Tag Archives: honesty

The Spirit of the Ancient Olympics


After reading about all of the pollution, doping and dangers of the Zika virus at the Rio Olympics, plus hearing about the endemic corruption rife in the International Olympic Committee (IOC), I can’t help but feel nostalgic about the simplicity of the ancient Greek Olympics.

Origins of the Olympics

While the Greeks attributed the origins of the Olympics to myths about Herakles, Pelops and Zeus, no one really knows how or why the ancient Olympics began.  As the Greeks used athletic competitions in conjunction with many of their festivals, it seems safe to assume that its origins were probably religious.

In Homer’s Iliad, after the death of Patroclus and Hector, both the Greeks and the Trojans included athletic competitions among the funeral celebrations.   In the case of Hector, the two warring sides even agreed to a truce while the games took place.  It seems the games were meant to honor the dead and were no doubt a long-standing tradition even in the time of the Trojan War (c. 1184 B.C.).

The games were held every 4 years outside the Greek city of Elis in a valley called Olympia.  Evidence of the game’s religious importance, is that Olympia was named after the highest mountain in Greece, Mt. Olympus, which was thought to be the home of the gods.

The games were dedicated to the king of the gods, Zeus.  Within the Temple of Zeus at Olympia stood a 43 foot tall statue of Zeus made out of gold and ivory.  The statue was sculpted by Phidias in 445 B.C. and was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  Phidias also sculpted the statue of Athena that was inside another ancient wonder, the Parthenon at Athens.

In the 6th century B.C., the Greeks also instituted pan-Hellenic games at Delphi, Corinth and the Nemea River, but the Olympics continued to preserve its prominence as the pre-eminent celebration.  One of the interesting features of the Pythian Games in Delphi, were that they also included competitions for poetry, music and theater.

Date of the First & Last Olympics

The traditional date of the first Olympics is 776 B.C.   The games were so important to the Greeks they used 776 B.C. as their ‘year 1’ and measured time from that date.  For example, a person might mark their date of birth by saying, “I was born in the second year of the 23rd Olympiad.”

When the Roman Emperor Theodosius imposed Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire in 393 A.D., he put an end to the Olympic Games as they were viewed as honoring a pagan religion.

The Olympic Truce

Though we think of Greece as a country, in ancient times it consisted of hundreds of city-states who were constantly at war with one another.

One of the important aspects of the ancient games was that a universal truce existed across the Greek world during the games to allow athletes and spectators to travel safely to Olympia.  This ceasefire extended across Greece and its colonies located in Asia Minor, on the Black Sea, Africa, Italy, Sicily and Spain.

History records only one instance of this truce ever being violated, and even that case was contested.

Some interesting facts about the Olympics:

  • Average attendance was in the range of 20,000 to 40,000.
  • The use of the death penalty was suspended throughout Greece during the games.
  • Only free men who spoke Greek could compete in the games.
  • Women were not allowed to compete or attend.
  • There were no team sports, only individual events.

The Olympic Festival and Events

Athletes had to arrive at Olympia one month before the games for training.  Before the games began, they swore an oath that they would abide by the rules and that they had been in training for at least ten months.  While this is nothing compared to the training undergone by modern athletes, it meant that only the well-to-do could afford to compete.

The original Olympics lasted only one day, and consisted of only one event, the stadion or stade (from which we get the word ‘stadium’),  a sprint the length of the track, roughly 700 feet.

The diaulos, or two-stade race was introduced in 724 B.C.  It consisted of a single lap of the track, approximately 1,300 feet.

The original Olympic Games consisted entirely of track and field events.  A third foot race, the dolichos, was introduced in 720 B.C.  The length of the race was 18-24 laps or about 3 miles.  The runners began and finished in the stadium, but the course wound its way through the Olympic grounds.

As more events were added the Olympics were expanded to five days.  Two of the five days were spent conducting religious rituals.  The first day was devoted to swearing oaths and conducting sacrifices, and the last day to crowning the victors with an olive wreath and holding a great feast at which 100 bulls were sacrificed.

The last running event added to the Olympics (520 B.C.) was the hoplitodromos or hoplite race.  Runners ran either a stade or diaulos in full or partial armor, carrying a shield, helmet and greaves weighing roughly 50 pounds.  In a vase painting depicting the event, runners are shown leaping over fallen shields that runners dropped.

The 26 mile marathon was NOT an ancient Greek Olympic event.  The event was added when the modern Olympics were introduced in Athens in 1896.

