2. Study questions Copy

As likely generic representations, they may have some value, and they can certainly tell us about the regards with which sports were held, but the medium likely means that would have been stylised, and not accurate representations of real events. This can be said of most images on vases: they are likely to have presented and/or fictional images but may tell us something about the people who made them and who would have bought them.

There may be certain elements that record actual people and events but only at specific times (so they can only reflect Pindar’s own times) but we also need to remember that the are works of poetry, not documents of history.

Greek athletes were seen as heroic in their endeavours, as representing aspirational ideals (see Greek statues of athletes for the idealisation of the human form), and as political figures (victory in a panhellenic sports competition must have been like victory in a military conflict).

There were a range of prizes that could be won (tax breaks, front seats at the theatre, crown of olive leaves) but the main point was that these were honorific rather than monetary. The motivation for winning was the honour and glory of victory and conversely the shame of defeat.

We have accounts of the shame of defeat from Pindar and there seems to have been a ‘victory or death’ ethos, with no notion of the honour of participation. Victory was everything, and there was no glory for second place.

  1. Pausanias tells us the following:

“…it is the custom for athletes, their fathers and their brothers, as well as their trainers, to swear an oath upon slices of boar’s flesh that in nothing will they sin against the Olympic games. The athletes take this further oath also, that for ten successive months they have strictly followed the regulations for training. An oath is also taken by those who examine the boys, or the foals entering for races, that they will decide fairly and without taking bribes, and that they will keep secret what they learn about a candidate, whether accepted or not.” (Pausanias 5.24.9ff)


It is likely that besides fear of breaking a scared oath, there would have been fines and bans imposed. Of course, Pausanias may only be referring to his own time, and this may not reflect the practices and customs of earlier times. The first recorded cheating scandal at the games dates to 388 B.C., when boxer Eupolus of Thessaly bribed three opponents to throw their fights against him. Callippus of Athens bought off his competitors in the pentathlon during the 112th festival. Two Egyptian boxers, Didas and Sarapammon, were fined for fixing the outcome of their match at the 226th Olympics. Pausanias is our source for this.


Play Video