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Reviewed by:
  • Sport in Ancient Times
  • David J. Lunt
Crowther Nigel B. Sport in Ancient Times. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010. Pp. xxiii+167. Introduction, bibliographic material, and index.

This paperback reprint of the 2007 Praeger (Greenwood Publishing) hardback provides an overview of athletic, sporting, and sport-like activities in several world cultures before the modern era. Crowther includes activities in China, Japan, Korea, the Ancient Near East, Egypt, the Minoans, the Greeks, Etruscans, Romans, and Byzantines. In addition, he provides brief expository essays on women in sport, the Mesoamerican ball-game, and three sporting “heroes,” one each from Greece, Rome, and Byzantium.

Although the book is heavily focused on the athletic activity of ancient Greece and Rome, Crowther admirably includes non-Western pre-modern cultures in his discussion. This inclusivity proves to be one of the book’s strongest points as it provides remarkable breadth in its description of sport in many world locations. For example, Crowther describes athletic and recreational culture in Asia, including martial arts, equestrian sports, ballgames, board games, and other competitive activities. Also of interest are the explanations of belt-wrestling in ancient Sumer, weightlifting contests among the Hittites, and the Mesoamerican ball-games. These topics, often omitted from treatments of “ancient” sport, provide the reader with an appreciation for sport as a widespread, if not universal human phenomenon. This is no small achievement for such a brief text.

Crowther’s approach to these many world cultures and their sporting activities is necessarily limited in scope. This leads to some rather nebulous definitions of games, play, and sport, as well as some rather broad distinctions between ancient and modern cultures. Although the text does lay out some overarching methodology for defining sport (drawn heavily from Allen Guttman’s basic definitions of ancient and modern sport), it is brief indeed. This, however, frees Crowther from having to define and classify a culture’s athletic activities into anachronistic and foreign sporting definitions and paradigms and allows the reader to absorb the material without too much concern over whether, for instance, sumo in Japan “originated from religious ceremonies” or was merely an entertaining spectacle (p. 9). This type of hands-off expository description is refreshingly straightforward, although it limits the ability to engage in cross-cultural comparisons and interpretive analyses of sport’s meaning in any particular context. [End Page 313]

This breadth of scope, however, allows for only the barest details and analyses of the roles of sport in these cultures. Overall, Crowther is forced to sustain an uneasy relationship between being both comprehensive and selective in treating such a broad subject. This, unfortunately, often requires glossing over or omitting specific details, such as names and dates, which would make the text more compelling and vibrant. For instance, Crowther describes an ancient Greek wrestler who “received the moniker of ‘Mr. Fingertips,’ because he used to win by breaking his rival’s fingers” (p. 68). Many readers, however, would be interested to know that this athlete was the very accomplished Sostratos of Sicyon. Sostratos, a pankratiast (not wrestler), won three times at Olympia (in 364, 360, 356 B.C.) and fourteen times in the other three Crown Games (Paus. 6.4.1–2). This is but one of several instances where just a few more details would provide the interested reader with a starting point for further research and inquiry.

Crowther’s reliance on secondary sources, many of which are presented in a useful annotated bibliography, betrays a tendency to synthesize the modern opinions rather than offer an original interpretation. While such an approach is understandably necessary for such a large subject, Crowther runs into trouble when the secondary sources he uses have been superseded by more current and more specialized scholarship. For instance, Crowther’s description of Theogenes, a fifth-century B.C. Greek athlete-turned-hero from the island of Thasos, echoes E.N. Gardiner’s 1930 treatise on ancient athletics in its assumptions about professionalism in Greek athletics. (pp. 140–142 and cited in the “Further Reading” section). Crowther castigates Theogenes for letting “success go to his head by claiming divine descent” as an explanation for his fabulous athletic achievements. A more up-to...


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