This is a brief introduction and will contain a brief outline considering skateboarding and the original Olympics, not the current Olympics, but by the end, you will hopefully be able to impart some wisdom from Homer (not Simpson) on your friends. I have also posted this on an old blog that I can no longer remember the password for.
Creatures of a day!
What is someone? What is no one?
A dream of a shadow is a man.
This piece of poetry, almost philosophic in its quality, is the ancient Greek athlete’s victory hymn. Imagine now Nyjah or Leticia standing up on a podium and saying this as they were given their Olympic gold medals. How would you feel? Do you expect your sporting heroes to stand up and reveal that they are a closet academic? Do we think that philosophical inquiry has no place for sport and sport no place in the philosophical inquiry? The Greeks did not feel so and neither should you.
When we think of the accomplishments of ancient Greece we think of philosophy, democracy, and the Olympic games. As you now begin to think about that you can start to see that all 3 ideas are intertwined in ways that you never thought initially about. Thinking of them as disparate groups, possibly linking philosophy and democracy together but missing the link of sports. The Olympics though was the precursor to philosophy and democracy by arriving on the scene first, indeed hundreds of years before the other two.
In a democracy we want good governance, in philosophy, we want to find the truth, and in sport, we want to see a good performance. We will find that sport led to a questioning of existing social hierarchies and this was pondered by philosophers and lead the way to Athenian democracy.
Onwards to a level playing field
In the Iliad and Odyssey, Homer gave us some of the earliest accounts of sport, and within them, we can see ideas that are still current in modern day sports and other ideas that seem very contradictory to the true notion of virtuous performance. While writing about his current era in time Homer also provides a link back to a previous civilisation’s ideas of sports, notably how sports helped to show the worthiness of a leader.
Early sporting greats, similar to modern sporting greats, can be seen to be heroes, in the ancient definition they were part god, part mortal. In the times of myths, we have the great hero Hercules who was the son of Zeus but born to a mortal woman, Alcmene. The Pharaohs of Egypt were seen to be the children of gods, and this can be traced to the divine right of kings and queens to rule, even today some countries still believe in this divine right. We also still refer to athletes as gods or heroes, and through this, we can see how early civilisations would have felt athletic feats were divine and attached to their rulers.
Ancient rulers even used this notion to prove that they did indeed have the divine right to rule, they may have slightly fixed the odds in their favour to live up to their citizens’ expectations. This may be why people now turn toward PEDs (performance enhancing drugs), as humanity has always had those who would try and game the system to try and elevate themselves above the rest of humanity. Pharaohs would run around posts placed 55 metres apart to prove they were worthy. To us, this may seem unbelievable that an uncontested sprint would prove your athletic prowess but combined with a propaganda department it worked, at least until Homer arrived on the scene.
In the Iliad, in book 23, Homer brings us sport, and for that, we should be eternally grateful. There is a set of games to commemorate Patroclos, and during these Patroclos Honour Games and in them, King Agamemnon wins the javelin event, he is declared the winner by Achilles without even picking a javelin up. As a king, he is seen as being so superior to everyone else that it is just a foregone conclusion that he would win. This is interesting as Homer is questioning Agamemnon and his ability or worthiness to lead his people, how can he be worthy of leading if he does not step up to a simple challenge?
In the Iliad, Homer is pointing out to us that the leaders of the various tribes are having to prove their value to their citizens, in philosophical parlance they have to prove their arête (excellence or moral virtue). Each of the tribal kings is having to have their honour restored as their traditional hierarchies have been disturbed, the only way to have their honour restored is to have merited its restoration.
In the Iliad, we can see many links between ancient sport and the modern day competition side of skateboarding. No one is being forced to compete, everyone knows the rules (that one might be a bit of a stretch), there are prizes for the victorious, and there are judges to decide on who are the winners.
There are also differences, such as that you can only compete if you are from society’s elite, prizes might not be given out in the correct order and gods, and goddesses can change the rules and hinder or help participants.
The overriding goal though is competition. This is what Homer brought us into the competitive spirit. You can show that you are the best in a public forum. You now have to show your athletic virtue in front of the masses. Your arête is now not predisposed on your families position, you have to earn it.
Sport is an Odyssey
Homer has laid the groundwork for sport in the Iliad and in the Odyssey, he brings it home, literally. In the Iliad we have questions over who will win, we are on the edge of our seat. In the Odyssey, we have Odysseus’ decade-long return home from the Trojan War.
Odysseus has to perform many athletic feats on his way home to prove his arête and why he is a leader. We have Odysseus and Telamonian Ajax retrieving Achilles’ body and both laying claim to being the bravest of the Greeks. This dispute is resolved by a vote, Odysseus wins, and Ajax is driven mad and eventually kills himself. His honour is so severely damaged, not something you could see a modern-day politician doing.
