The Smell of Sweat: Greek Athletics, Olympics, and Culture

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Author: William Blake Tyrrell
Product Code: 553X
ISBN: 978-0-86516-553-3
Pages: 280
Availability: In stock.
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A survey of Greek athletics from Homeric times through the fourth century C.E. From the games of the Iliad, to the foundation of the Olympic games, to the poetry of Pindar and the Olympic Festival, this book covers all aspects of Greek athletics: the events themselves—from the running events held at the first competitions to the later 'heavy' events of wrestling, boxing, and the pankration, to the pentathlon, jump, discuss, and javelin, held only at festival; the religious and athletic centers; the festivals in which the games took place; the voices of the games' celebrators (like the poet Pindar), critics, and the athletes themselves; the gyymnasion and its culture; and the evidence—literary, artistic, archeological, and historical. The introduction examines the nineteenth-century bias that created the myth of Greek amateurism. An extensive bibliography aids the reader in pursuing further study. CD containing all the references in English, makes this work also a unique reference.


Special Features

  • Introduction examines the bias in earlier treatments of Greek athletics and the "myth of Greek amateurism."
  • Six Chapters examine evidence from Homeric times to the Golden Age of Athens
  • Illustrations throughout
  • Extensive bibliography for further reading
  • CD of over 377 pages and 15MB containing all of the ancient references in English translation

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Review by: Steve Wilstein, Associated Press - April 10, 2004
Winning at all costs mattered most in ancient Olympics STEVE WILSTEIN, AP Sports Columnist. Associated Press. New York: Jul 10, 2004. pg. 1 Abstract (Document Summary) "An ordinary Greek ate olives, grains and grapes, wine and cheese," [William Blake Tyrrell] says. "He didn't eat meat unless there was a sacrifice in his city or he had money to afford animals. An athlete just pigged out on meat and was considered kind of dull and dumb for that. But he was eating all that meat on the assumption that it was enhancing his ability to win. Not only would they take performance- enhancing substances, they did it." [Pierre de Coubertin], a French pedagogue with an aristocratic bent, traveled to England to study the British system of sports in the "public schools" _ private prep schools, mainly for the wealthy. That became the model for the modern Olympics, which excluded pro athletes and rescinded medals from those who made even a few bucks playing sports _ most famously Jim Thorpe. "Successful athletes were wealthy people," Tyrrell said. "A drachma was the kind of thing that the ordinary Greek never saw. A guy could win one race and sit on his butt doing nothing the rest of the year. But he's not going to stop there. He's going to leave Olympia and go off to the Pythian Games at Delphi or the Nemean Games and run the circuit. He's going to be racing every year." Full Text (882 words) Copyright Associated Press Jul 10, 2004 The ancient Greeks would have been puzzled by the modern Olympic obsession with catching athletes who use performance-enhancing substances. "Winning was everything," says Olympic scholar William Blake Tyrrell of Michigan State and author of "The Smell of Sweat: Greek Athletics, Olympics and Culture." "I have no doubt whatsoever that they would have taken anything to win. If they thought a rhinoceros horn would help them win, they would have ground it up." In pursuit of a winning edge and godlike strength and speed, ancient Greek athletes departed from diets typical of the times. "An ordinary Greek ate olives, grains and grapes, wine and cheese," Tyrrell says. "He didn't eat meat unless there was a sacrifice in his city or he had money to afford animals. An athlete just pigged out on meat and was considered kind of dull and dumb for that. But he was eating all that meat on the assumption that it was enhancing his ability to win. Not only would they take performance- enhancing substances, they did it." Herbal medications were freely used in Greece, including some for mood and behavioral changes and one that purportedly prevented drunkenness, Olympic historian Jeff Segrave of Skidmore College says. "While we don't know, of course, how they would have responded specifically to performance-enhancing drugs like steroids or stimulants, it's doubtful that any treatments would have been prohibited," he says. "There are two ways to look at it. One is that when an athlete competed in the Olympic Games, he was doing it to honor the gods. There was a certain sense that, in competing, he was trying to resemble a god. That implied a sort of religious sanctity and integrity. "On the other hand, when they were competing, winning was what counted. Losing was a disgrace. We have many examples of losing athletes going back to their city-states in humiliation, taking back roads so they weren't seen." The ancient Greek athletes weren't above trickery during the games. "There was all sorts of skullduggery in some of the events, particularly in an event like the 'dolichos,' the long-distance race where tripping, pushing and shoving often went on, especially when they went around the posts in the ground," Segrave says. "We don't have any examples of races being rerun and we know these things went on. That was simply the nature of the beast." Taking or doing anything to win, within the general rules of the contest, would have been a concept acceptable not only to the athletes of ancient Greece but to the spectators watching them. "Win at all costs _ that's what it was about," Tyrrell says. The original Olympians would have scoffed at the Olympic Creed composed by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern games in 1896, and shown on the scoreboard at every opening ceremony: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well." As noble as that creed may sound to modern ears, it is "something that an ancient Greek athlete would think is bananas," Tyrrell says. Winning was so important in those days, he says, that athletes wouldn't compete at all if they didn't think they could win. That's what happened once when a giant wrestler named Milo of Croton showed up and scared off all opponents. "That approach extended into politics and war," Tyrrell says. "If you couldn't win, then you would not compete, because the shame of loss could be avoided by not competing." The ancient Greeks also would have laughed at the idea that Olympians ought to be amateurs, a concept promoted by de Coubertin and carried on by Olympic leaders until the 1980s. De Coubertin, a French pedagogue with an aristocratic bent, traveled to England to study the British system of sports in the "public schools" _ private prep schools, mainly for the wealthy. That became the model for the modern Olympics, which excluded pro athletes and rescinded medals from those who made even a few bucks playing sports _ most famously Jim Thorpe. "An athlete in ancient Greece could make a very, very healthy living going around and competing in all the Pan-Hellenic games," Segrave says. "There's no question that when it came to Olympic performance, they could earn significant sums of money." At the Olympics, winning athletes would receive only the olive wreath. But afterward they were rewarded handsomely by their city- states and patrons. Athletes were paid with oil, food, coats, even a woman. They might get 100 drachma coins for winning the "stadion," the premier race similar to the modern 200 meters. "Successful athletes were wealthy people," Tyrrell said. "A drachma was the kind of thing that the ordinary Greek never saw. A guy could win one race and sit on his butt doing nothing the rest of the year. But he's not going to stop there. He's going to leave Olympia and go off to the Pythian Games at Delphi or the Nemean Games and run the circuit. He's going to be racing every year." ___ Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein(at)ap.org Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission. People: Tyrrell, William Blake, Segrave, Jeff, Coubertin, Pierre de Dateline: Undated Text Word Count 882 Document URL:
Bringing the Olympic Spirit to your Students
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