THE story of ancient athletics is the story of Greek athletics. The Greeks, as far as we know, were the only truly athletic nation of antiquity. To them we owe the word ‘athlete’ and the ideal that it expresses. This does not mean that the Greeks were the inventors of the various sports and games that we describe as athletic. The love of play is universal in all young things. Running, jumping, throwing various objects, fighting are common to children of all races and all times. But play is not athletics, though the instinct of play is undoubtedly one of their motives, and recreation is an important element therein. The child plays till he is tired and then leaves off. The competitor in a race goes on after he is tired, goes on to the point of absolute exhaustion; he even trains himself painfully in order to be capable of greater and more prolonged effort and of exhausting himself more completely. Why does he do this? Why does he take pleasure in what is naturally painful ?
The idea of effort is the very essence of athletics as the Greeks understood the term and as we understand it ; it is indeed inherent in the word itself. For the Greek word from which athlete is derived has two forms, a masculine form ( θλoς), usually meaning a contest, and a neuter form (θλoν), usually denoting the prize of the contest. Of these two meanings there can be no doubt that the idea of contest is the earlier and root-meaning, for it determines the meaning of the words derived from it. The word is used by Homer to describe the ten years’ struggle of the Trojan War; it is used of the labours of Heracles. This meaning of the word is clearest in the adjective ( θλιoς) formed from it, which from meaning ‘struggling’, ‘contesting’ comes to mean ‘miserable’, ‘wretched’. We find this same feeling in Homer when he describes boxing and wrestling as ‘grievous’ (λεγεινóς), an epithet which he also uses of war and battle. Yet the Homeric warrior delights in these grievous contests, and Pindar describes the athlete as one ‘who delights in the toil and the cost’.¹ We too have the same feelings. The game that appeals to every true athlete, the game that he delights in, one that he remembers when his playing days are over, is ‘the hard game’, the game that puts to the utmost test all his physical powers and all his skill.
But why does the athlete delight in the grievous contest? Why do we enjoy a hard game ? The athlete is one who competes for something, but it is certainly not the material value of the prize that attracts him. The prize may be an ox, or a woman skilled in fair handicraft, a tripod, or a cup, but the most coveted prize in the Greek world was the wreath of wild olive which was the only prize at the Olympic Games. The real prize is the honour of victory. The motive that turns his effort into joy is the desire to put to the test his physical powers, the desire to excel. It is not every people any more than every individual that feels this joy in the contest, in the effort. The athletic spirit cannot exist where conditions of life are too soft and luxurious; it cannot exist where conditions are too hard and where all the physical energies are exhausted in a constant struggle with the forces of man or nature. It is found only in physically vigorous and virile nations that put a high value on physical excellence: it arises naturally in those societies where the power is in the hands of an aristocracy which depends on military skill and physical strength to maintain itself. Here are developed the love of fighting and the love of glory, and here we find the beginnings of athletics in wrestling, boxing, and other forms of combat which are the training of the young and the recreation of the warriors. Such were the conditions among the Homeric Achaeans, and probably among many of the tribes of central Europe. But for the tradition which the Greeks inherited from the Achaeans the later development of Greek athletics would have been impossible. And we may doubt whether the modern athletic movement would ever have taken place but for the spirit handed down to us by our Anglo-Saxon ancestors.
In the following chapters we shall trace the causes that led to the astonishing development of athletics among the Greeks. Chief among these was the desire to excel. No people has ever been dominated to such an extent by this desire as the Greeks were; no people has ever been so fond of competition. Competition entered into every department of their life. They had competitions in music, drama, poetry, art, even beauty competitions. But stimulating as was the spirit of competition and wonderful as were the results that it produced, it was and is a dangerous motive when uncontrolled. It was akin to that spirit of individualism which was the bane of Greek politics. We may doubt if team games could ever have acquired the same popularity among the Greeks as individual contests. Nor was the worship of success always compatible with the feeling of generosity towards the defeated, or scrupulousness as to the means of obtaining victory. Over-competition, as we shall see, led only too soon to specialization and professionalism with its attendant evils: it proved fatal to the true amateur spirit.
Before we proceed to the story of Greek athletics, let us briefly see what traces we can find of athletics in the great civilizations of the East.