In celebration of the Olympic games, we offer the following excerpt from Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s In Praise of Athletic Beauty, a thoroughly charming meditation on our love affair with athletes and their pursuit of excellence.
If you take a car from Athens to the Isthmus of Corinth, and then drive across the winding mountain roads of the Peloponnese Peninsula to the distant village of Olympia, some thirty miles inland from the Ionian Sea, you will soon begin to feel what a commitment it was to walk or travel on horseback to the ancient Olympic games. Yet hundreds of athletes and tens of thousands of spectators, protected by an Olympics truce, made the journey every four years, over the span of a millennium or more—from 776 BC to 394 AD (the conventionally accepted dates of the ancient Olympic games). As you try to imagine this bodily effort, for which there is simply no equivalent in the modern world, you may begin to wonder what the specific attraction of those five days spent at Zeus’ most famous sanctuary could have been.
One answer, a modern answer but valid nevertheless, comes when you arrive at this shady green valley, where the Kladeos and Alpheios rivers join under lush foliage, a place so different from the arid stony landscape through which you have traveled, with growing impatience, during several hours. For ancient guests who had walked for days and even weeks, this contrast upon arrival must have triggered intense feelings of sensual pleasure and relief. Unlike modern tourists, who have the luxury of returning to their air-conditioned hotel rooms for the night, the crowds in ancient Olympia (all men, except for the priestess of Demeter and her maidens) endured narrow quarters, a shortage of water, and blistering heat. And yet their lives held nothing more glorious or more desirable than being precisely there, in that place, to watch athletes compete.
Olympia was just one of the traditional places, along with Delphi, Isthmia, and Nemea, where free men from the various Greek states and colonies came together for panhellenic games, but it was the oldest and most charismatic site. So outstanding was Olympia’s fame that the four-year rhythm of its games became the most widely accepted measure for marking time in ancient Greece. Each Olympiad (four-year period) was named for the winner in the first athletic event of the five-day competition. Unlike the spectators (and also the artists, musicians, and orators who came to showcase their talents on the margins of sporting events), athletes spent at least a month before the games at Elis, thirty-five miles from Olympia, where they trained to reach the peak of physical conditioning.
The five days of the Olympic festival were organized as a complex sequence of athletic events and religious rituals (though we miss the specific appeal of Olympia if we insist too much on the distinction between the two). The first day was dedicated to heralds, musicians, and athletic competitions for adolescents. The second day featured horse races, chariot races (including chariots drawn by mules), and, in the U-shaped 200-yard-long stadion, the core event—the pentathlon, consisting of a foot race, long jump, discus, javelin, and wrestling. All stadion races that were not part of the pentathlon took place on the third day. The fourth day was devoted to wrestling, boxing, and the pankration (a very aggressive, almost sadistic type of wrestling or kick boxing), mostly taking place at the palestra, a rectangular court surrounded by arcades. Back at the stadion finally, spectators could enjoy the hoplite run, a middle distance race for men in full armor.
Athletes in the panhellenic games performed naked, and since nakedness only became a condition several centuries after this athletic tradition began, we know that performing naked was a cultural rule, not a symptom of an archaic state of society. Before competitions, athletes would spread oil all over their skin, and some historians have explained this practice as a competitive strategy, especially for the wrestling contest, or as a performance enhancement. I am not convinced that strategic advantage was the most important reason, however. The oil made the naked bodies of athletes glisten with reflected sunlight, and this very palpable aura set them apart from ordinary men.
Aside from the nakedness of athletes, the most surprising features of this program from a modern fan’s perspective are the complete absence of team sports and also the rule that the owners of horses, mules, and chariots could be among the Olympic winners. Much less surprising is the obvious reference to military skills. It makes us understand how unheard of any distinction between athletic events and other types of bodily performance in everyday life would have been within Greek culture. Greek spectators thus followed and appreciated most of the competitions as experts, based on knowledge gained from their daily experience.
