- Greek Athletics and the Olympics by Alan Beale, and: Thinking the Olympics: The Classical Tradition and the Modern Games ed. by Barbara Goff, Michael Simpson
The quadrennial cycle of modern Olympiads has always assured a steady interest in the history of ancient athletics, as participants of all kinds (athletes, officials, and spectators alike) are reminded of the Games’ debts to the ancient Greeks. With the proliferation of undergraduate courses in Classical athletics, sports, and festivals in recent years, however, a growing number of undergraduates are also getting their first glimpses of Greco-Roman antiquity through the stadium door and quickly discovering how different the modern Olympics are from the ancient. The persistent conservatism of the modern Olympics thus presents instructors of undergraduate surveys with the challenge of introducing the festival to an audience that has come to accept the modern as a continuation of the ancient. In two popular histories of the Olympics, for instance, both published in 2004, one may contrast Nigel Spivey’s (The Ancient Olympics [Oxford 2004]: xix) proposed “journey to the strangeness” of Olympia with David Young’s claim (A Brief History of the Olympic Games [Malden, Mass. 2004]: 140) that “our Olympic Games are not so much a revival of the ancient Greek games as a genuine continuation of them.” Although intended for different audiences, the titles under review share the goal of de-familiarizing the Olympics both by emphasizing differences between ancient and modern athletics and by illuminating how an idealized, ancient Greek model has been used to establish and perpetuate the modern Games.
There is no shortage of sourcebooks and histories of ancient athletics: Steven G. Miller, Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources (Berkeley, Calif. 2004); Rachel Sargent Robinson, Sources for the History of Greek Athletics (Chicago, Ill. 1955); Waldo E. Sweet, Sport and Recreation in Ancient Greece: A Sourcebook with Translations (Oxford 1987); and William Blake Tyrell, The Smell of Sweat: Greek Athletics, Olympics, and Culture (Wauconda, Ill. 2004), who includes on a companion CD a wider assortment of sources than any printed edition. In keeping with the goals of Cambridge’s Greece and Rome: Texts and Contexts series, Alan Beale’s Greek Athletics and the Olympics offers a combination of texts and illustrations. One need only consider the nature of the evidence to understand [End Page 703] why this approach is not simply valuable, but obligatory: the literary sources are often fragmentary, belated, or anecdotal (or all three), and the material evidence requires detailed and careful exegesis. The challenge of the evidence is compounded by the instinct to read into the modern Olympics continuity rather than innovation. Beale sets out to overcome the “superficial similarities” and re-mystify ancient athletics as something “substantially different from anything in the modern world” (1). In his brief introductions to each source or object, Beale provides the cultural framework into which students may situate texts and images, and he offers questions (many contrasting ancient with modern) aimed at stirring curiosity and facilitating discussion.
The opening chapters treat athletics in the Bronze Age and the Homeric epics (chap. 1), outline the ritual origins and growth of competitive athletics at Olympia (chap. 2), and trace the development of the sanctuary and the festival site (chap. 3). Beale is cautious with the examples of Minoan and Mycenaean art (9–12) and quotes generously from both the Iliad (13–19) and Odyssey (19–22), allowing room to observe discrepancies with later athletic practice. Like Robinson (34–35), he supplements Pausanias and Strabo on the first competitions at Olympia with a sample from Pindar, Olympian 10.24–77 (25–26), and instructors who wish to discuss this early history will not find better treatments of these passages elsewhere. Chapter 3 presents the site at Olympia and the administration of the festival, and Beale is to be commended for his...