Ancient Greek Athletics

by Stephen G. Miller

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Sports and Society

Miller explains the context in which sports gained importance in ancient Greece. He illustrates how the types of games and the rules of the athletic world largely echoed the overall organization of Greek society. He further argues that the games contributed to strengthening the underlying values of Greek culture and thereby increased people's self-perception as Greeks.

The embrace of democracy in Athens was connected to the idea of personal responsibility as well as opportunity. Miller argues that the sports that were most widely played clearly exhibited an emphasis on equality of opportunity: anyone could enter, and anyone could win. In particular, Miller shows that the sports that thrived were the ones that emphasized competition between individuals, such as wrestling, as opposed to team sports, which depend on cooperation.

The Human Body

Along with the growing importance of democratic institutions, the competitive spirit of athletics was closely tied to the idea that individual humans were as important as the elites. Attention to the perfection of the human body—which was correlated to moral virtue in Greek society—was at the core of qualification to compete. Training and the related discipline it required were almost equally valued to competition itself. The display of the body in nude contests was reiterated through the artistic representation of such forms. These were two equal aspects of the elevation of a singular ideal of corporeal form. The much-admired discus thrower, for example, was a favorite subject of sculptors because his form showcased the aesthetic and cultural values of the time.

Spectacle and Spectatorship

In contrast to the emphasis on the individual, Miller also elaborates on the importance of the audience and of organized contests. The way that the Greeks incorporated sport into the social fabric was unprecedented. While he considers the Olympic games, which are the most well-known today, the author also covers the Pythian (or Delphic) games and the Nemean games that occurred within the larger Panhellenic athletic festival cycle.

Olympia, for example, was a sacred site, and the festival was held in relation to the summer solstice and full moon. The games combined secular enthusiasm for contests with religious veneration of the deities. Miller discusses the appeal of the bloody character of popular sports, such as boxing, and the nature of the types of gambling that the spectators participated in.

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