Athens Yesterday and Today
Sports consume people. I should know. When I
hosted a weekly radio show several years ago, the show was
often bumped in honor of a hockey game? Why was the hockey
game never bumped because of my show? Hmm. The show was
finally terminated because the radio station was bought
by… ESPN, and I wasn’t ready to do sports talk
It’s only a game but it arouses more passion than many real life experiences.
Ever witness – or participate – in a sports debate, that can go on endlessly,
and sometimes reach a peak that can border on violence? Not to mention the
hour-long sports talk shows, and the video games that simulate… simulation,
the imaginary world of sports! How much money is spent on sports, including
gambling on games?
What is it about the sport that has such a hold on us? And if you didn’t
notice, you never hear anyone say “sports fanatic” and “religious fan,” though
“fan” is short for fanatic.
Sports mania gets only more absurd when you witness how our society has come
to worship superstar athletes, simply for their physical prowess – even as
sports culture is inundated with drug and other forms of abuse and turns out
an O.J. Simpson or Mike Tyson.
Harsher critics argue that sports mania demonstrates the superficiality of
people, who replace real life with an escape into illusion. Instead of facing
life’s true battles and all its consequences, we root for teams playing imaginary
battles, with no real consequences.
Others contend that sports are actually a microcosm of life. Spectators see
their own lives play themselves out in games: the battle between adversaries,
the struggle of two skilled opponents challenged to achieve excellence. People
need someone to root for.
On a more innocent note, some see sports as art. The excellence exhibited
by athletes as they push the limits serves as models of human potential: How
much a person can achieve.
Finally, some feel that sports are merely another form of entertainment,
with the added benefit of having the power of lifting people’s spirits. Which
is why baseball wasn’t suspended during World War II.
The truth, I guess, is all the above.
But with the Olympics upon us, tracing the roots of modern sports can perhaps
illuminate some of the deeper psychological implications of our obsession
A few weeks ago the New York Times Magazine ran a powerful article by Daniel
Mendelsohn (What Olympic Ideal?), in which he vividly exposes the myth of
linking modern life with the pagan culture of ancient Greece; how life today
is distinctly different than the hedonism of the original Olympics in ancient
Greece, and therefore, how ludicrous it is to associate Greek history with
He writes that the ancient Greeks invented the savage, win-at-any-cost athlete,
which lies at the heart of the “very engine of the Games: the idea of competition
“Strangers to Biblical notions of selflessness and neighbor-loving, the Greeks
experienced their quadrennial festivals of raw and often vicious competitiveness
utterly free of the vague sense of guilt that we feel today when it comes
to expressing the primitive desire to utterly crush an opponent… Everything
about the ancient Olympics was darker, rougher, more brutal than its modern
counterpart -- no matter how much more competitive the modern Games have become
since their inception, in 1896, as a tribute to the spirit of gentlemanly
amateurism. Ancient Games had their origins as somber celebrations of death.”
Mendelsohn goes on to document how the ancient Olympics had their cultic
origins either in “commemorations of the deaths of mythic mortals or monsters.”
Death, he explains, was a major force in the Greek Games. Though this obsession
with death may seem extreme, it was “entirely in keeping with the Greek ethos…
The Greeks, for the most part, had no heaven; with some notable exceptions,
good and bad all went to the same gray, characterless, drizzly underworld
after death, and that was that. In the absence of a post-mortem reward for
moral goodness, the one thing you could strive for was immortal fame -- doing
something so glorious that men would talk of you in years, centuries, millenniums
to come… [this was] the motivation for ordinary, real-life inhabitants of
the Greek city-states, for whom there was no conceivable earthly achievement
higher than an Olympic victory.”
Today the Olympic committee prefers to “celebrate humanity.” But the truth
is, the author continues, that “the Greek athlete wanted only to be celebrated
himself; it was his one ticket to immortality. It is difficult for us today
to conceive of the extent to which a ferocious competitiveness fueled so much
of Greek culture, virtually no aspect of which was not somehow organized into
a competition; for the inhabitants of a city-state like Athens, civic life
was an endless stream of athletic contests, poetry contests, drama contests,
beauty contests. For the Greeks, whatever was worth doing was worth competing
for -- and winning at.”
