Pursuing Excellence in Sports

Athletics in the Ancient WorldAthletics in the Ancient World by E. Norman Gardiner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Athletics in the Ancient World gives a great overview of ancient Greek athletics and draws some comparisons with ancient Rome, ancient Egypt, and modern day (being the 1920s and 1930s). The book has wonderful descriptions of ancient sports and talks about what we know, how we know it, and what some of the remaining mysteries are.

Wtih the Olympics about to start, it seems a good time to review this book, since so much of it is concerned with the ancient Olympics. Chapters cover running, jumping, diskos, javelin, pentathlon, wrestling, boxing, and pankration. There are also discussion of athletic festivals, athletics of the East, and athletics in Homer, art, and education. E. Noramn Gardiner also talks abotu professionalism and the meaning of athletics.

“But why does the athlete delight in the grevious contest? Why do we enjoy a hard game? The athlete is one who competes for something, but it is certainly not the material value of the prize that attracts him. The prize may be an ox, or a woman skilled in fair handicraft, a tripod, or a cup, but the most coveted prize int he Greek world was the wreath of wild olive branch which was the only prize at the Olympic Games. The real prized is the honour of vitory. Them ovtice that turns his effort into joy is the desire to put to the test his physical powers, the desire to excel.”

The coverage of the different sports is an excellent primer, and the book is well-illustrated, so be prepared to flip from text to picture. These pictures, some of which are drawings of vases and other art held in museums, are no longer the state of the art, but they are good enough to be educational and illustrative of the concepts descfribed in the text. One can get a sense of what each contest looked like, and there are pictures of modern athletes (again, circa 1930), that show the conenction we moderns have with the past.

The age of the book gives it a certain charm, especially since Gardiner is not afraid to call out other scholars and authors and say that they are wrong abotu their conclusions or have misled earlier students. Gardiner puts his arguments together rather well, so I tend to think he has a sound basis for what he says. Though, it would be interesting to do more reading and see if there are any updates from new archeaological finds and the like.

The connection between ancient and modern is always present in this book. One sentence that struck me was the description of the Pankration, that ‘terrible science of all holds’ as one of the philosophers described it. “But as a general rule, the contest was decied ont he ground, and, when both competitors were down, hitting was usually ineffective.” It sounds a lot like some descriptions of modern mixed martial arts contests.

I also rather enjoyed that the author talked with Percy Longhurst, a champion wrestler from Britain about wrestling and the concepts tha tmight apply to ancient Greek bouts.

I woudl recommend this book to anyone interested in individual sports, the Olympics, or combat sports. I will warn you, though, this book will make you want to go out and run, throw something, and maybe wrestle someone. Though if you do those things well enough, you could be an ancient pentathlete.

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