DISDAIN FOR ATHLETICS IN THE GREEK WORLD
(Ref. The Naked Olympics by Tony Perrottet, Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2004)
Cynic philosophers reviled all the trappings of civilization, including the Olympic Games. The chief of them, Diogenes, voiced his contempt for athletes when he said he had to attend the games because of a social duty to speak to athletics fans: “Just as a good doctor rushes to help in places full of the sick, so it was necessary for a wise man to go where idiots proliferate.”
Diogenes was one of the most outrageous naysayers, and in the fourth century, B.C., he ventured to attack the sports field itself. At the Corinth Games, he grabbed a victory wreath from the prize table and put it on his own head, claiming that he was victor in the contest of life, and that spiritual rather than physical effort was more worthy of rewards. “Are these pot-bellied bullies good for anything?” he asked a gathering crowd. “I think athletes should be used as sacrificial victims. They have less soul than swine. Who is the truly noble man? Surely it is the one who confronts life’s hardships, and wrestles with them day and night - not, like some goat, for a bit of celery or olive or pine, but for the sake of happiness and honor throughout his whole life.”
Later, when he saw a sprinting champion being carried from the Stadium, Diogenes acidly noted that the rabbit and the antelope were the fastest of animals, but also the most cowardly. He later ran off with another victory wreath and put it on the head of a horse that had been kicking another horse, proclaiming it the victor in the pankration contest. Finally, Diogenes made reference to Hercules, the patron of athletes, who had cleaned the filthy Augean stables as one of the Twelve Labors - then Diogenes squatted on the ground and emptied his bowels, suggesting that competitors clean it up. At this the crowd scattered, muttering that Diogenes was crazy.
The old cynic was echoing centuries of criticism. In the fifth century B. C., Euripedes referred to athletes as the bane of Greece for their self-importance. Many Spartans thought the Olympic sports inefficient because they did not promote useful military skills. Centuries later, Roman moralists mocked the connection between the gymnasium and pederasty: Greek athletes, suggested the historian Tacitus, attracted only shirkers and perverts. But perhaps the most scathing antisports rant came from the second-century A.D. doctor Galen, who in his career guidance pamphlet “On Choosing a Profession,” described athletes as the most useless of all citizens: “Everyone knows that athletes do not share in the blessings of the mind. Beneath their mass of flesh and blood, their souls are stifled as in a sea of mud. But the truth is that they don’t enjoy the blessings of the body, either. Neglecting the old rules of health, which prescribe moderation in all things, they spend their lives like pigs - over-exercising, over-eating, and over-sleeping. Their coaches fatten them and distort their limbs. Athletes rarely live to old age, and if they do, they are crippled by disease. Then they have neither health nor beauty. They become fat and bloated. Their faces are often flaccid and ugly, thanks to their boxing scars.” Galen adds to this that eyes that have been gouged over the years go rheumy, battered teeth fall out, and joints that have been incessantly twisted become arthritic. “Even at their physical peak, their vaunted strength is useless to society. Can you fight wars with discuses in your hands? In fact, athletes are weaker than new-born babies.”
Aristotle argued that overzealous parents pushed their children too far in training. As proof, he noted that few adolescent Olympic champions were ever successful in the adults’ categories once they came of age.