Single is the
Of men and of gods;
From a single mother we both draw breath.
But a difference of power in everything
Keeps us apart...
Yet we can in greatness of mind
Or of body be like the immortals,
Though we know not to what goal...
Fate has written that we shall run.
In these opening
lines of a victory ode, the ancient Greek poet Pindar caught the whole meaning
of classical religion once and for all. The Greek gods were exuberantly young;
they were swift, powerful, passionate and radiant with the light of immortal
grace. And the Greeks believed that, at certain moments of great striving,
mortal men could overcome "the difference of power in everything" that
kept them apart from the gods. Such opportunities for what the Greeks called
arete came in battle and, especially, in sports.
Arete is often
translated to mean "excellence," but it implies a great deal more than
being first and best. Arete, in any endeavor, carries with it the unmistakable
bloom of perfection, a striving for more than human accomplishment under
conditions of great stress. As such, it is the standard against which great
performances in sports should be measured and it is the standard used for the
selection of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Sportsman of the Year (see page 22). Arete
was the sunshine of the Greek soul, the key to the spirit of classical Greece.
And the key to Greek sculpture is arete of the body: it aims to show men moving
perfectly—striding, leaping, running, wrestling in the clear light of Greece—as
the gods themselves might move.
show why Greek statues of gods and athletes often seem interchangeable. For the
Greek sculptors, some of whose few remaining masterpieces are presented in
these pages, set themselves the task of rendering immortal the fleeting
perfection achieved by the heroes of their games.
monuments of men outlived the gods themselves. The great Greek sculptors knew
how to pour flashes of the spirit into cold forms and breathe life into
stillness. They shaped dead matter to outrival life itself. No other sculptors
ever surpassed them, and only a few have approached their genius.
sculptors strove for perfection, so did their athletes. Their aim was to
perform like gods. This could be achieved only at moments, through disciplined
training, coupled with a god's assistance during competition. Godlikeness was
the athlete's goal, and victory merely the proof of its accomplishment.
Not long ago a
prizefighter in the ring at the Boston Arena threw off his robe—to discover
that he had left his trunks in the dressing room. One pictures him squirming
under the klieg lights, surrounded by a vast astonished hush. Then a hurricane
of laughter comes suddenly crashing about his ears. It must have been a
nightmare occasion for the fighter; something to remember, sweating, in the
dark watches of the night. Contrast this comedy with the solemn parade of
athletes at the classical Olympics, where nudity was the rule. In Greece nudity
and exercise went together, for the very good reason that to feel pulled
together in the buff one must be in trim. An athlete stripped can look more
pulled together than a knight in armor or Cary Grant in tails. At the classical
Olympian games, which were inaugurated as a regular four-year event in 776
B.C., no one except the contestants from Greek cities of Asia Minor, who were
influenced by Persian ideas of modesty, wore so much as a loincloth. This is
why statues of athletes, commissioned to commemorate a singular feat during
Olympian games, are of nude men.
The Greek freedom
from clothes did not extend to women except in the isolated case of Spartan
maidens. Herodotus, the first great historian, stuffily remarked that
"women remove their modesty with their garments." Plato got nowhere
suggesting that they be required to train their bodies lifelong in the nude
beside the men. Of goddesses, Aphrodite alone was represented in the nude. She
was the goddess of love, and her statues look it.
No female figures
are included in this survey because there are extant none of the first quality
that can be called athletic. Both Artemis and Athena were supremely athletic,
of course, and these virgin deities were honored with hundreds of splendid
images in marble, bronze and "chryselephantine" (ivory and gold
combined). But little is left of them beyond the turn of a slim ankle or a
The Olympics were
the great occasion for Greek men to achieve perfection of physical grace, to
strive toward the fulfillment of all that they believed to be godlike in man.
By the sixth century Greek colonies as far away as Marseilles were sending
contestants home. Soon rival games came to be instituted in honor of Apollo at
Delphi, Poseidon at Corinth and Zeus at Nemea. As President-elect Kennedy
pointed out last week (The Soft American), the games were times of truce that
took precedence over all emergencies, even including the Persian invasions and
the Peloponnesian war. While Sparta's brave Three Hundred fought and died at
Thermopylae, the Olympics went into session on schedule.