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Before attitudes towards professional athletes in the ancient world are examined it must be acknowledged that the competitors, or at least the victors, in the early games were rewarded financially. The modern Olympic Games is based upon a "Greek" ideal that competitors are there purely for the sake of competition and love of sport, not for commercial gain; the eligibility rules of the International Olympic Committee from 1962 to 1974 state competitors "must always have participated in sport as an avocation without material gain of any kind" (Glader 29). In recent years the desire to display the highest levels of achievement has meant that professionals are allowed to enter many of the events, but there are still no monetary prizes for victory. But did the Greeks compete solely for the "thrill of victory"?
If one relies on vase paintings for the evidence of prizes it appears that ancient athletes competed solely for tokens of honour such as garlands (see Sansone fig. 1-15), and heroic inscriptions dedicated to athletes never mention any monetary gain from their achievements (Finley/Pleket 74). However, an examination of official documents dealing with the games, and of criticisms of the athletes reveals that there were great monetary and/or commercial rewards for victory. A prize list from the boys' events at the Panathenaic Games in the fourth century B.C. awards varying numbers of amphoras (large vases) filled with olive oil to the winners of the different events: stadion (200m dash) - 50, pankration (wrestling/boxing hybrid) - 40, wrestling and pentathlon - 30 (Finley/Pleket 56). The recipient was allowed to sell the oil and the decorated vases, but the value of the amphora is unknown (Finley/Pleket 56). 50 ornate amphoras must have been worth a substantial amount, and this was the prize for the boys stadion; the prize for the men would likely have been even more.
Evidence of purely monetary rewards is scanty, but a prize list from the second century A.D. games in Aphrodisias in Asia Minor awards the following prizes: dolichos (long distance run) - 750 denarii, diaulos (400 metre) - 1000 d., stadion - 1250 d., hoplitodromos (race in armour) - 500 d., pentathlon - 500 d., wrestling - 2000 d., boxing - 2000 d., pankration - 3000 d. (Harris 42). To roughly calculate the "worth" of these awards it may be noted that one denarius per day was the wage of the labourers in the New Testament's parable of the vineyard (Harris 42). The winner of the pankration made the equivalent of approximately eight years of labour. Aphrodisias was not even one of the largest games; richer games paid out 6000 denarii to the winner of the pankration (Finley/Pleket 74). To roughly put 6000 denarii into a modern context it would be the equivalent of 6000 days of minimum wage: $264,000. While this figure may seem paltry compared to the millions of dollars the heavyweight boxing champion makes per fight, it must be remembered the ancient athletes made nothing off of the largest money generator of modern events: television rights.
From all available evidence it appears the Olympic games were one of the few, if not the only, games that did not award monetary or commercial prizes to its victors (Finley/Pleket 77). This assumption is questioned, however, by a sixth century B.C. inscription found in Southern Italy: "A gift. Kleombrotos son of Dexilaos having won at Olympia and having promised the prize to Athena, dedicated a tithe" (Miller 93). How do you donate a tenth of a crown of olive leaves? Kleombrotos must have made some revenue from his victory in order to donate some. Further evidence that competitors in the Olympic games would have earned some sort of reward for winning is the amount of time required to train for, and compete in, the games. Documents dating back to the eighth century B.C. insist participants swear they had "strictly obeyed the rules for training ... for ten months prior to the games", and competitors were required to train at Olympus for thirty days before the games (Glader 51). If this thirty days is combined with the fifteen to twenty days it would have taken some athletes to travel to the games the result is the athlete would have been unable to work for approximately sixty days (Glader 52). Obviously there must have been some reward to compensate the victor for lost income, and no prize was awarded for second place, those who never won must have been forced out of competition by financial need or been rich to begin with.
Archaeological evidence proves that a win at Olympus could be very lucrative, despite the fact that nothing of worth was actually awarded in the games. In the sixth century B.C. Solon instituted a "bonus" system for Athenian victors in the games: 500 drachmas for an Olympian victory, 100 for an Isthmian (Finley/Pleket 77). An Athenian decree from around 430 B.C. awards free meals to champions of the panhellenic games: "Those citizens who have won the athletic competitions at Olympia or Delphi or Isthmia or Nemea shall have a free meal every day for the rest of their lives in the prytaneion and other honours as well" (Miller 94). Later, in Roman times, these free meals were transformed into a fixed pension for the victor, as evidenced in municipal budgets including "rations" for "victors in sacred games" (Finley/Pleket 78). Beyond state awarded rewards the prestige associated with a victory at the Olympic games made the athlete in demanded at other games; in the Roman period an unidentified Asia Minor city paid an Olympic victor 30,000 drachma to enter its games (Finley/Pleket 70). A victory in the Olympic games promised financial reward far greater than the monetary prizes awarded at the lesser games, and it is easily understood why a competitor would risk many months of unemployment, or prizes in lesser games, for a chance at Olympic victory.
From existing evidence it is clear that Greek and Roman athletes, at least the victorious ones, were paid for their achievements; by modern standards they would be considered professionals. The modern emphasis on amateur athletes in the Olympics is about as Greek as my Mennonite grandmother's Greek ribs. The Greeks and Romans did classify athletes into professional and non-professional but their definition of professional is quite different. An ancient professional athlete was one who "received proper training and devoted himself more or less full-time to an activity" (Finley/Pleket 71). Anyone with the time and money to train full-time was considered a professional. It is important to keep the modern distinction of professionalism distinct from an examination of ancient criticism because many of their arguments were against the over-specialization of professional athletes, not just the habits and wages of the athletes.
