6 minute read

Sport

Sport And Traditional Cultures

Modern conceptions of the contrasts between tradition and modernity frame contemporary studies of the history of ideas about sport, physical education, and body culture. Perhaps the most influential work in shaping contemporary paradigms, Allen Guttmann's From Ritual to Record (1978), grounds the history of athletic competition firmly in the modernity versus tradition dialectic. While contemporary scholars certainly bring differing theoretical perspectives to the study of ideas about sport, they rarely question the notion that traditional and modern physical cultures are essentially different entities.

Even though a few historians argue that traditional physical activities are so different from modern athletics that sport can only be understood as a product of modernity, a range of evidence indicates an ancient lineage for sport. Sport, in various forms, has been a part of cultural life since the origins of the human species. As most anthropologists contend, the hunters and gatherers of early human history lived in societies with abundant leisure. Their sports played a critical role in teaching the skills and teamwork necessary for hunting and warfare. Athletic contests served as sites for the demonstration of physical prowess—particularly male prowess. Sports were also embedded in the religious rituals of hunters and gatherers, as they are enmeshed today in the sacred practices of the world's few remaining traditional cultures.

The archaeological evidence for sport among hunters and gatherers, or among the early farmers in the new agricultural societies that began to emerge in various places around the world circa 7000 B.C.E., is limited and sketchy. Carvings and inscriptions related to sport appear occasionally in ancient Western, American, and Asian civilizations. The first compelling written evidence regarding ancient ideas about sport appears in Homer's Iliad (c. 750 B.C.E.) and Odyssey (c. 725 B.C.E.). Homer's work reveals Greek aristocrats who used competitive sport as a vehicle for demonstrating prowess. Significantly the ancient Greeks used the same word, agon, to refer to athletic contests and combat. Winning honor and glory in war or sport marked the zenith of Greek masculine achievement.

Ancient Greeks formalized and rationalized competitive athletics, moving from funeral games and irregular contests to well-organized sporting extravaganzas held at a variety of sites, and especially in sacred places to honor Greek gods. The most important Greek athletic festival, celebrated every four years beginning in 776 B.C.E., was the Olympic Games. The Olympics evolved into a vital celebration of pan-Hellenic identity for the balkanized Greek city-states. Greek citizens felt compelled to make a pilgrimage to Olympia at least once in a lifetime. Homages to and exposés of the Olympics appeared frequently in Greek literature, philosophy, and drama. Greek city-states sponsored athletic programs to develop stars to win fame for their hometowns in the games, especially at Olympia.

The Olympics reveal much about Greek culture. Participation and spectatorship were limited to males. Only freeborn Greek citizens could compete in the Olympics. Victors won olive-wreath crowns symbolizing their accomplishments. Early twenty-first century scholarship indicates that the Greeks had no conception of what moderns label amateurism. While Olympic champions received only symbolic garlands from the sponsors of the festival, their city-states subsidized their training and bestowed enormous riches on those who brought glory to their polis.

The Greeks also sponsored sporting contests in which athletes competed directly for lucrative prizes such as the Panathenaic Games. Athletes earned fame and fortune in ancient Greece. Public acclaim translated their athletic prowess into political clout. Male athletes served as icons of physical beauty and objects of erotic desire. The athlete embodied Greek notions of physical perfection and inspired artistic re-creations of the human form. By the 500s B.C.E., a class of professional athletes appeared in Greece. The time, effort, and attention lavished on athletics earned condemnation from Greek intellectuals such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who did not object to athletic competition in principle but disparaged the narrow focus on bodily prowess to the exclusion of all other characteristics of good citizenship required of elite athletes. These thinkers argued that athletics should be one of many components in the general training of good citizens. Such arguments sparked a debate about the meaning and purpose of sport that has raged in Western societies ever since, raising issues regarding whether sport should serve the general education of the common citizen or whether sport should serve exclusively to test the extremes of human capability.

Traditionally scholars have argued that, with a few exceptions such as an athletic festival for women hosted at Olympia in honor of the goddess Hera or odes to the athletic prowess of Spartan maidens, Greek athletics were relentlessly patriarchal. In the 1990s, a debate over the level of participation by Greek women in athletics began. Some revisionists posit a much more substantial role for women in Greek sport, noting that female names appear on lists of Olympic victors. In one famous case, a woman who owned a chariot team won an Olympic race. Other revisionists argue that contextual readings of the evidence reinforces rather than revises the patriarchal nature of Greek sport, contending that an accurate interpretation reveals that the Spartan female chariot owner was in fact a surrogate put forward by her male relatives to further embarrass the defeated chariot teams and demonstrate that wealth rather than masculine skill won equestrian competitions.

Greek athletics spread throughout the ancient world during the Hellenistic era. Greek stadia, gymnasia, and hippodromes appeared in cities throughout the ancient West. Even after the conquest of Greece by Rome, Greek athletics remained the normative conception in ancient Western cultures. The Romans, like other cultures influenced by the Greeks, both adopted and resisted Greek ideas. Some Roman patricians patronized the Olympic and other Greek games and propagated Greek notions of the importance of physical education in the general development of the citizenry. Other Roman elites, with the support of many plebeians, rejected Greek athletics as too hedonistic and effete for Roman tastes. The Greek custom of competing in the nude offended Romans such as the philosopher Cicero, who condemned Greek sport as undermining family, duty, and state.

Still, like the Greeks, the Romans promoted chariot racing and built huge monuments for sporting contests. The Romans practiced a different set of spectacles that emerged from a different history. The ludi Romani represent the first appearance of mass spectator sport in history. The Roman games comprised three basic disciplines. The circuses, by far the most popular and common of the three spectacles, devoted themselves to chariot racing. The munera presented gladiatorial combats to the masses. The naumachia, the rarest of the Roman games, were elaborate reconstructions of famous naval battles. Each of the Roman games was deeply intertwined in the political conflicts of Roman society. Chariot teams at circuses promoted political factions. Gladiators fighting to the death reminded both Roman citizens and barbarians that the empire had been built on violence. Significantly very few of the gladiators were Roman citizens. The vast majority were war captives, criminals, or political or religious dissenters sentenced to the arena for the amusement of the masses. Opposition to gladiatorial games from both Roman and non-Roman sources highlighted the cruelty of the munera. Foes of Roman games also condemned them as part of a "bread and circuses" policy practiced by imperial governments to buy the consent of the masses with the dole and sporting delights. These condemnations of sport as an agent of statecraft bent on diverting the people from social problems have remained staples of sporting critiques into the contemporary era.

Greek and Roman sports were exceptional in their imperial reach and sophisticated organization but traditional in most other aspects. Traditional sports were frequently part of sacred rites and were generally martial exercises for training warriors. Traditional sporting practices were almost invariably local and loosely organized. Traditional games varied from place to place and from time to time, and were based on custom rather than formal rules. Traditional sports were incredibly durable, lasting in similar form for thousands of years. Finally traditional sports were, like traditional social relations, structured around social inequalities. Hierarchy, kinship, ethnicity, and gender habitually shaped participation. Women were generally excluded from the sports of traditional societies, especially as participants and sometimes as spectators.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Spectroscopy to Stoma (pl. stomata)Sport - Sport And Traditional Cultures, Sport And Modern Cultures, Bibliography