“With understandable pride and satisfaction, Coubertin saw his cherished goal at last within reach. ‘The Olympic idea,’ he eloquently declared, ‘ has traversed the mists of the ages like an all-powerful ray of sunlight and returned to illumine the threshold of the twentieth century with a gleam of joyous hope.”
In the late 1800s, privileged and educated Europeans with a zest for ancient Greekdom, envisioned and instigated the modern Olympic Games. But of course, the popularity of the Olympic Games is a tale of millennia. In this entertaining and well-researched history of the ancient Games and their revival in modern times, Benson Bobrick dispels a lot of the modern misguided ideas of what had actually taken place every four years in ancient Greece.
“A very different combined contact sport called pankration was introduced in 648 BC. Its name essentially means ‘anything goes.’ It combined boxing and wrestling and was the fiercest of all events. There were few rules and almost no holds were barred. You could kick, strangle, and even beat your opponent to death if you had to. About the only thing you couldn’t do was bite him or gouge out his eyes. The bout went on for as it took someone to win, which happened – short of death – when an opponent was beaten senseless or signaled his surrender by raising the finger of one hand.”
Yes, indeed. The romantic notion that the ancient Games were all about goodwill and about performing well, instead of winning, takes quite a beating here.
“It was humiliating enough to be beaten, but unsuccessful athletes were also sometimes mocked and ridiculed. ‘Losers crept back to their mothers through dark alleys in embarrassment and shame,’ wrote the Greek poet Pindar. They might even be singled out as pathetic for all time. This happened to one boxer named Apis, whose opponents set up a mock statue to him ‘because he never hurt anyone.’
“Some would rather die than suffer that fate. In 564 BC, a two-time defending Olympic champion in the pankration was on the verge of being strangled to death when he got a good grip on his opponent’s foot. With a tremendous final effort, he broke it – just as he himself expired. His opponent, in agony, unaware of his own triumph, raised his finger to signal his own defeat – and the victory went to the dead man.”
Fast forwarding a couple of thousand years, A PASSION FOR VICTORY is also the story of how sports and politics and business concerns all became uncomfortable bedfellows during the rise of the modern Games. As with everything else in life back then, women and blacks were given the short end of the stick, and enlightenment – as illustrated through some pretty horrific examples here – was in short supply.
The second half of the book is a candid look at the first forty years of the modern Games – leading up to, and including, Nazi Germany’s hosting of the ’36 Games. An epilogue provides general information about the absence of the Games during World War II and their eventual resumption.
Just in time for this summer’s Games in London, A PASSION FOR VICTORY is also a great introduction to a bunch of famous dudes from Homer to Zeus to Weissmuller, Thorpe, Owens, and to so many others.
P.S.: Can you believe that it is now twenty years since we were entertained by Dream Team I in the wake of the vote to permit NBA players on the Olympic rosters? Who in ancient Greece would have thunk it? Bring on the Games! (Editor's note: Ages 10 and up) 978-0375868696 160 pages
Recommended by: Richie Partington, MLIS, Librarian, California USA See more of Richie's Picks at: http://richiespicks.com/