If a group of athletes competed against each other and no one was there to watch, was there a sporting event? In a world where the spectators of major sporting events such as the modern Olympic Games or the World Cup number in the billions, the link between sport and spectacle seems natural. This is especially so for the modern Olympics, with the increasingly complex and expensive Opening and Closing Ceremonies that accompany the athletic events. More and more, sporting events of all sorts are wrapped up and presented to a viewing public as an entertainment package designed to separate people from their precious “entertainment dollars.”
It is not surprising, then, that contemporary scholars have turned to antiquity and have seen similar forces at play in the Greek and Roman past. After all, the modern Olympic “Movement” obviously pretends to have a connection to ancient Olympia (as we are reminded every four years). And what could be more emblematic of mass spectacle than Rome’s still towering Colosseum? As with much else in our world, we inevitably look back to Greece and Rome for the roots (real or imagined) of contemporary—western—institutions, sport included. In his new book, Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, Donald Kyle observes of contemporary scholarship that we have always followed our interests back to antiquity (ix). Few scholars are as well positioned to explore these interests—sport and spectacle—as Kyle: he has been a leader not only in the development of the study of ancient athletics, especially in early Greece (Archaic and Classical), but also in the study of Roman blood spectacles. Among a host of articles, the titles of two of his previous books stand out: Athletics and Ancient Athens (Leiden 1984) and Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (London 1998).
Properly enough, Kyle begins with an explanation for his study. Why “Sport and Spectacle”? To the contemporary reader beset with the spectacle of modern sport, the question hardly needs posing. But classicists will know its origin. Such a study must be set against a scholarly background which tended to idealize Greek sport along with much of Greek culture, while at the same time demonizing that of the Romans. The Greeks gave the world democracy, philosophy, historiography, the sciences, breath-taking works of art, and the purity and beauty of amateur athletics; the Romans gave us empire, decadence and debauchery, knock-offs of Greek statues, and the blood and gore of the arena. Greeks good. Romans bad. Here, it was the Greeks who gave us sport, the Romans who gave us spectacle. My example above was most natural: we think of the Greek Olympic [End Page 96] Games on the one hand and the Roman Colosseum on the other. Of course, no one really believes all of this anymore, and there is everywhere a conscious effort to put aside these preconceptions. For example, we now know that the Greek athletic world was not the preserve of idealistic amateurs and that professionalism was typical. Similarly, Roman gladiatorial combats were not the homicidal free-for-all that some have imagined but were instead governed by rules and overseen by referees.
In such a study the definitions are critical: what is meant by “sport” and what meant by “spectacle”? Because it is a modern term loaded with contemporary associations, our word “sport” is less than ideal; nevertheless for Kyle it satisfies. For his purposes, “sport” refers “more narrowly to public, physical activities, especially those with competitive elements, pursued for victory or the demonstration of excellence” (10). This definition is satisfactory, but perhaps not wholly. As Kyle himself observes (11), he thus leaves out a great variety of related competitive events, such as, music, poetry, dance, and drama. These, he says, “were seen as artistic rather than athletic.” But by whom? Would the ancient Greeks (and Romans) have necessarily separated out the athletic so absolutely? Olympia had no musical events, true, but Delphi did and so did the Athenian Panathenaea, as did scores of other competitions...