Athletic Games and Democracy

How the Olympic Games became intrinsically linked with the fabric of Greek culture.

We have introduced in the academic economic literature the term “macroculture” taken over from organization theory and psychology. A macroculture comprises a particular set of institutions, organization forms, rules, norms and values of a state or society, that differentiates it from others. Thus, for example, in the political field the ancient Greek democracies had popular assemblies, popular courts, elected officials, a council etc. which were at the time unique to them and during the late 16th –early 17th century England and the United Provinces (Dutch Republic) had joint-stock companies (among them the East Indian ones, EIC and VOC) and stock exchanges, also unique at the time.

The ancient Greek macroculture that evolved during the Archaic Age (8-6th centuries BCE) made possible, the emergence of direct democracy. We have identified four elements, unique in their simultaneous combination in the Greek case, that evolved in parallel and were mutually supporting: The city-state environment, the new way of fighting, the “phalanx”, and the new heavy infantryman, the “hoplite” (a free farmer rich enough to finance his own expensive hoplite equipment) religion and athletic games.

Sports and athletic games have a long tradition in Greek history, beginning in Minoan-Mycenaean Crete. Frescoes in Knossos, Santorini etc. show children boxing, bull dancing, while a chattel for wine or other liquids from Agia Trias show running, wrestling and jumping contests. Girls too participated in bull-dancing (leaping over the bull). The tradition continues in mainland Mycenaean Greece, Homer in Iliad (Book 23, 259-897) is describing chariot races, boxing, wrestling, swordsmanship, archery, javelin, disc throwing, all of them having to do with war and military powers.

As incentives to participate in the contests, prizes were given, some of them substantial, as for example, a bronze tripod and a slavegirl for Diomedes. This continued during the so-called Dark Age (after the fall of the Mycenaean world, about 1.200 BCE to the 8th century). Tripods have been discovered at Olympia, dating to about 1.000 BCE, long before the first “officially” dated Olympiad of 776 BCE.

“As incentives to participate in the contests, prizes were given, some of them substantial, as for example, a bronze tripod and a slavegirl for Diomedes.”

But how, if at all, did the Athletic Games influence democracy, eg. contributed as one of its elements to a macroculture favorable for the emergence of democracy? They did, because they were open to all free Greeks, independently of their wealth or status, eg. poor free farmers or artisans and rich aristocrats. The first known Olympic victor was just a lowly cook, Koroibos. During the 6th century, Olympia winners were for example Glaucus of Karystos, a farmer hoplite, Polymestor of Miletos, a cowherd and Amesinas from Barce, a goatherd. The famous Milon of Croton, 5 times winner of the Olympic games (pankration and wrestling) and Theagenes of Thassos, were also of humble origin. So, already during the 6th century we see a democratization of the Athletic Games, and in parallel, their enlargement, with the introduction of the Nemean (592 BCE), Isthmian (582 BCE) and Delphian or Phythian Games (mid-6th century BCE).

The prestige for the winner and their cities was so great, that incentives were given by the cities, as for example Solon of Athens, 500 drachmae (more than a year’s income for a free artisan) for Olympia winners and 100 for Isthmian ones.

We do not deny that other ancient peoples like the Egyptians and the Persians participated in sports and athletic contests. What was different for the Greeks was that they institutionalized these contests in the Athletic Games, to take place every four years, with specific contests and an international (eg. from all Greek city-states) committee responsible for the organization of the games, the awards etc. Even more important for democracy, the games were open to all Greek citizens. In the other societies, the games were not institutionalized and in general, were mainly an aristocratic occupation or prerogative. The Athletic Games fostered and gave depth to values like strength, virtue (“αρετή”), discipline (“ευταξία”), valor, fortitude (“καρτερία”), physical well-being (“ευεξία”). The form of the Games took fostered equality, both as to the origins of the contestant (rich and poor on the same basis) and even more because they were participating naked. This meant that no distinction would be made between a wealthy and a poor man, according to his clothing, jewelry etc. But equality is one of the basic values of democracy.

A second pair of values, valor and courage, were linked to “political courage” (“παρρησία”) linked to the working of direct democracy, the right to propose in front of the assembly (something a bit akin to today’s popular initiatives, called in Greek “ισηγορία” (equality of speech). Since in ancient Greek democracy proposers or initiators were liable for their proposals, and facing severe punishment (fines, exile, even the death penalty) if their proposals proved wrong and to the disadvantage of their cities, the initiators had to have the courage to speak in front of the assembly and to propose measures, policies, etc. This is perhaps one of the crucial differences between ancient direct and modern representative democracies. Today’s political leaders are in fact “irresponsible”, they do not face any consequences for wrong decisions, measures etc. except of not being reelected. Greece’s 1975 constitution, through its notorious article 86 makes politicians non-liable and abolishes equality in front of the law.

Another consequence is the transfer of the value of athletic (and military) discipline to the political field. Once the debate and the voting was over, all citizens, including those having voted against, obeyed the decision, and tried to implement it. Paul Cartledge underlines another element, the spirit of competition. Athletic competition was later transformed into political competition by the orators-initiators in front of the Assembly.

Lastly, common Athletic Games, as common religion, forged a cultural idea of community in the Greek world, since all Greeks had the right to participate, while non Greeks were excluded. And we must not forget that the ideal of the athlete became the artistic ideal for Greek and Roman sculptors, painters, poets, even philosophers, immortalized as “the beautiful and the good” (“καλόν και αγαθόν”).

What about women? Women were excluded from the Games, even as watchers, probably because of men’s nudity. But there were some athletic contests just for girls, the Heraia and Spartan girls in particular were renowned for their athletic powers. Even in the Olympic Games there was one exception, women could become Olympic winners at chariot race. In chariot race, the winner was the owner of the chariot team. Thus women owners could enter the lists, and win, as did the Spartan lady Kyniska, sister of King Agesilaos in the 4th century BCE.

*Prof. Dr. Nicholas C. Kyriazis & Dr. Emmanouil M.L. Economou, University of Thessaly, Department of Economics
See Kyriazis, N. & Economou E.M.L. (2015). Macroculture, Sports and Democracy in Classical Greece. European Journal of Law and Economics, 40: 431-455. | We have analysed those in detail in our recent book Democracy and Economy: An Enalytical Story of Democracy from its Birth to Today, (2015), Athens: Enalios Publishing (in Greek). | Pankration (pan-Kratos), was the toughest of the ancient martial arts, combining boxing, kicking, wrestling. | Cartledge, P. (2000). “Greek political thought: The historical context”, in: C.J. Rowe & M. Schofield (eds.), The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought (pp. 11-22). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. | Cartledge, P. (1987). Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta. London: Gerald Duckworth and Company; Spears, B. (1984).  A Perspective of the History of Women’s Sport in Ancient Greece, Journal of Sport History, 11(2): 32-47.

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