One of the most common criticisms of the games is that they did little to prepare the athlete for "useful" tasks, such as warfare. The resemblance of several events (i.e. the hoplitodromos and javelin) to actual military practices gives credence to the idea that the events of the games were designed to prepare young men for war (Kyle 10). Results from the games before 600 B.C. show the Spartans, who were renowned for their overall physical and military training, dominated, but as specialized athletes developed in the individual sports Spartan victories dropped to only twenty percent by the fifth century B.C. and most of these were in the equestrian events (Finley/Pleket 70). This gap between the practical aspects of athletics and the practitioners of the sport became a topic seized by critics of the games. In Autolykos Euripides attacks the "uselessness" of the games:
What man has ever defended the city of his fathers by winning a crown for wrestling well or running fast or throwing a diskos far or planting an uppercut on the jaw of an opponent? Do men drive the enemy out of their fatherland by waging war with diskoi in their hands or by throwing punches through the line of shields? No one is so silly as to do this when he is standing before the steel of the enemy. (Miller 96)Professional athletes make poor soldiers because they are specialized in impractical areas; it is not difficult to hypothesize what Euripides would have thought about golf. In modern times it is accepted that professional sports and the "real" world are separate entities, therefore sports exist purely as a form of entertainment. From the popularity of the ancient games it appears most ancients (excluding Euripides and his ilk) shared this view of sports. Unfortunately no document survives praising spectator enjoyment; all we are left with are the criticisms.
One topic where modern and ancient critics of professional athletics agree is the salaries of athletes. The modern media is forever reporting the latest multi-million dollar contract signing and critics are continuously questioning society's willingness to reward people who play games over people who do "serious" work. Unfortunately, while these criticisms are omnipresent, it is extremely difficult to find one in writing. One has no such problem with the ancient critics because their views on athletes have survived, while opinions in favour of rewarding athletes for their entertainment value have been lost. Surviving texts show ancient critics lambasting the attention paid to athletes; attention which they feel would be better directed towards honourable and wise men, like themselves. Euripides, in the fragment of Autolykos previously examined, writes:
We ought rather to crown the good men and the wise men, and the reasonable man who leads the city-state well and the man who is just, and the man who leads us by his words to avoid evil deeds and battles and civil strife. (Miller 96)One has to wonder how many of Euripides' qualifiers are referring to himself, and if he is simply trying to get his own pay increased. Euripides' criticism of the prestige awarded to athletes is shared with many other writers. Xenophanes, writing around 525 B.C., argues that no matter how many competitions an athlete wins "he still would not be so valuable as I am. For my wisdom is a better thing than the strength of men or of horses" (Miller 95). Xenophanes speaks outright what is implicit in Euripides: the writer considers himself better than the athletes and should be treated as such. But from the frequency of similar criticisms it is clear that athletes continued to be rewarded and intellectuals did not. Supporters of the athletes/games, who have been silenced by time, must have been more numerous and/or influential than the "wise men" who sought their "piece of the pie". A comparison between the NBA pay list and the salaries of university professors reveals modern critics have not had anymore luck than their ancient predecessors.
It is interesting to note how many modern stereotypes of athletes actually existed in ancient times. The caricature of the "dumb jock" persists in modern society despite the fact that most professional athletes hold college degrees; this may simply be another manifestation of "intellectuals" attempting to elevate themselves above athletes. In the ancient criticisms this is certainly the case. Galen, a Roman writing about A.D. 180, states:
Now it is abundantly clear to everyone that athletes have never even dreamed of mental blessings. To begin with, they are so deficient in reasoning powers that they do not even know if they have a brain. Always gorging themselves on flesh and blood they keep their brains soaked in so much filth that they are unable to think accurately and are as mindless as dumb animals. (Miller 88)It is clear Galen does not hold the intelligence of athletes in high esteem. Elsewhere in this document Galen writes that "the best of men are honoured ... because of their accomplishments and benefactions in the arts" (Miller 88). Galen is obviously trying to raise the status of his profession, medicine, above that of professional athletes.
Galen also relies on the stereotype of athletes as gluttonous in his argument. At one point he compares them to "pigs, except that pigs do not ... force-feed themselves" (Miller 89). It appears to have been common practice for athletes to consume large quantities of food, especially meat; the legendary wrestler Milo of Croton's daily diet was supposedly twenty pounds of meat, twenty pounds of bread and eighteen pints of wine (Harris 111). Undoubtedly, large wrestlers would have needed a lot of food, but this amount of food should be considered as but one part of the substantial legends of Milo's achievements. Galen is likely using legends, like the myth of Milo, to de-humanize the athletes and lessen the attention paid to them. Modern critics of professional sport are quick to seize upon reports of athletic appetites, although these appetites tend to be sexual and narcotic. Like the legend of Milo, there may be some truth in the stories of excesses (the Dallas Cowboys for example), but the criticisms cannot be taken at face value; modern critics may have an agenda similar to Galen's.
If one relies on the picture of athletics painted by Euripides, Xenophanes, Galen and other ancient writers it appears that the ancient games were ruined by the inclusion of professional athletes, and modern critics envision a similar fate for the Olympics of today. But the large salaries of athletes and the spread of the games throughout the Mediterranean seem to indicate the games became more popular as time went by. It is a shame that no defences of professional sport exist from this period; a surviving edition of a Greek Sports Illustrated outlining the common person's view of the games would be immensely helpful (arguably the "swimsuit issue" survives on vases but it tells us little except that Greek women did not wear swimsuits). Recent inclusions of professional athletes in the Olympics seem to indicate that modern critics are about as effective as their ancient predecessors. Tiger Woods may be over-paid and specialized in an area with no practical application, but watching his complete domination of the Master's is a lot more inspiring than reading any scholarly article I have yet to come across, and that has got to be worth something. I am just not sure it is worth $60 million.
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