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Measuring athletic greatness

As Michael Phelps pulled away from the field in the 200 IM to win his thirteenth individual Olympic Gold Medal, he set the standard by which athletic greatness will be measured. The greatest athletes are not just good at one thing—the measurement of true greatness, established from antiquity to the present, is the ability to dominate different events, and the ability to do so more than once.

The medley is a classic example of an event designed that tests skill across different styles, the sort of thing fans want to see, it’s a way of settling disputes about whether a competitor who is good at one aspect of a sport is better than one who dominates at another. Fans have been asking those questions and wanting events that demand contrasting skills for as long as they have been watching competitive sport.

The classics example of a “combined skills” events is the ancient Greek sport of pankration, easily the nastiest of all events in the ancient Olympics.

BEIJING - AUGUST 17: Michael Phelps of the United States leaves the pool after competing in the Men's 4x100 Medley Relay held at the National Aquatics Centre during Day 9 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 17, 2008 in Beijing, China. The United States team set a new world record with a time of 3:29:34. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
“Michael Phelps” by Marco Paköeningrat. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Pankration combined boxing and wrestling. Brutal and dangerous, one Olympic champion actually died in the final match. He won because he was inflicting so much pain on his opponent that the opponent surrendered just before the stranglehold he was using killed the “victor.” The more successful champions managed to survive, but only the greatest, and this is evocative of Phelps’ accomplishment, could win in either boxing or wrestling in the same Olympics as their pankration victory.

Since all boxing, wrestling and pankration competition was held on the same day, an athlete would go straight, just like Phelps did when he swam the semi of the 200 Meter Butterfly less than an hour after dominating the 200 IM final (no surprise that he won today’s final when he had some rest). It’s that sort of versatility combined with endurance that Greeks recognized as the sign of absolute greatness. People who could win the pankration final after winning another event the same day were compared with the god Herakles, the patron of violent sport. There were only five people who could claim this in the course of about a thousand years of ancient athletic history.

Phelps has shown multiple skills and endurance. The third quality of greatness is longevity. The man whose record Phelps eclipsed last night was Leonidas of Rhodes, who won twelve individual Olympic crowns across four Olympiads. Like Phelps he also won in different kinds of races—the equivalent of the one and two hundred meter sprints and a race in armor, which combined aspects of a demolition derby with an endurance contest. He was one of only seven men known to have won all three in the same games, and he was the only person to do it more than once. The one man to have a longer career of Olympic success was a wrestler, Milo of Croton, who won six straight Olympic crowns from 540 to 516 BC. He lost in the finals in his seventh Olympics to a wrestler from his own city—a man he must have trained with.

A final quality is the ability to dominate the competition. As Michael Phelps swam away from the field last night you had to wonder whether there will ever be another swimmer who will have his ability to take over a race. That too was recognized as a measure of greatness. Milo was so dominant that people would simply concede rather than be crushed by him.

However we measure greatness in athletes who compete at the highest level, whether through their ability to dominate their events, their versatility, their endurance, or their longevity, Michael Phelps now stands at the top of the list.

Featured image credit: “Olympic Flame” by GoToVan. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

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How much do you know about the origins of the Olympics? [quiz]

Since the very beginning of the games at Olympia, the event has served to strengthen unity, bring peace, and celebrate individuals for achieving greatness after endless hours of hard work. The Olympics have always been a source of inspiration and a connection to our own humanity.

Maybe you know how many gold medals Michael Phelps has won over the past 12 years, or how fast Usain Bolt can run 100 meters, but do you know much about the first Olympians? How much do you know about the original Olympic Games that started over 2,500 years ago?

Find out if you would fit right in the crowd at Olympia, or would be completely confused about what you’re witnessing.

Featured image credit:  “Olympia in Ancient Greece” by Pierers Universal-Lexikon, 1891. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Quiz background image credit:  “Olympia in Ancient Greece” by 31774. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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Violent sports: the “most perfect of contests”?