Over the years, boxing, wrestling and pankration were added.  Initially soft leather was wrapped around boxers fingers, but over time this was changed to hard leather and sometimes metal was used.  Boxers fought on open ground.  These fights had no rounds or rest periods.  There were no rules against hitting a man when he was down.

A wrestler had to throw his opponent to the ground 3 times to win.  There were no weight classes, so heavier wrestlers had an advantage.61406c74cb

Pankration was a brutal combination of boxing and wrestling with very few rules.  It was not uncommon to break an opponent’s fingers or twist their ankles from their sockets. The bout ended when one pankrationist surrendered or died.  If a contestant died, he was declared the winner, post mortem.

The pentathlon consisted of wrestling the stadion, long jump, javelin thrown and discus throw.

At the conclusion of each event, a herald announced the name of the winner.  A judge placed a palm leaf in his hands while spectators applauded and threw flowers.  A ribbon of red wool was tied around his head and hands as a sign of victory.

Later events such as horse-racing and chariot-racing were added.  As very few people in Greece could afford a horse, it was confined to the wealthy.

Jockeys did not have stirrups on their saddle.  Individual riders did 6 laps (4.5 miles) of the race track.  There were separate races for full-grown horses and foals.

There were 2-horse and 4-horse chariot races, and a 12 lap race (9 mile) between carts drawn by a team of 2 mules.

The first woman ever to win an Olympic event, in 396 B.C. and again 392 B.C., was a Spartan named Cynisca, who won the 4-horse chariot race.  Although Cynisca did not drive the chariot and was probably not even present to watch, she owned the chariot, and the winner of the event was the owner, not the driver.

The official ceremony for all of the victors took place on the last day of the games in the Temple of Zeus.  A herald announced the name of each winner, his father and his city.  Then a judge placed a crown made of an olive branch on the winner’s head.  The olive branch was considered significant, because it was believed the olive trees at Olympia had been planted by the hero Herakles.

Victors were welcomed back to their home cities as heroes.  They could expect banquets in their honor, exemption from paying taxes, statutes erected in their honor and poems written about their exploits.  The real prize for athletes was eternal fame.

Penalties for Rule Breakers

Rules were rarely broken.  When they were, penalties included fines, flogging and exclusion from future games.  Fines were paid to the Temple of Zeus.  If the offender could not afford the fine, the city he represented was excluded from the next games.

Rule breakers had their names inscribed on the bases of statues of Zeus that led to the stadium called ‘Zanes.’  They were a reminder to future visitors about the identity of rule-breakers and a warning to all.

While Ryan Lochte did not cheat or break any rules at the last Olympics, I can’t help but think that his bad behavior goes against the spirit of the ancient Olympics.  Rather being flogged or having his name inscribed on a statue, he’ll lose his advertising endorsements, which I suppose is the modern equivalent of being fined.

While I still enjoy watching the Olympics, I can’t help but think that something has been lost over the ages.  Yes, there is still the athletic competition.  Just not the same spirit.


The Philosophy of Writing

Some of the selections below come from my college notebook. They were jotted down during a class titled The Process of Writing conducted by Professor Emeritus S. Leonard Rubenstein at Pennsylvania State University.

Professor Rubenstein is the most brilliant teacher I ever encountered in all my years as a student.  I always thought of him as the American version of Socrates as he asked a lot of questions designed to get us to think about what we were writing, how we were writing and why we were writing.

Some of the selections below also come from from Professor Rubenstein’s book, Writing: A Habit of Mind. You can find a copy on Amazon.  It is the only college textbook I ever purchased that was not required reading for a course.  It is a treasure that anyone interested in the craft of writing should consider exploring.

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Honesty as a Skill

“He who thinks naked is ugly will not be able to write.  All his energy will go into trying to conceal himself. Look at a writer’s images, his similies, he metaphors his analogies. If he uses what he knows, what he understands, he has authority. His images are his autobiography. They are drawn from where he has been, what he has done, what he as seen, whom he has known.”

“He who writes must choose to reveal, for everything he writes reveals himself.  His sentence structures.  His rhythms, his references, his emphasis. What would you call that quality in a person’s writing – his personality? His sensibility? His voice? You have many voices; each person to whom you speak evokes a different voice; each voice tells you more about yourself. Whomever you speak to, creates you.”

“Writing is not an act of charity. It is an act of clarity. We need meaning. We need each other to obtain meaning. We must examine ourselves in others; others in ourselves.”

“To be naked is to use the skill and power of honesty.  Anything else in writing is only protective. We may avoid pain, but we do not learn or teach anything.  We cheat.”

