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Donald G. Kyle (Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, 2007) writes that sport was an essential custom for the ancient Greeks, contributing to Greek identity and cultural distinctiveness, and the ‘exportation of their cultures’. Evidence is widespread on the place of sport in the society and culture, coming from literature (history, myth, poetry, drama, philosophy); sites, buildings, and facilities; depictions in art (vase paintings, statues); prizes, equipment; dedications; inscriptions; coins. Drawing on all of these sources, Kyle writes (p. 7):It would be hard to overstate the cultural significance of athletics for the Greeks—what the contest, the victor, and the victory meant to them. As symbolic in Greece as in modern society, sport meant different things to different people, but it meant something to everyone. Sporting concepts, including contest, prize, excellence, glory, physical and moral beauty (agon, athlon, arête, kleos, kalaokagathia) were central to Greek culture. Greeks saw sport as an essential part of a good education, a way to establish social status and individual pre-eminence, an index of manliness, a therapeutic outlet for aggression, a preparation for warfare, and an appropriate way to honor gods and heroes in festivals.Sport embodied a Greek male ethos expressing skill and excellence in war, sport, and hunting, and women were excluded from even watching the Panhellenic Olympics, though in the case of Sparta, women's athletics was more developed than in the other city-states. Sport events and organized games and contests were central to the Greek cultural calendar, and dominated by the Panhellenic Games, or ‘crown games’, of which there were four; and more local games in particular city-states, often called the chrematitic (or ‘monied’) games, such as the Panathenaic Games, in Athens. Regardless of type or scale, these were, as Kyle puts it, ‘more public and interactive’ than cinema or television; ancient sports and spectacles were ‘communicative performances or displays that included mediation between viewers and viewed, actors and audiences’.

It would be hard to overstate the cultural significance of athletics for the Greeks—what the contest, the victor, and the victory meant to them. As symbolic in Greece as in modern society, sport meant different things to different people, but it meant something to everyone. Sporting concepts, including contest, prize, excellence, glory, physical and moral beauty (agon, athlon, arête, kleos, kalaokagathia) were central to Greek culture. Greeks saw sport as an essential part of a good education, a way to establish social status and individual pre-eminence, an index of manliness, a therapeutic outlet for aggression, a preparation for warfare, and an appropriate way to honor gods and heroes in festivals.

Athletic competition had begun as surrogate warfare, or funeral games to honour the dead hero, and later developed as homecoming festivals, to greet a returning hero such as Odysseus. In Book 8 of the Odyssey, games are organized for the shipwrecked Odysseus. He proves himself through deeds, winning the discus, and being willing to contest a foot race. The Archaic Age (c. 750–500 bc) laid the foundation for modern athletics when athletic festivals complemented earlier funeral games, and by the mid 6th century Olympia (see Olympic Games, ancient) was the greatest of the four Panhellenic crown, or stephanitic, games (non-war games of crown festivals), the others being Delphi's Pythian Games, Corinth's Isthmian Games, and Nemea's Nemean Games. Kyle (2007: 75) writes:Victories in these four games, later known as the periodos or “circuit”, brought the highest honour, and victor inscriptions listed games in order of prestige: the games of the periodos came first, the Panaetheaia topped local games, and chrematitic games were added at the end. States offered a vast array of local contests—in dancing in armour, chariot dismounting, torch racing, male beauty, wine drinking, cheese stealing, team events, and more, in various civic festivals throughout the year.Early on, funeral games and cultic festivals were intertwined in local games, but they became increasingly distinct. City-states themselves also developed distinctive sporting and athletic cultures and institutions, the most famous of these being Athens and Sparta. In Athens, called by Kyle the ‘city of contest and prizes’, the Great Panathenaia games began in 566 bc, on a site resurrected for the inaugural modern Olympic Games in 1896: its embankments could accommodate 50,000, there were dressing rooms and a vaulted tunnel, and the stadium represented a form of advanced specialization in sporting facilities. The Athenian games had an expanded gymnastic programme and prizes (initially sacred olive oil in amphoras such as the Burgon amphora of c.560, featuring an equestrian motif); later ones featured athletic events, with prizes having ‘material but also symbolic value’. Athletics were staged in the Archais Agora north of the Acropolis, which by the 6th century had a racetrack. In Athens, an institutionalized culture of the body matured in the gymnasion (gymnasium) and the palaestra (wrestling schools), where athletic youths of physical beauty were courted. Some institutionalized settings remained relatively exclusive, but, Kyle observes, ‘official games and performances were essential rituals of democratic Athens’.

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Subjects: Sport and Leisure.


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