The “most perfect of contests” is the praise given to pankration, the ancient forerunner of modern “Mixed Martial Arts” (MMA) which employs a brutal blend of boxing, wrestling, judo, and karate. This acclaim is found in an inscription from Asia Minor (Aphrodisias) from the 3rd century CE (Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum, 1984). The big money prize for pankration in this period suggests that the event was also the most popular. Another inscription from the same city lists the cash prize as greater than that for boxing or wrestling (3000 denarii vs. 2000 for the other slightly less violent events) and much more than the 1200 denarii for the traditionally esteemed 200 metre footrace, the stadion. Finger-breaking and even strangulation to death were known to occur in such contests. Greek ‘combat sports’ (boxing, wrestling and pankration) held a prominent place among the games from the earliest period, evident from the intense drama of boxing matches in Homer’s Iliad 23 and Odyssey 18 (about 700 BCE).

Violent sports like American football, ice hockey, rugby, boxing, and MMA are perennially among the most popular. Their status is a frightening indication of the flowering of violence in sports in the 21st century, booming to a level unknown since ancient Greece and Rome. In the ancient Mediterranean, the audiences both in the Greek East and in the Roman West mutually enjoyed Greek athletic contests and Roman spectacles. Roman chariot races were famous for their fatal collisions, and gladiatorial battles were also held in the chariot ‘circus’ venues, as well as in arenas, and even in Greek theaters throughout the eastern Mediterranean. The only concern of the populace was “bread and circuses,” according to Juvenal (Satire 10; ca. 100 CE), while the “circuses” included not only chariot races, but gladiator games and even Greek athletics. Greek athletic performances were regularly held in the western Mediterranean, especially in Italy [S. Remijsen. 2015. The End of Greek Athletics in Late Antiquity]. Gladiatorial bouts in the eastern Roman empire were regularly given the Greek terms for boxing (pugmē and pukteuein) in inscriptions, a usage that points to the popular equation of gladiatorial bouts to combat sports. [L. Robert. 1940. Les gladiateurs dans l’Orient grec]. The audience cared little for what was Greek and what Roman; the brutality itself was the draw. Violent sports are to be sure evidenced in other historical cultures like Mesoamerica, Egypt, the Middle East, and East Asia, but none match the popularity and legacy of the Greco-Roman phenomena.

Gladiatorial mosaic from Mérida, Spain. Death of Maternus, killed by Symmachus. 3rd century CE. Photo by Ángel M. Felicísimo, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Gladiatorial mosaic of Maternus versus Habilis, sponsored by Symmachus, from Mérida, Spain. 3rd century CE. Photo by Ángel M. Felicísimo, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The reason for the lure of violence shared by our western ancient and modern cultures is a more complex question that has puzzled scholars. The ancient and modern cases all coincide with affluence among the elite who funded the expensive games, in antiquity with free admission. The spread of sports also occurs in cultures with numerous occasions for leisure among the general populace, namely religious festivals in antiquity and the free time enjoyed by a bigger middle class today.

These conditions partly explain the spread of public contests then and now. But they do not explain the passion to witness physical aggression. What we can establish is that the ancient contests were, with few exceptions, an almost exclusively male space for Greek and Roman participants and fans. This fact is perhaps not surprising in societies where the public presence of women was hugely limited by our standards. More amazing is that today’s sports have been maintained as a male enclave; Professor Cheryl Cooky of Purdue University has dubbed sport media outlets “‘mediated man caves’… a space where men can go and know it’s going to be by, for, and about men.”

In the last hundred years, and especially in the last half century, women have slowly been admitted to physical education, athletic training and participation in many sports. But the delay in admission is startling. It may be, unfortunately, that the contemporary inclusion of women in public sports is a gesture to social equity, not a response to public demand. Public interest measured by media presence and by the salaries of top women players indicates that most fans, male and female, prefer watching men compete. The example to the contrary is in Mixed Martial Arts where female combat athletes, most notably starting with Ronda Rousey (2.2. million followers) have gained a fandom. But this is marginalized in comparison with MMA fans for males. Women’s games are, for a minority of men (and for me), as exciting to watch as men’s. So why the discrepancy?