Mendelsohn concludes that “this all-consuming egotism at the heart of the
Greek motivation sits ill at ease with the notion that you must love your
neighbor as yourself. But then, the attempt to graft the modern Olympics onto
the ancient ones was awkward from the start.” The “spirit of friendship” and
“honor” celebrated in the Games “are wholly foreign to the Greek way of thinking,
which actually has more in common with the relentless egotism, nationalism,
promotion and self-promotion of athletes we associate with professional sports
than with any fantasy of the noble Greek spirit.
“A lot of the sentimentality of the modern Olympics -- the relentless emphasis
on human-interest drama, the uncomfortable efforts to maintain the thin pretense
that politics are absent, the ceaseless rhetoric of pure athleticism, even
after the all-amateur rules were abandoned -- looks, if anything, like the
uncomfortable byproduct of our compensatory desire to graft Judeo-Christian
values onto the irreducible, very ancient and very ugly business of competitiveness.
“Victory or death. This, in the end, is the grimly pure ethos of the contest…
Death was the origin of the ancient athletic contests, and the all-or-nothing
logic of death hovered over the ancient Games, where there were no illusions
about what victory meant, or could often cost. But the kinds of truth about
which the pagan Greeks -- who lived in intimate, unsentimental and regular
contact with death, violence and warfare -- had no illusions are precisely
those that we like to play down or bury under sentimental and infantilizing
trappings: adorable bears, cutesy eagles, rag-doll gods and goddesses. Every
four years we all like to indulge in the sentimental fantasy that we're communing
with the pure and noble spirit of the classical Greek past. But purity comes
at a price, and that price is the truth: what is victory, and what is defeat?
There is, you suspect, no friendly side of a tiger; nor, really, of an athlete
engaged in a test of physical prowess. That's the truth of competition, at
least as far as the Greeks saw it; but then, who wants Death as a mascot?”
It’s quite fascinating to see a New York Times article take up the Biblical
Mendelsohn’s thesis is excellent. Indeed, some have pointed out that the
Olympics are a form of idolatry, associated with pagan gods of the Greeks.
Perhaps that is the question that needs to be asked to the organizers of modern
day Olympics: Why the need to associate with the paganism that modern society
– and the spirit of the Games – has rejected?
To take it a step farther, I would add that people – the Greeks of old, as
well as members of contemporary society – have always struggled and continue
to struggle with the two extremes: To live a life of the moment – of immediate
glory and instant gratification, a life of selfish victory, or to live a life
in search of spiritual eternity, in search of heaven, and thus the need to
love your neighbor as yourself. Will it be life of the body of a life of the
soul, a life of hedonism or one of sanctity?
The pagan Greeks, with their superstitions and mythologies, leaned toward
the former. With the evolution of religious belief and the rejection of many
elements of ancient paganism, much of the Western world has embraced the latter,
spiritual standard. In one sense history has progressed: The secular world
has become a more refined place, assimilating spiritual values into its fabric.
Yet, the struggle continues. And sports are a perfect manifestation of this
struggle. There is nothing wrong per se with athletes demonstrating their
skills, competing with each other to achieve excellence. Indeed, witnessing
an exceptional athlete is both beautiful and a source of inspiration.
But the question is this: Do we get obsessed with sports to the point where
it replaces real life? Do we regress to the all-consuming, self-worshipping
egotism of ancient Greece, or do we see sports in context, as another demonstration
of human artistry and achievement – an expression of the beauty that can be
generated by a human being created in the Divine image?
I’ll never forget the words of slugger Mark McGuire after September 11th.
Because of the tragedy, baseball was suspended for several days, and he was
asked when “will get back to real life and resume playing baseball?” He replied:
“That’s our problem. We think that a baseball game is ‘real life’ It’s only
a game, with no life and death consequences, and for that matter, no consequences
at all. Real life is what happened on 9/11…”
But living in a TV/Hollywood society we compare 9/11 to
our media images. How many people witnessing 9/11 footage
exclaimed, “Just like a movie…”
It’s time to wake up and see beyond our matrix. Time has
come to finally reject entirely the pagan elements (or vestiges
thereof) that still pervade our society.
So next time you watch a game, next time you marvel at the extent to which
a human being can reach, think about reality and illusion. Think about the
moment and eternity.
Do you choose a life of “victory or death” or one of “victory and life”?
You and I have that choice.