Peter Jones

Ancient and modern | 21 July 2012

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‘Olympism’ is, according to the 2011 Olympic charter, ‘a philosophy of life which places sport at the service of humankind… exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind… Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.’

The great Greek doctor Galen, who knew a bit about athletes, took a slightly different view. He wrote: ‘All natural blessings are either mental or physical, and there is no other category of blessing. Now it is abundantly clear to everyone that athletes have never even dreamed of mental blessings. To begin with, they are so deficient in reasoning powers that they do not even know whether they have a brain. Always gorging themselves on flesh and blood, they keep their brains soaked in so much filth that they are unable to think accurately and are as mindless as dumb animals… Will they claim the most important blessing of all — health? You will find no one in a more dangerous physical condition… Further, the extreme conditioning of athletes is treacherous and variable, for there is no room for improvement. The only direction they can go is downhill.’

Galen was not alone. The thinker Xenophanes pointed out that, however much the victor at the Games was honoured, ‘the city would not thereby be better governed, nor its granaries filled’. Aristotle thought ‘the athlete’s style of bodily fitness does nothing for the general purposes of civic life… Some exercise is essential, but it must be neither violent nor specialised, as is the case with athletes.’ The Roman emperor Augustus’ confidante Maecenas lamented: ‘The cities should not waste their resources on number and variety of games… ruining the public treasury and private estates thereby.’ 

Ancient Greeks had no such concept as ‘Olympism’. They just wanted to win at games. So do modern athletes. The consequences that the ancients describe remain (largely) the same. The spectacular hypocrisy of the Olympic charter makes one want to throw up.