Gina Carano in full mount position performing ground and pound. Photo by Matthew Walsh. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Gina Carano in full mount position performing ground and pound. Photo by Matthew Walsh. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The image of sporting machismo has been long established in the past century, fed in part no doubt by testosterone and by the custom of the more heavily muscled gender that evolved for hunting and tribal fighting. Fitness is still crucial, but the aggressive expression of physical violence is ever less required in our mechanized society, far less required than among the Greeks and Romans. But when daily life places fewer demands for strong physical force for aggression or defense, there seems to be an even greater compulsion for men’s sporting spectacles today. Two reasons suggest themselves: the attempt of the male to re-claim physical esteem in the face of his shrinking value in the industrial and information ages, and the longing of fans to share in the honor and glory of the hero on the playing field, aided in the last half century by television and the internet.

The historical comparisons here suggest that it is culture more than nature that fosters violent games. In each society different social forces are at play, encouraging the wealthy and powerful to exploit the visceral lure of violence among men. Greek games offered male athletes a venue to obtain fame resembling that of military heroes, and to do it for the glory of the state as well as themselves. Romans forced male non-citizens to brutalize and kill one another with some promise of freedom or reward, but more self-interestedly to display the power of empire and to put on show to citizens their status above the outlaws. The flood of violent games today evidences no clear social benefit to the state. Yes, local municipalities fund sports programs, as do schools and universities. But the serious money for professional sports is in the hands of corporate conglomerates, e.g. NFL team revenues of over $9 billion per year, and the sale of Ultimate Fighting Championships for $4.2 billion in June 2016.

Professional teams and sporting associations of course thrive on the team or national loyalties of the fans, and provide entertainment in return, but the revenues are their main raison d’etre. Yes, pro-sports can inspire fitness among non-professionals, but the most popular non-pro sports are non-violent. The reality is that violent professional sports represent an anachronism of a brutal past to which our global era has not yet adapted. These sports are in effect a restoration of the bread-and-circus strategy of the Romans that pandered to the baser (and mainly male) instincts that are drawn to view violence. Modern concerns about the deleterious effects on the brain from concussions (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) in US football and in boxing have heightened collective concerns about the tolerable limits of sanctioned violence. Surely we cannot say, as the Greeks did of pankration, that our violent sports are “the most perfect of contests.” Unless we realize their anachronism, we have missed an opportunity for more productive physical activity and for the better expenditures of such large sums.

Featured image credit: Boxers, side B from an Attic black-figure amphora of Panathenaic shape. Antimenes Painter, circa 520 BC. CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

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Matters of the past mattering today

The past can be very important for those living in the present. My research experiences as an archaeologist have made this very apparent to me. Echoes from the distant past can reverberate and affect the lives of contemporary communities, and interpretations of the past can have important ramifications. Varied contemporary issues related to politics, cultural heritage management, tourism, development, sovereignty, and ethnogenesis can all be tied to reconstructions of the past.

This kind of dynamic is evident across many countries today, particularly those that have experienced recent histories of conflict, regime change, or newly gained independence. One does not need to look very far to see poignant connections between the archaeological past and the politics, lives, aspirations, and agendas of different communities. Millennia after Roman imperial domination, the appropriation of a Celtic past in parts of Europe has been significant in efforts to construct national identities. In Belgium, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, monuments stand today to commemorate Celtic tribal leaders who challenged Roman hegemony, even though knowledge of these leaders is sometimes based on sketchy history and scant archaeological evidence. After independence from French colonial rule, successive regimes in Cambodia each emphasized real or imagined links to an ancient and glorious Angkorian Empire. On the Korean Peninsula, professional archaeology began during the Japanese annexation period and in the ensuing years, after independence and civil war, tremendous weight was placed on the origins of a Korean ethnic identity. From these and countless other examples, it is clear a distinct connection exists between the symbolic capital of the ancient past and the variegated social and political needs of the present.

