to them merely to illustrate the importance for Christians to have such qualities as self-control and endurance. The goal Paul was striving to attain, above all else, was that of receiving the God-given “crown” of everlasting life. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; 1 Timothy 6:12) In that, he set an example for us.
Nike is the Greek word for “victory.”
[Box/Pictures on page 31]
The Boxer at Rest
This fourth-century B.C.E. bronze shows the devastating effects of ancient boxing, in which, according to the Rome exhibition catalog, “the resistance of the boxer . . . engaged in exhausting fights, during which ‘wound was given for wound,’ was extolled as a fine example.” “Signs of the fight just concluded add to those of previous encounters,” runs the description.
[Picture on page 29]
Chariot racing was the most prestigious of the events in ancient competitions
[Picture on page 30]
Ancient artists imagined Nike, the winged goddess of victory, crowning the victor