tiistaina, kesäkuuta 01, 2004

Athletics, tragedy, democracy

Still, there was something special going on in Greek athletics that we need to be reminded of. It is no accident that the same culture that invented athletics also invented tragedy and democracy.

None of the ancient competitive events involved team sports. Only individuals competed against other individuals, the athlete depending solely on his own ability and drive to win the crown that would be denied to all the rest--which is, one recalls, the universal condition of the leading characters in the tragic plays that filled the Greek stage. Greek tragedy always presents the isolated protagonist who must bear alone the burden of trying to achieve and then living with the unforeseen consequences of that success and the high cost of his aspirations.

In both instances we see a harsh, unforgiving world that resists and thwarts human desire, that requires immense efforts in order for men to achieve excellence in the teeth of those limits, and that distributes sparingly the scanty rewards for that achievement. Both tragedy and sports create losers, and both demand that we acknowledge losing as a nonnegotiable reality against which we must necessarily strive in our attempts to win.


Unlike tragedy, however, the games had winners. Yet the victory was merely a transitory respite from the relentless forces of existence that ultimately defeat everyone. Pindar, the fifth-century celebrator of aristocratic athletic prowess, makes explicit this link of the tragic view of life and athletic competition:

The happiness of man grows only for a short time
and then falls to the ground,
cut down by the grim reaper.
Victory in the games is like a ray of sunshine,
a gift of the gods,
a brilliant light that settles on men,
then fades, leaving only memory behind. »