“Intention to be honest is not enough.  The honest man writes to find out what he thinks, to test what he thinks, to change what he thinks.  He suspects himself always. He knows honesty is a skill that must be exercised always. People want to be honest; few know how. The skill is simple. All men know their reactions, few men can identity what they are reacting to. The skill of honesty is to hold one’s reaction at bay in order to discover what is causing it. The skill is difficult.”

“The writer must be honest. If he wants merely to seem honest, he will spend his life learning the symptoms of honesty. He may learn so excellently he may even deceive himself.”

“Honesty, for a writer, is not a virtue, but competence.”

“We are not out after confusion, but clarification.  We start with perplexity and drive to understanding.  It is part of human nature to go through that process.”

“Writers become incomplete when they deceive themselves. Then their writing becomes ineffective.”

“All good writing must have direction and a destination.  Each sentence must have a point to which each word contributes.  Each paragraph must have a point to which each sentence contributes.  Writing is a process of recognizing the point.”

“There are no prescriptions for writing honestly, only principles.”

A Composition is a Universe

“Whomever you speak to, creates you.  His needs, his expectations, his abilities draw attention to how you feel and think about the things he needs and expects. You begin to form a profile of purpose and attitude and information. He creates the you who addresses him. He makes you know more about yourself. Be grateful to him.”

“The writer’s purpose is not to report his emotion, but to cause the readers.”

The girl is beautiful. Does this sentence describe the stimulus provided by the girl – or the reaction undergone by the writer? What is in the sentence for you to react to? What is being reported to you – the girl’s condition, or the writer’s condition? Do you think the girl is beautiful? Do you agree with the writer? Disagree?”

“If the writer wanted us to think the girl is beautiful, the statement, the girl is beautiful, is lazy and cowardly. If he told us the colors, shapes, and dimensions of the girl; the sounds of the girl; the grains and textures of the girl; the musks and aromas of the girl; the taste and flavor of the girl – and he believed the girl was beautiful – would he say something so limp and useless as, ‘The girl is beautiful’?  The writer is saying, ‘I won’t let you see her, but take my word for it, the girl is beautiful.’ How can I believe the girl is beautiful if I don’t react to her myself? If the writing is successful, the questions vaporize.”

“The meaning of experience is itself, not anything said about it. We know an experience to the extent we undergo that experience. The writer who aspires to provide whole and responsible knowledge must understand, respect, and use the function of fiction to create experience.”

“Good writing does not record a situation; it transforms itself into the situation. Words disappear. A universe comes into being.”

“Statements about another man’s experience provide knowledge to the intellect.  But that kind of knowledge is partial and dangerous.  Knowledge must be provided to the flesh, to the nerve, to the bone, to the marrow.  We know an experience to the extent we undergo that experience.”

“Being poetic about a place destroys the poetry of the place.  The place is poetic as it is.”

Discussions on Aristotle’s Rhetoric

“Persuasion is not the intention of rhetoric, but the accident.  The intention of rhetoric is to find the truth.  It is the truth that persuades.”

“True rhetoric has only one purpose.  Not to serve the vanity of its speaker.  Not to serve the vanity of its listener.  The purpose of rhetoric is to serve the health of its subject.”

“Ability to write flows from the proper state of mind.  Ability to write is knowing and stating and resolving ignorance.  A writer needs questions.  Questions cause answers.  Who makes something clear for others, makes it clear for himself.”

“If a man intends to impress someone his work will not be clear, because he does not intend clarity, he intends to impress.”

“Argument is an instrument of discovery, not an instrument of imposition.”

“You cannot succeed unless you run the risk of failure.”

“The truth exists within us.  All we have to do is remember what we already know.”

“A judgment is the enemy of investigation, because a judgment terminates investigation.”

Random Notes on Plato’s Phaedrus

“The man who needs to be adored doesn’t even know what love is. He merely needs another person’s reassurance to fill himself where he is lacking. He wants something in return for his love.  Unless you love yourself, you cannot love others.”

“No philosophical answer belongs to someone else, but ourselves.”

“We owe it to each other to help one another recognize the truth we find within ourselves.”

“It is better to fail at an honorable task, than to succeed at an evil one.”

“Truth is the sum of all things.  Each thing is a part of the truth.  If the part is taken from the sum, it becomes a lie.”

“Emotional understanding is something more than intellectual understanding.”

“Ideas are a dime-a-dozen.  Power comes in execution.”

“If the essay ends when it ends, it fails.  The essay must begin when it ends.”