ἔν τ’ ἀγωνίοις ἀέθλοισι ποθεινόν
κλέος ἔπραξεν, ὅντιν’ ἀθρόοι στέφανοι
χερσὶ νικάσαντ’ ἀνέδησαν ἔθειραν
ἢ ταχυτᾶτι ποδῶν.
κρίνεται δ’ ἀλκὰ διὰ δαίμονας ἀνδρῶν.
In contests of the arena
glory yearned for is won by that man
whose hair is twined with masses of wreathes
for a win in fists or the speed of feet.
The power of victory is decided on by gods for men.
Pindar Isthmia 5.7-11
At our Olympic Games the world sees victors in many sports – including boxing and dashes — get up on a staggered podium and bend their necks to receive medals hanging on thick blue ribbons. The winner each year of the Kentucky Derby wears a sash of roses in the victory circle. And shortly thereafter the first Indy driver to flash across the finish line will be draped with a wreath and sprayed with champagne.
The wreath as a symbol for victory in arduous physical contest has a long, long history, reaching back at least to the Great Games begun in the eighth century B.C. and celebrated quadrennially by the ancient Greeks in honor of their most important god, Zeus, at his sacred grounds in Olympia in the northwestern Peloponnesus.
After the Persian king Xerxes had been defeated at Thermopylae (480 B.C.) some Arcadian deserters came slouching around. He had them questioned about the doings of the Greeks and he was told that they were celebrating the Olympic festivals with athletic contests and games. He inquired what prize they were contending for. When informed that it was an olive wreath, he was truly astonished and exclaimed to his general (Herodotus 8.26.3): παπαῖ Μαρδόνιε, κοίους ἐπ᾽ ἄνδρας ἤγαγες μαχησομένους ἡμέας, οἳ οὐ περὶ χρημάτων τὸν ἀγῶνα ποιεῦνται ἀλλὰ περὶ ἀρετῆς. (“My goodness, Mardonius, what kind of men have you brought us to fight against who hold contests not for money but for the mere honor or achievement?”)
The winner at Lexington (and the syndicate that owns the horse) and at Indianapolis (and the syndicate that owns the car) are certainly in it for a little more than the media coverage. I don’t mean to suggest than an ancient Greek athlete was too dumb to know how to make a solid drachma race a long stade as it were. The factuality of Herodotus’ idealized athletes during a lull in battle is undercut by plenty of contrary evidence of what normally happened once winners returned home – the athlete’s capitalizing on fame and prowess, being not entirely a decadent modern phenomenon, has origins in all likelihood as old as those of the wreath itself.
The victors whom Pindar (518 – c. 445 B.C.) celebrated in his glorious epinician (i.e., ‘on the occasion of a victory’) odes were often wealthy and, like the mighty Hieron, ruler of Syracuse, sometimes politically powerful as well. Indeed, only the very rich could afford to hire (much less spend the time training and keeping stables) a supreme poet like Pindar to celebrate their achievements (of course he charged, and plenty, for his poems!). Given that still today we know about these athletes and their excellence and families and victories from some 2,500 years ago, one is forced to conclude that Pindar surely did give them their money’s worth. How many winners do we remember even from our last Olympics a mere 3 (!) years ago – or even where it was held (Beijing!)?
Some may object to the fact that Pindar, antiquity’s (if not the world’s) greatest lyric poet, used his artistic skill not only to write poetry as superlative and shapely as it was voluptuous and lush, but also for ‘crass’ pecuniary ends. He certainly talks enough about money in his odes, and for good reason – he obviously wanted wealthy winners, the kind who could pay big-time to hire him for his high commissions. To Pindar, the notion of art for art’s sake would have seemed a half-baked, incomprehensible puerility – and he would readily have appreciated Samuel Johnson’s pithy quip: “Sir, no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money”, and he would undoubtedly have been vastly amused at – and agreed with — the classic back-at-you to critics’ many snide put-downs of his piano shtick that entertainment’s king of camp, Liberace, offered up: “I’m laughing all the way to the bank!”
Some athletic victors at pan-Hellenic games (e.g., Olympian, Pythian) became the cynosures of their proud communities. Emoluments may not have involved six-figure endorsement contracts for Nike (< Greek νίκη nikē “victory”!) shoes, but they could entail a pension for life at the public expense, the setting up of a statue, or first prize worth the equivalent of a salary of several years.
In all this talk of athletic contests and monetary reward, however, we should not forget that at least in origin these games were a part of religious festivals, and never entirely cut themselves loose from those divine associations. Pindar’s epinicia shimmer in almost every strophe with earnest acknowledgment by himself and victor of the decisive (cf. line 11 of the epigraph above) influence that the numinous does exercise on the affairs of mortals in both myth and the often perilous reality of athletic competition. Or, as he puts it elsewhere (Pythia 5.117-119):
… θεός τε οἱ τὸ νῦν τε πρόφρων τελεῖ δύνασιν,
καὶ τὸ λοιπὸν ὁμοῖα, Κρονίδαι μάκαρες,
“… a god with kind intent now perfects for him his ability,
and I hope you, blessed offspring of Kronos, will grant the same
for the future, too.”
Do modern athletes (like, for example, a Tim Tebow, starting quarterback of the Denver Broncos), who are no doubt in it as much for the money as the glory, when they own up to help from God or Jesus after a difficult victory for selves or team, share some underlying spiritual kinship with their ancient counterparts?