While he was sailing back to Ithaca, Odysseus angers Helios by hunting his sacred cattle. Helios tells Zeus if Odysseus is not punished he will take the sun to the underworld. Zeus creates a storm and Odysseus is shipwrecked. All of his men are drowned, but he washes up on Ogygia, where he remains a prisoner of Calypso, a nymph, for 7 years. Odysseus escapes with help from Hermes but again is shipwrecked. This time he is saved by the Phaeacians, and for them to help him, he has to perform athletic feats to prove he has arête and is a real leader. After being successful at their tasks, they take him back to Ithaca
Once in Ithaca, he is in disguise, and no one can recognise him, except one woman who is sworn to secrecy. To regain his marriage to Penelope, he has to take part in an archery contest using the bow of Appollo. None of Penelope’s other suitors can string the bow of Appollo, never mind fire it at the target. Odysseus manages to string it and shoots an arrow through 12 axe shafts. In what may very well be the first recorded account of being a terrible winner, he then slaughters all of his opponents. You should probably not do this at the end of any competition you partake in.
Sport, as portrayed by homer, is what is being used to back Odysseus’ claim to be a king. In this way, Homer is reinforcing the patterns of old that a worthy ruler will be a worthy athlete. We now though need the Olympic Games to step forward and break this connection between society’s elite and sporting excellence.
Before Olympia became the seat of the Olympic Games, it was a religious site, a site that honoured all the gods of Greece. This is similar to Homer’s Iliad in that the diverse religions come together in one place like the various tribes of Greece came together in one war. Although this sanctuary of the gods brought everyone together, it did have its issues.
When the various tribes of Greece came together, their social hierarchies meant that those at the top had to be given due place in all meetings. How though do you organise this system? Which gods are higher, which sacrifice is better? Who gets to start the religious ceremonies? You could not just pick a king, the choice had to please everyone and the gods, they had to be worthy. If they are not worthy of the god’s approval what would happen to that year’s harvest? What would happen to the weather? This led to the first event at Olympia, a foot race where the winner would be given the reward of lighting the sacrificial flame of the religious sanctuary. The winner was also dressed with an olive wreath, palm branch, and the ribbons that had been worn by the sacrificial animals.
Hot-footing to victory
The question then is, did the victor of the race win because they were the best or because the gods favoured them over the other participants? This then meant that the winner was associated with virtue, both athletic and divine, much like the kings and queens of old. This disabled the old social hierarchies, as a privileged upbringing did not necessarily bring you victory in this athletic challenge.
This is a point worth noting. The ancient Olympics spanned a period of a thousand years. Without the games being open, truthful, and open to the true spirit of athleticism they could not have expected to last so long, some of us may then wonder how much longer the modern version can continue then. Everyone could see who the winner was. This can also be seen in the roots of Western philosophy which were starting to grow at this time, you had to be able to evidence your beliefs and show them transparently to the world. Both philosophy and sport could only have winners if they both showed their true selves on a field or through discourse.
As such sports at Olympia could never be judged subjectively, they could only be judged objectively. As such you could have had raced longboards at Olympia, but you could not have a bowl/park/street event. Cheating was considered to be an insult to the gods, and harsh retribution was levied against those caught cheating. WADA could probably learn a thing, or two from the fines levied against the cheaters.
The games had to be fair and played on a level playing field, as the games were about pleasing the gods, not being fair could bring a travesty of unknown proportions upon everyone. The winners had to be worthy, they could now no longer win in the way of Agamemnon, they had to prove their worth before the pantheon of gods. The people watching had to feel that the results were the correct results, the results they saw before their own eyes. This started to lead to the question of social hierarchies, kings might no longer win now, in the surviving results a fishmonger was noted to have won one year.
This leads to more questions about everyone’s place in society. As we noted earlier, the elite of a community often used athleticism as a way to show their superiority, even though the competition was hobbled. Now the competition was not hobbled, and they were no longer as victorious as they wanted to be. If you did not inherit the ability to be a champion, why then do you inherit the ability to rule? This questioning leads towards democracy. Sport was asking philosophical questions that point the way towards a democratic society.
As winning the games carried favour with the gods, cities started to look past their elite echelons for worthy athletes that could champion in their name. The social hierarchies began to break down. We also started to find the story of the underdog, these stories carried as much favour in ancient Greece as they do now. As such the first official Olympic champion was stated to not be from the upper echelons but was listed as a cook.
We might not know a lot about all the victors of the Olympics, but the fact that we know there were a few underdog victories shows us that sport was a great democratiser, even before we knew what democracy was.
It took 2 centuries for this Olympic spirit to reach Athens and for Athens to become the poster child for democracy. Although in both Athens and the Olympics there were rules to how democratic they were. You couldn’t be women, a slave or a foreigner to take part, but all things must start somewhere.
When competing at the Olympics, all athletes were considered equal. The rules stated this, and they all followed the rules. The rules can be seen as being laws. This is democracy or dēmokratía (rule of the people). In a democracy, we are all seen as equal under the law, and the law is the ultimate ruler of society. In both sport and society, we should be willing to place ourselves under the rule of law.
This is the essential intertwined nature of sport, politics, and life. It is an excellent reference point to come back to and as this blog develops we will.