Among the religious rituals performed at Olympia, the most important were the sacrifice for the dead on the second day, the sacrifice to Zeus followed by a meal for all athletes on the third day, and the closing banquet that came after the proclamation of the victors on the fifth day. Pindar’s Ode on Theron of Acragas attempted to capture these final moments of boundless joy and pride, and make them resonate with a glory that only the gods can bestow:
. . . Winning
releases from anxieties one who engages in competition.
Truly, wealth embellished with virtues provides fit occasion for various achievements
by supporting a profound and questing ambition;
it is a conspicuous lodestar, the truest light for man . . .
Pindar’s odes, with their (for us, obsessive) focus on the joy and pride that came with athletic triumphs, suggest several answers to our question about what attracted spectators and athletes alike to the panhellenic games. I believe the appeal for spectators was, first of all, being in the presence— in the physical presence—of the athletes’ shining bodies at the moment of their highest performance. The spectator’s role as witness to greatness was intensified by the fact that the Olympic games were an extremely high-stakes competition. In no other Western culture has winning been as crucial as it was in ancient Greece. Only the victor earned the right to wear the garland of wild olive. Any consolation for being second best was unknown— there was no equivalent to our silver or bronze medals, there were no records kept of athletes’ individual achievements. The same winner-take-all attitude was true, by the way, for many nonathletic institutions in ancient Greece, such as inventing and staging tragedies or comedies at Athens (which took place as a competition between different playwrights) and public speaking (guilt or innocence in Greek trials, for example, was ultimately decided on the basis of oratorical excellence). Winning and being remembered at Olympia gave athletes, their families, and their towns bragging rights that they used with a shamelessness we find hard to reconcile with our idealized view of ancient Greek culture.
For the athletes themselves, there were also more practical payoffs. Alkibiades, otherwise known to us from Plato’s Dialogues as a beautiful young man and an admirer of Socrates, drew a straight line from his Olympic triumphs to claims of political influence: “I entered seven chariots, a number that no private citizen had ever entered before, and won the first prize and the second and the fourth [meaning three first prizes], and provided everything else in a style worthy of my victory. For by general custom such things do indeed mean honor and from what is done, men infer power.” The greatest privilege offered to an Olympic victor— the right to have a statue of his body sculpted and exhibited within the Olympic precinct—was so highly valued by Greeks that the athlete’s hometown often sustained its winners with a lifelong pension. Since winning at the panhellenic games provided quite a number of athletes with such permanent sources of income, we can say that a particular version of professionalism had emerged long before the ideal of the “amateur” in the modern Olympic tradition.
But above all, as Pindar’s hymn makes clear, being in the immediate presence of athletic greatness at Olympia meant being close to the gods. Unlike the omnipresent and mostly immaterial monotheistic God whose overpowering attributes are so familiar to us, Greek gods inhabited specific places in the world, with greater or lesser intensity, long before they began to take on various human (and nonhuman) incarnations. To be at Olympia was to be in the presence of Zeus himself. And yet I think it is too one-sided to imagine that the panhellenic games were essentially religious events. For it is just as plausible to turn all this around and view Greek gods as the divine incarnation of athletes. In the Greek imagination, gods were fast and mighty, erotically potent and irresistibly appealing, eternally drunk or insuperably alert, overwhelmingly beautiful or repulsively ugly. Sporting such hyperbolic features, they were endlessly competitive with one another, just like their human counterparts. This competitive drive of both gods and men is what the Iliad highlights and celebrates more than any other dimension. Homer represented the epic fights between Achilles and Hector, Agamemnon and Priam, Greeks and Trojans not just as human conflicts but as enactments of a divinely competitive spirit.
Because the boundaries that separated Greek gods from humans were so permeable, to aim for the highest level of physical perfection and to win an Olympic competition indeed elevated the victor to the status of a demigod (the ancient meaning of “hero” is “demigod”). For spectators at this event, being in a place where divine and heroic presence converged through athletes’ performance, in an uncannily beautiful landscape, was the most ecstatic and transcendental experience that their lives had to offer. Those who gathered at Zeus’ Olympic sanctuary must have felt not just well but boundlessly well—about themselves, about the athletes, and about the divinely-infused world of which they were so intimately a part. Every four years, for a short span of time in this very specific place, religious ecstasy and athletic ecstasy became one.