Essay Sample on Sports in Ancient Greece

Published: 2023-04-05
Essay Sample on Sports in Ancient Greece
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  History Culture Sport Community Ancient Greece Ancient history
Pages: 5
Wordcount: 1119 words
10 min read

According to Golden (1998), around the year 400 BCE, Greek mercenaries who had fought for the Persian pretender Cyrus were living in region called Trapezus located next to the Black Sea (Golden, 1998). They started the practice of sacrificing oxen in honor of Zeus and other Greek gods they wanted to show thanks to. They then held a sports festival in honor of these gods in which participants wore the skins of the sacrificed animals. An exiled Spartan called Dracontius, was appointed to supervise the sporting contests. The Greek mercenaries participated in sprints to test speed, long distance races to test endurance, boxing, wrestling, and horse races (Golden, 1998). These competitions drew the attention of travelers and onlookers, and soon grew a sizeable audience.

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What had started as a religious festival for Greek mercenaries became accepted as a mainstream activity in Hellenic society leading to the first Olympic games in 776 BC. Ancient Greeks had the shared goal of attaining personal success in everything they chose to participate in so that they gain honor in a virtuous way (arete). Hence when they were participating in the Olympics, athletes dedicated themselves to pursuing arete. The works of Homer and other Greek writers, one can see that in ancient Greek society , the concept of arete were inextricably linked to sporting events.

Arete and Sports

The games were initially held at a grove in Olympia called Altis. It had altars and statues erected in honor of Zeus and other minor gods competitors chose to honor. An animal was sacrificed to honor them. The blood of these animals was poured on to the bodies of the participants to symbolize religious purification.

Historical literature shows that during the first day, competitors would swear an oath to Zeus before proceeding to engage in horse races, wrestling, and boxing. During the second day, horse and chariot races were held in the morning. The afternoon was reserved for javelin throwing, long-jump, running, discuss throwing, and more wrestling. There was a feast at the end of the day to honor victors. The third day started with the sacrifice of over one hundred oxen in honor of Zeus. The meat from these animals was distributed among spectators. Boxing and pankration events were held during the fourth day. Chariot races were also held during this penultimate day. The fifth day was the final one and it involved the procession of all the winners so that they could be acknowledged by the spectators who showered them with wild olives.

Hellenic moral philosophy was governed by the pursuit of excellence or success in all personal endeavors (arete). The games were governed by arete. For instance, in the beginning, the reward for winning an event for an athlete was honor and for athletes to feel that their win was deserved, they maintained arete by not engaging in cheating. Odysseus in The Odyssey says "[H]ear me,Goddess,be kind to me and come with extra strength for my feet"(Miler,2004) Homer uses this passage of The Odyssey to reveal that sporting activities in ancient Greek society was governed by arete because they were held to honor Zeus and other minor Greek gods.(e.g. Nike, the goddess of victory).

The pursuit of arete in ancient Greek society drove participation in the Olympic games after they were launched in 776 BC. Odysseus in The Odyssey states "...[t]ry your hand at some contest, that is, if you know any, but you have the look of an athlete to me. There is no greater fame for a man than that which he wins with his footwork or the skill of his hands" (Miler,2004). Homer was using this passage of The Odyssey to reveal how in ancient Greek society, some saw participation in sports as a viable path to arete because of the honor given to them by the whole society when they won an event .

The pursuit of arete resulted made some Greeks dedicate their lives to excellence in sports. They spent time training and preparing themselves for the Olympic event they wanted to win. Philostratos in Life of Apollonius stated that: "If you have worked so as to be worth of going to Olympia, if you have done nothing indolent nor ignoble, then take heart and march on; but those who have not so trained may leave and go wherever they like" (Miler,2004). Philostratos was using Life of Apollonius to communicate to readers that the pursuit of arete drove athletes in ancient Greece to endure long hours of training to stand a chance of participating and winning an event.

The importance of arete meant that ancient Greeks could only celebrate persons who were the best in what they did. Hence as stated earlier, the fifth day of the Olympics was reserved for the veneration of winners. For example, Solon in Anacharsis, says that ".....[The prizes] are tokens of victory and a way to recognize the victors. Together with them goes a reputation which is worth everything to the victors, and with them goes a reputation which is worth everything to the victors" (Miller, 2004). Solon uses Anacharsis to communicate to readers that arete drove ancient Greek society not to show any respect or leniency to people who failed in personal endeavors such as the Olympics .

The Olympics may have begun as a religiously festival that involved the pursuit of arete but with time, it changed because of politics. The games led to the emergence of a class of successful athletes that the traditional political elites felt threatened. Chariot races were the most popular sporting event. The norm was for commoners to be hired by the wealthy to race chariots and victorious commoners gained recognition for their achievements. Since the wealthy chariot owners also gained social status from the wins of the person they paid to race, politics became part of the Olympic games. The second way that politics became part of the Olympics was because the audience participated. They would clap and cheer to show support for a particular participant as well as their sponsor from the class of Greek social elites. In summary, chariot racing made the Olympics political in character. The pursuit of arte was replaced by an ideology of competition as evidenced by the migration away from ordinary citizens participation to specialized athletes after the 5th century BC. Further evidence that arte was lost was the fact that these specialist athletes started actively seeking out things that would give them an unfair advantage over other competitors. The historical record shows that some would chew on raw animal testicles to get a testosterone boost.


Golden, M.(1998). Sport and Society in Ancient Greece. Cambridge University Press.

Miller, S. G. (2004). Arete: Greek sports from ancient sources. Univ of California Press.

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