Thomas Cahill: The Greeks Invented Sports

Thomas Cahill, in the NYT (Aug. 9, 2004):

The ancient Greeks were the world's first sports fans. They loved games of all kinds, which they called"agones.'' That's how we came by our words"agony'' and"antagonist,'' which should give us a good idea of how the Greeks viewed their games: as agonies in which antagonist is pitted against antagonist until one comes out on top. A better English term for what they had in mind might be" contest'' or"struggle'' or even"power performance.''

Ancient Greece was a society of alpha males who took their fun seriously. Whether they were at war with one another (which they often were, and which they got a huge bang out of) or enjoying more peaceful pursuits, they insisted that certain rules be followed and that there always be, right in the middle of everything, an agon.

In war, there was nothing that thrilled them more than a fight to the death, one army's champion pitted against the other's. In peacetime, they couldn't just take in a poetry reading, listen to a concert or watch a play. They had to enliven the proceedings with a poetry contest, a music contest, a drama contest. There always had to be a declared winner on whom the laurels could be heaped and at least one miserable loser. Even their parties, which easily developed into orgies, included contests over which participant could deliver the most eloquent toast or tell the funniest joke or get the farthest with the flute girl. Needless to say, it was the flute girl who lost.

If by sports we mean only a few guys kicking a ball around, the Greeks were not the inventors. Soccer in its simplest form has been with us ever since the invention of animal husbandry, soon after which some playful young shepherd probably kicked an inflated sheep's bladder or a decapitated sheep's head in the direction of another shepherd, who was inspired to kick it back. Certain bloodthirsty Celtic and Mesoamerican tribes - the Irish and the Aztecs, in particular - preferred human heads rather than sheep parts for such diversions, which soon developed into rudimentary team sports.

But if by sports we mean a series of organized contests of physical prowess, conducted according to acknowledged rules in the presence of enthusiastic crowds and scheduled well in advance to encourage participation by all the best athletes available for the sheer glory and fame of winning, we are talking about a purely Greek invention....

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