The subject of this page is the cornerstone of this entire website.
The "athletic ideal" was the motivation behind the original Games in ancient Greece,
and it was this ideal that inspired Coubertin to revive the Games in 1896.
The athletic ideal is, above all else, the primary legacy of the Olympic games.
It is an ideology and legacy unique in the history of the world.
The Ideology of an Ideal
The goal of the athletic ideal is "a healthy mind in a healthy body." The ancient Greeks believed that the development of the mind, spirit, and body were linked, and that a well-educated person was instructed in all areas. An athletic victory was considered a credit to both the athlete's physical and moral virtues. Physical training was valued for its role in the development of such qualities as endurance and patience.
The motivation was the development of a disciplined, devout, virtuous citizen of the democracy. The philosophy was that the success of self-government (democracy) depended on
the moral character of the citizenry. This was a large part of the motivation
for the combined athletic/moral training.
This goal demanded a holistic training of mind, body, and spirit. In ancient Greece athletics were an everyday part of all areas of life—religion, education, society, the arts,
and politics. Physical disciplines wove themselves into the very fabric of society,
leaving no area untouched. This phenomenon is completely unique in world history.
Ancient Greece was the birthplace of this ideology, and its practice died with it.
Athletics in Ancient Greece
Ancient Greek society was very competitive, with an unmatched passion for sports.
The Olympic games, although they were the largest and most prestigious,
were just one of many local and regional athletic competitions.
Such was the enthusiasm of the classical world for sport that there was one major
Greek national games event every year, as well as smaller meets.
As city-states developed and stabilized, organized athletics also developed.
How did athletism become an institution in ancient Greece? Athleticism in
ancient Greece was not isolated into the categories of just sports and physical
fitness; rather, it was a blend of civic, religious, educational, social,
and moral mores. The study of athletics was taken very seriously, and Olympic
competitors trained just as hard then and they do now. Personal trainers had textbooks
with exercises and fitness regimes. Those who could afford it would hire specialists.
Religion was also tightly linked to athleticism. All athletic competitions of those days were
religious in character. Each festival had a patron god, in whose honor the athletics were executed.
In an environment racked by civil wars, neutral religious centers were important meeting places.
The gods were believed to bestow on the athletes the physical prowess that enabled them to
take part in the Games. This spiritual dimension to athletic events has been entirely lost.
Links to Education
Athletics were considered an indispensable part of education,
not just an extra-curricular option. As a matter of fact, educational
classes became adjuncts of athletic arenas rather than the other way around.
Every city had a public gymnasium where "gymnotribai" taught athletic skills.
Great men of ancient Greece would spend time at their local gymnasium discussing religion,
philosophy, politics, and current events. In time, these places
became the real schools of antiquity and the word "gymnasium"
became synonymous with the word school. The word "academy" was
the name of an Athenian gymnasium where the philosophical school of Plato was situated.
The palaistra was another athletic facility found in almost every city.
Unlike the public gymnasium, the palaistra was an exclusive members-only club.
These facilities focused on combat sports such as wrestling and boxing.
It is interesting to note that besides the changing rooms, arena, baths, etc.,
some of these clubs also contained lecture halls. According to Plato,
Socrates and Alkibiades were often to be found in a palaistra in Athens.
A Cultural Bond
Athletics were not only a part of everyday life in mainland Greece,
they were even more important to the remote colonies.
Throughout Asia and Egypt, Greek communities built athletic facilities
and faithfully kept to the athletic traditions. These served to
reinforce a very Greek practice, strengthening the cultural
identity of the next generation. Thus, communities were able to preserve
and pass on their customs, language, and culture.
Athleticism was strongly supported by local government, who issued laws to encourage athletism.
In their zeal to outdo their rival cities by boasting more Olympic victors,
cities would go all out to support and encourage their athletes.
Cities were not passive observers; they actively supported their athletes,
often subsidized their training, and very much shared in the glory of an
Olympic victor. After an Olympic event was won, not only would the victor's
name be shouted to the enthusiastic crowd, but the name of his city-state as well.
If an Olympic winner could not afford to erect a statue at Olympia, as was his right,
his city would often pay for the statue (upon which their name was also recorded).
Athletes considered it an honor to compete for their hometown.
Athletics and the Arts
In addition to education and religion, athletics had strong ties to the arts.
Poets did their part to promote the athletic ideal with odes to various sports and epinicians (victory odes) to winning athletes.
The ancient Greeks believed that music created a link between the spiritual
and the physical. Quite often, athletes trained and even competed to the
accompaniment of flute music (for example, the long jump). The flute was believed to help the athlete to maintain the necessary rhythm and spilt-second timing. To the Greeks, rhythm and grace were of vital
importance in athletics. The elegant poses that were part of the stylized
discus thrown must have been almost dance-like.
An Amateur Ideal
The role of amateurism in the development and survival
of the athletic ideal is inestimable. Despite the passion for
athletic competitions in antiquity, very few records of achievements
were kept—the moral reward was what made all the effort and pain worthwhile.
A key element of this philosophy was the amateur nature of the various
competitions—particularly the Olympic games, which were the embodiment
of the athletic ideal. If athletes competed for money, the values and
virtues of the athletic ideal are destroyed.
Exemplified in the Olympic Games
All of these elements and ideals were embodied in the Olympic games. The Olympic games were religious, social, and intellectual. Many famous orations were delivered to the crowds at Olympia. For athletes, a strong, disciplined character was just as important and a strong, well-trained body—prospective competitors could be disqualified by the
on purely moral or behavioral grounds.
Decline and Death
Over the centuries, the spirit of athleticism that founded the Games began to falter. The decline of many of the moral values of the athletic ideals can be dated from the Peloponnesian War. Even so, the Olympics continued in popularity. After the campaign of Alexander the Great, the ideological spirit of the Games was further compromised: monetary prizes became common, which led to the rise of the professional athlete. The bond between religion and the athletic ideal was broken and the Games became a secular event.
With the Roman occupation, the Olympics experienced a surge of support and international participation, but in a compromised form. The Roman influence molded the Games into something closer to gladiatorial contests. The spirit of the Games and the sacred traditions that had grown up around them were destroyed. In AD 392, the (293rd) Olympics were held for the last time.
Pierre de Coubertin, a French educator and the father of the revived Olympic games,
believed in the ancient athletic ideal. In his quest to restore the spirit of
France after its demoralizing defeat in the war of 1870, he proposed reviving the Olympic games. It was through his efforts and dedication that the Olympics games were not only revived, but the standards and ideals that made them unique were revived as well.
Sponsored by AvantiLogic.net,
Produced by Photoenhancements.com
Copyright © 2003 by Photoenhancements.com