My current research on ancient Vietnam can be viewed against this backdrop. Like elsewhere, the past here has been closely connected to national identity. With a long history of complex interactions with numerous Chinese regimes throughout the past two millennia, capped by colonial encounters with the French throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is little wonder that concerns over nationalism and postcolonial identity would come to have such a powerful effect on the constructions of a Vietnamese past and cultural identity.

Statue of Cao Lo at Co Loa, commemorating the legendary military advisor or holy man that produced the mythical crossbow for the Au Lac king. Photo courtesy of Nam C. Kim, used with permission.

Ask anyone in Vietnam to name the geographic crucible for Vietnamese early history and civilization, and the answer is Vietnam’s northern region, that of the Red River Valley. Being adjacent to southern China, the history of this region and of embryonic Vietnamese civilization is thus inseparable from that of China. The two civilizations share a long and complicated history of interaction. One particularly impactful era began at an ascribed date of 111 BCE, when the imperial Chinese Han commenced a process of annexation over this region and precipitated what are known as the periods of Chinese domination. A Chinese authority would hold power here almost continuously until the tenth century CE. After independence from China and throughout the ensuing millennium, Vietnamese royal court chroniclers and scholars sought to describe a deep Vietnamese history, one with roots firmly planted in the Red River Valley prior to Han annexation. As part of these efforts, various folk tales and traditions were officially recorded.

A prominent feature in these folk tales is the ancient capital city known as Co Loa. Romanticized accounts tell of its emergence as the seat of power for the legendary Au Lac Kingdom at 258 BCE. According to legend, the king possessed a magic crossbow that could vanquish all enemies, not unlike Excalibur in Arthurian tales from the UK. Analogous to Camelot, Co Loa holds significance within a Vietnamese collective imagination, and its remains still sit on the landscape today outside Hanoi.

I have had the great privilege of collaborating with Vietnamese archaeologists at Co Loa, the largest site of the region. Our ongoing research has not yielded indisputable proof of the Au Lac Kingdom’s existence, at least not in my estimation. Nevertheless, for me, questions about the existence of legendary kingdoms, while truly fascinating, may not be the most important. Perhaps the most significant aspect of our research is that we have vital new data indicating Co Loa emerged sometime around the third century BCE, predating a Han imperial footprint in northern Vietnam. This allows us to conclude that a local and powerful society did indeed exist in this time and place, adding a vital case study to knowledge about emergent civilizations in Southeast Asia. Just as importantly, the evidence confers a measure of cultural power upon this archaeological story, replete with artifacts, remnant architecture, and sacred landscapes. The archaeology amply shows us that today’s Vietnamese cultural identities are complex products of cultural interactions and development that began thousands of years ago.

Popular notions of archaeology conjure up images of ancient relics and sites, but archaeologists are very aware that the material record of past lifeways is composed of more than just artifacts and ruins. Powerful meanings can also be heavily inscribed in landscapes, making certain locations culturally important, perhaps even sacred. For the Vietnamese today, the site of Co Loa – along with its assemblage of surrounding landscapes, remnant architecture, and artifacts – all serve as a wellspring of cultural potency for contemporary matters related to ethnicity, identity, and heritage.

In the end, I have been fortunate to be both participant and witness for an elaborate dance between the worlds of the living and the dead. As archaeologists, we give voice to the peoples of the past and need to be mindful in how our theories, interpretations, and reconstructions can be consumed, reconstituted, and repurposed by others. Artifacts, ancient monuments, and landscapes can all undergo transformations into cultural capital. The past, whether real, tangible, embellished, or imagined, can be a particularly powerful and alluring source of symbols, narratives, and ideas.

Featured image credit: An entrance to the innermost area of Co Loa. Currently, this area is the site for the temple, known as Den Thuong, dedicated to the Au Lac king. Photo courtesy of Nam C. Kim, used with permission.

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James Madison and Tiberius Gracchus on representative government

In Federalist 63, Madison pointed out that the principle of representation was not exclusive to modern republics. In the Roman Republic, Madison thought, the Tribunes of the plebs were “annually elected by the whole body of the people, and considered the representatives of the people, almost in their plenipotentiary capacity.” Representation was not unknown to the ancients. The “true distinction” between ancient constitutions and American governments, Madison thought, was “the total exclusion of the people” in the latter. Ancient and modern republics both knew representation, but modern republics severely diminished the role of the people.

