August 13, 2008

Sportsmanship — or sportswomanship, as the case may be

One of our favorite modern complaints is that the Olympics are too politicized. We imagine that the ancient games were pure and unsullied by such vulgarity.

Although the ancient games of Olympia were a sacred act of devotion to the Greek gods, they were not free of politicking.

The people of Elis organized the first games at Olympia, but other Greek city-states often tried to gain control of the area. The nearby city of Pisa (the Greek one, not the Italian one) did so several times. In 364 B.C., during one such occupation, the Eleans' battle against the Pisatans not only took place during the games -- a violation of the vaunted Olympic Truce -- but took place on the field of Olympia, while the wrestling portion of the pentathlon was taking place.

I learned this, and much more, from Ancient Origins of the Olympic Games, a lecture that's available for free download through Sept. 4 from The Teaching Company.

I listen to audiobooks, podcasts, and lectures during my commute, to keep the time from being a total loss. These lectures were a great use of time, not least for the story of Kallipateira, a widow who trained her son for the games. She accompanied him to Olympia, even though women (except, interestingly, young unmarried ones) were forbidden to attend on pain of death. She disguised herself as a man but was -- shall we say -- exposed when she leapt over a barrier after her son's victory. The judges pardoned her, not only because her son had won, but because her father, three brothers, and a nephew were all Olympic victors.

Yeah. Way more entertaining than top 40 radio.

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