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Ancient Olympics were not about sportsmanship

PTI | ByPress Trust of India, Washington
Aug 10, 2004 11:48 AM IST

When the Greeks started the Ancient Olympic Games it was an affair between life-and-death in comparison with today when the opponents shake hands.

There was no sportsmanship in the Olympics, when the Greeks began them. Indeed, they were literally life-or-death affairs in comparison with today's Olympics when the defeated shake hands with the victors, according to Daniel Mendelsohn, a lecturer in classics at Princeton University.

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"Strangers to Biblical notions of selflessness and neighbour-loving, the Greeks experienced their quadrennial festivals of raw and often vicious competitiveness utterly free of the vague sense of guilt that we feel today when it comes to expressing the primitive desire to crush an opponent. Ancient Games had their origins as sombre celebrations of death," Mendelsohn wrote in a magazine.

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Death, says Mendelsohn, was indeed by no means a stranger at the Greek Games, particularly in the 'heavy' events like boxing or pankration, a kind of all-out boxing cum wrestling that was considered the acme of combat sports.

"But what strikes us now is not even how often athletes died but how willing to die they were."

Part of the reason the ancient Games in Greece were so uncompromising and often violent, he says, had to do with what was at stake.

"The Greeks, for the most part, had no heaven; with some notable exceptions, good and bad all went to the same gray, characterless drizzly underworld of death, and that was that."

"In the absence of a post-mortem reward for moral goodness -- the one thing you could strike for was immortal fame -- doing something so glorious that men would talk of you in years, centuries, millenniums to come.

"And so, whereas today's Olympic committee prefers to 'celebrate humanity,' the Greek athlete wanted only to celebrate himself; it was his one ticket to immortality. The desperate rawness of the battlefield -- and its stark, all-or-nothing logic -- was never very far beneath the surface."

Notions of gentlemanly cooperation at sporting events and chivalry, expressed in the athletes' creed of "honour and disinterest, says Mendelsohn, were wholly foreign to the Greek way of thinking, which actually has more in common with the relentless egotism, nationalism, promotion and self-promotion of athletes "we associate with professional sports than with any fantasy of the noble Greek spirit."

He also says death was the origin of the ancient athletic contests.

"Every four years we all like to indulge in the sentimental fantasy that we are communing with the pure and noble spirit of the classical Greek past. But purity comes at a price, and that price is the truth."

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