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Columbia Missourian

FROM READERS: The ultimate athlete

July 3, 2012 | 10:00 a.m. CDT
Athletes in ancient Greece were also cultural heroes. Many Greek sculptures like the idealized warriors and athletes in the Museum’s Cast Gallery, like the one pictured above, honor victors of sacred games like the Olympics, in which Greece’s finest athletes competed to honor the gods like Zeus.

W. Arthur Mehrhoff, Ph.D, is the academic coordinator for the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology. This article was posted in an earlier form on the blog Musings from the Museum of Art and Archaeology. Please click the highlighted hyperlinks in the body of the text for additional background information.

“Sotades at the ninety-ninth [Olympic] Festival was victorious in the long race and proclaimed a Cretan, as in fact he was. But at the next Festival he made himself an Ephesian, being bribed to do so by the Ephesian people. For this act he was banished by the Cretans.” —Pausanias, Description of Greece


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Sound familiar? The Decision by LeBron James to take his formidable athletic talents from Cleveland to Miami and Albert Pujols’ departure from the Cardinals for a 10-year, $250M deal (not well-received by many Cardinals fans) with the Los Angeles Angels touched a deep cultural chord that resonates far beyond sports stadiums. Modern athletes like LeBron James and Albert Pujols still operate within a vast web of cultural myths reaching far back into classical antiquity.

Athletes in ancient Greece, like today’s ESPN headliners, were also cultural heroes. Many Greek sculptures like the idealized warriors and athletes in the Museum’s Cast Gallery honor victors of sacred games like the Olympics, in which Greece’s finest athletes competed to honor the gods like Zeus. Plato himself was a formidable wrestler who competed in the Isthmian Games, forerunner of the ancient Olympics. Classical Greeks believed at certain moments of intense striving and competition (from the Greek, to contend with), mortals could overcome what the poet Pindar called “the difference of power in everything” separating the gods from humans.

Classical Greeks believed that their athletes—more so than any other mortals—approached divine perfection. The cultural ideal of arete (noble goals pursued along lines of excellence) quite literally embodied the ethos of classical Greece, and much Greek sculpture depicts arete through athletes leaping, wrestling or throwing perfectly, as the gods themselves might move.

Victors, like Sotades, at these sacred games were crowned with leaves of laurel, bringing glory to themselves, their families and their hometowns. They received public honors and rewards like lifetime tax exemptions, permanent seats of honor at the theater, food and wine, large cash awards and perhaps even sandal contracts; they were often lured to other games by the promise of substantial starting fees (or free-agency deals like LeBron and Albert). As the Games themselves became ever more intense and competitive, outright bribery became increasingly commonplace.

Sculptors, poets and other artisans also came to the Olympic Games to display their works in what quickly became artistic as well as athletic competitions. That’s because classical Greeks regarded both art and athletics as gifts bestowed by the gods. Poets like Pindar received commissions to write in honor of the Olympic victors: people of unusual beauty, or moments of high and noble drama, received the greatest emphasis. Scenes of memorable athletic competitions decorated terra cotta vases, while sculptors created works like Discobolos [Discus Thrower] to celebrate the human body at rest and in motion. The statues that sculptors fashioned of athletes often appeared strikingly similar to the statues of the gods themselves.

Greek athletes could thus easily start to think that they were not just athletes, but really were heroes endowed with superhuman strength, perhaps even gods themselves. It’s the god-dimension that becomes so confusing to athletes and their fans (derived from the Latin word fanaticus, pertaining to religious rites), a dimension we might well keep in mind as we invest very heavily economically and psychologically in big-time athletics. A great divide separates the alpha of the ancient Greek Olympiad from the omega of the Roman Colisseum...

The Museum of Art & Archaeology also relates to a religious dimension (a museum like this one is dedicated to the muse Mnemosyne, goddess of memory), offering critical perspective on the wretched excesses of contemporary sports. If memory serves me correctly, the words of the Roman poet Juvenal (60-130AD) that “the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and eagerly longs for just two things, panem et circenses’ [bread and circuses]” still ring as true today as when Juvenal first uttered them. Here in the Cast Gallery, I can easily understand the awe people feel for athletes who seem to soar far above our very ordinary lives, but I am constantly reminded that their glory fades as quickly as their laurel leaves. As Greek sculptors like Polykleitos clearly understood and demonstrated, the arts can help athletes, athletics and all of us maintain true balance in our thought and lives.

In The Ultimate Athlete (1974), a book that strongly influenced my own physical education, education theorist George Leonard wrote that “every body that moves about on this planet… may well be inhabited by a strong and graceful athlete, capable of Olympian feats… The athlete that dwells in each of us is more than an abstract ideal. It is a living presence that can change the way we feel and live.” Leonard, who became an aikido master in his fifties, believed that achieving moments of your own arete, of integrating body, mind and spirit, connects us to the larger world in ways that the once-and-future cult of sports and sports heroes simply cannot do. Musing in the Cast Gallery offers a timeless yet timely perspective into The Ultimate Athlete

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.