Of Humility and Hubris
“Songs, rulers of the lyre, what god, what hero, what man shall we celebrate? Indeed, Pisa belongs to Zeus; and Heracles established the Olympic festival, as the finest trophy of battle; and Theron must be proclaimed who is just in his regard for guests, and is the bulwark of Acragas, the strength of the city, the choicest bloom of illustrious ancestors, who laboured much with their spirits, and won a sacred home by the river, and were the eye of Sicily; their allotted lifetime attended them, bringing wealth and grace to their inborn excellence.”
This is a famous Epinikion taken from one of the 45 odes that the poet Pindar dedicated to Olympian athletes in the 5th century BCE. An Epinikion was an ode to an athletic victor, sung in a choral lyric, upon the arrival of the athlete to his hometown. The ancient Greek viewed the Olympics not just a sporting event but one that brought Greeks from all over together and in turn, sowed the seeds of responsibility and empathy of the athlete towards his community. The Epinikion was thus a way to praise them, yet keep them grounded by reminding the athletes that they were, after all, like everyone else, mere mortals and respected members of their communities. They were not encouraged to feel special or different in any way but instead, share their joy with others. All glory was never for the one athlete alone. If anything, it spurred them to reach greater heights of athletic achievements as each athlete won the admiration of his community and an ode specially sung for him. When a great athlete won repeatedly, Pindar went as far as to slightly admonish him in one of his odes:
“If water is best and gold is the most honoured of all possessions, so now Theron reaches the farther point by his own native excellence; he touches the pillars of Heracles. Beyond that the wise cannot set foot; nor can the unskilled set foot beyond that. I will not pursue it; I would be a fool.”
Each ode thus struck a balance between praise and humility, allowing the athlete to avoid the one thing every Greek detested: Hubris. This was a Greek term used to define a person reaching a stage where they consider themselves beyond reach, thus finding their nemesis or perhaps, trying to play god. An athlete was only a true Olympian when they remained humble.
The Romans and Olympics
The Romans took over Greece in 146 BCE and started competing in the events but the games had changed in character. The athletes were now paid and not only did they become more competitive and professional, they also held considerable political clout. Their emergence meant that amateurs had no place at the games and the Olympics started to see a decline. The athletes could also be paid for various services to their communities or cities, further raising their status. The games were also temporarily shifted to Rome but soon returned to Olympia, under Emperor Augustus’s rule. However, the Italians were eventually responsible for the downfall of the games. Under Emperor Nero’s rule, the games were delayed by two years, only to be designed in a way where Nero would come out as undisputed victor in all the categories, making him the greatest Olympian ever. The fact that he fell off his chariot and was remarkably off key in the extensive musical competitions (also specially orchestrated for him), had little to do with his victorious outcome. The results were so well taken by all, that after Nero’s death, the Olympics for that year were completely wiped off the records! A few years later the fundamentalist Theodore the Great completely abolished the games as they were a pagan ritual which hurt his Christian sentiments. It was Varasdates, an Armenian Prince in 385 CE, who is recorded as being the last Olympian champion until a renaissance of these games in the 19th century, led to the modern Olympics.
The games were finally revived in 1896, Athens, influenced by Pierre de Coubertin, who was also the heading the International Olympics Committee (IOC). A popular sport was introduced which would pay homage to ancient Greek rituals or events and the Marathon thus entered as an ode to the runner Pheidippides, who is said to have run from the city Marathon to Athens (around 225 Km), to deliver news during the Persian war with Greece in 490 BCE. Yet, the ancient custom of not allowing females to participate remained as Coubertin felt having women athletes would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect.” Women did however start appearing in 1900 and onwards.
Born in CE 170, Philostratus wrote a book about Greek athletics, titled ‘Gymnastikos’, encouraging the elites towards practicing more sports to stay fit and healthy, as he explained fitness regimes and an explanation of each sport. The Olympic committee in recognition of his efforts dedicated a statue in his honour at Olympia.