The Ultimate Athlete

“Sotades at the ninety-ninth [Olympic] Festival was victorious in the long race and proclaimed a Cretan, as in fact he was. But at the next Festival he made himself an Ephesian, being bribed to do so by the Ephesian people. For this act he was banished by the Cretans.”

Sound familiar? The Decision by LeBron James to take his formidable athletic talents from Cleveland to Miami touched a deep cultural chord that resonates far beyond the basketball court. Modern athletes like LeBron James still operate within a vast web of cultural myths that reach back into classical antiquity.

Borghese WarriorAthletes in ancient Greece were also cultural heroes. Many Greek sculptures like those of the idealized warriors and athletes depicted in the Museum’s Cast Gallery [see above] honor victors of sacred games like the Olympics, in which Greece’s finest athletes competed to honor the gods. Classical Greeks believed that, at certain moments of great striving, mortal men could overcome what the poet Pindar called “the difference of power in everything” that separated the gods from humans. Classical Greeks believed that their athletes—more than any other men—approached divine perfection. This cultural ideal of arete was the central ethos of classical Greece, and much Greek sculpture depicts arete through athletes, showing men moving perfectly—leaping, wrestling, throwing—just as the gods themselves might move.

The victors at all these religious games brought honor to themselves, their families, and their hometowns. They received public honors and rewards like lifetime tax exemptions, permanent seats of honor at the theater, food and wine, large cash awards. They were even lured to other games by the promise of substantial starting fees; as the Games became more intense and competitive, bribery became more commonplace. Statues were dedicated to them (imagine what would happen now to a LeBron James statue in Cleveland), victory poems commemorated their glorious achievements, and they were crowned with laurel leaves. Scenes of athletic competitions decorate terra cotta vases while the odes of the poet Pindar celebrate a number of athletic victories and athletes in general.

That’s because classical Greeks regarded both art and athletics as gifts bestowed by the gods. Sculptors, poets and other artisans came to the Olympic Games to display their works in what quickly became artistic as well as athletic competitions. Sculptors created works like Discobolos [Discus Thrower] to celebrate the shape of muscles and the human body in motion. Poets were commissioned to write in honor of the Olympic victors; people of unusual beauty, or moments of high and noble drama, received the greatest emphasis. The statues that sculptors fashioned of athletes were often strikingly similar to the statues of the gods or heroes. Greek athletes could easily start to think that they were not just athletes but were really heroes endowed with superhuman strength, perhaps even gods themselves. It’s the god dimension that sometimes becomes confusing, to athletes and their fans (derived from the Latin word fanaticus, pertaining to religious rites).

A museum like this one also pertains to religious rites (a museum is dedicated to the muse Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory), so it offers a valuable alternative to the fanaticism of contemporary sports. Here in the Cast Gallery I can easily understand the awe that people feel for athletes who seem to soar above our ordinary lives, but I am also constantly reminded that their glory fades almost as quickly as their laurel leaves. In The Ultimate Athlete (1974), George Leonard wrote that “every body that moves about on this planet…may well be inhabited by a strong and graceful athlete, capable of Olympian feats…The athlete that dwells in each of us is more than an abstract ideal. It is a living presence that can change the way we feel and live.” (p.3) Leonard believed that achieving moments of your own arête, of integrating body, mind, and spirit, will connect you to the larger world in ways that the once-and-future cult of sports heroes simply cannot do. Musing here in the Cast Gallery offers some valuable perspective on The Decision about our own Olympian ideal…

By Arthur Mehrhoff
Ph.D., Academic Coordinator
Museum of Art & Archaeology
1 Pickard Hall
(573) 882-0696

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2 Responses to “The Ultimate Athlete”

  1. W. Arthur Mehrhoff, Ph.D. says:

    The tragic death of Wes Leonard ( brought me to tears as it did many people, but I am also reminded of why the ancient Greeks looked to athletes for their models of arete.
    The haunting poem “To an Athlete Dying Young” ( by British poet A.E. Housman seemed especially poignant, almost as if written for this occasion of a legendary young athlete, whose game-winning shot completed a perfect season, carried off on the shoulders of an adoring crowd.

  2. W. Arthur Mehrhoff, Ph.D. says:

    Every once in awhile we have the opportunity to witness the arete of an ultimate athlete. The University of Missouri was blessed with such an athlete in Brad Smith, who now stars for the New York Jets football team. Columbia Daily Tribune football beat writer Dave Matter wrote an article that thoughtfully integrated Smith’s athletic achievements and personal qualities that endeared him to Mizzou fans.

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