Ancient and modern

For the ancient Greeks, the only point in taking part was to win

16 November 2019

9:00 AM

16 November 2019

9:00 AM

The England team reached the final of the rugby world cup in Japan but they lost. As athletes, they knew that was failure. So did the ancient Greeks: only the winner was worth a prize.

The poet Pindar (c. 518-440 bc) explored the consequences of this mentality. In one of his commissioned poems hymning victorious athletes, he described how Aristomenes defeated three wrestlers en route to winning the prize (a bay laurel wreath) at the Pythian Games at Delphi. Of those losers, Pindar said: ‘They were left no happy homecoming. As they ran back to their mothers they heard no joyous laughter to give them delight: no, they slunk furtively home through the back-alleys, bitten by the pain of defeat.’ Exactly.

Though we hear of a butcher, a goatherd, a cowherd and a ploughboy winning events, it was overwhelmingly the leisured wealthy who entered the games (though over time city-states did sponsor athletes) because they alone had the time to put in the practice — the only way to have a chance of winning. They were used to being top dogs in a highly competitive world. That was why losing was such a humiliation. Top dogs never come second. At the Olympic Games, however, it was at least possible to back out. Athletes had to arrive a month in advance to train. One could always pull a hamstring if the competition looked too hot…

Gods too played their part in the system. Near the end of Homer’s Iliad there are funeral games for Achilles’s beloved friend Patroclus. In the foot-race Odysseus, trailing Ajax, prays to his patron goddess Athene for help. He promptly slips in some bull-dung, landing face-first in it. Spitting it out, Ajax loudly objects to Athene’s intervention, ‘and all the rest of the Greeks laughed happily at him’. Ancient gods did not support losers.

No Greek said: ‘It’s the taking part that counts.’ The only point in taking part was to win. Everyone else was a loser. That is why England did not wear their medals at the ceremonial. No disrespect — they did not deserve them. They were right to combat the dripping ‘All must have prizes’ culture.

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