Historians, ever suspicious of anachronism, are skeptical of Madison’s claim that representation had played a role in classical antiquity. But Madison may have been on to something; there is clearly a sense in which the ancient Romans regarded the ten Tribunes of the plebs as representatives of the Roman People.

In 133 BCE, the Tribune Tiberius Gracchus clashed with a fellow Tribune, Marcus Octavius, who had vetoed Gracchus’ agrarian bill. Tribunes could constitutionally veto legislation by other magistrates. After Octavius’ veto, Gracchus asked the popular assembly to depose Octavius, an unprecedented move that was widely considered unconstitutional. The assembly followed Gracchus and proceeded to depose his colleague Octavius, but there must have been second thoughts: according to Plutarch, the unprecedented dismissal of a Tribune by the People was “very displeasing, not only to the nobles,” but even “to the multitude.”

Gracchus had to justify his course of action before an informal popular assembly. The challenge was to explain why the deposition of a fellow Tribune did not amount to the destruction of the power of the tribunate and of popular rights. Gracchus argued that a Tribune was “sacred and inviolable because he was consecrated to the people and was a champion of the people.” However, if a Tribune should “wrong the people, maim its power, and rob it of the privilege of voting,” he “by his own acts deprived himself of his honourable office by not fulfilling the conditions on which he received it.”

Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus was a Roman politician of the 2nd century BC and brother of Gaius Gracchus. Published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589) – “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum”. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This was a revolutionary theory of representation. By exercising his constitutional veto against Gracchus’ agrarian bill, Octavius had employed his power “against the very ones who had bestowed it.” Octavius had “robbed” the People of the “privilege of voting” and had thus forfeited his office. Gracchus claimed that by vetoing the bill, Octavius had effectively ceased to be Tribune. If it was right for Octavius “to be made tribune by a majority of the votes” it must be “even more right for him to be deprived of his tribuneship by a unanimous vote.” The Tribune is conceived to act on binding instructions from the popular assembly; failing to do so will depose him. This is of course directly opposed to Madison’s “plenipotentiary” view of the tribunate.

It is instructive to compare Gracchus’ with American ideas of representation. One strand of political thought adheres to a “plenipotentiary” or “pre-Gracchan,” view (also called the “trustee conception” of representation by political scientists). According to this view, representatives are separated from those who elected them and autonomous in their decisions. This “autonomy gap” between people and representatives allows for representatives to act according to their personal judgment and conscience. Representatives are not bound by the will of their electors but free to reach the conclusions and compromises they see fit. They enjoy Madison’s “plenipotentiary capacity.”

A second strand of political thought is closer to Gracchus. The British thinker Edmund Burke famously called this the “ambassador” idea of representation. Here the representative acts on binding instructions, resulting in a much closer connection between representative and electorate. In recent U.S. politics, Grover Norquist’s famous “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” and Tea Party aspirations provide examples for this “Gracchus model” of representation—pledges and oaths are supposed to hold members of Congress on a short leash, committing them to policy and diminishing their bargaining options.

The tension between Gracchus and Octavius—between representatives as agents with a mandate or plenipotentiary trustees—played a prominent role in the debates of the American Founding. Before the Revolution, colonial legislatures adhered to an “ambassador” conception of representation where closeness was prized. In the debates between Federalists and Anti-Federalists these opposing conceptions of representation were again at stake. For the Anti-Federalists, the House of Representatives was not sufficiently alike those it represented and not sufficiently close to them—representatives were bound to be too independent from their electorate, separated by an autonomy gap.

The Federalists admitted that their conception of representation opened up such a gap. Indeed, they were adamant that representatives be insulated from the people, and they even thought the Constitution allowed for a “natural aristocracy.” For the Federalists, such insulation would only contribute to the quality of government. In Federalist 57, Madison welcomed representation by an elite. Degeneracy of this elite would be prevented by constitutional constraints such as term limits. During their term, however, representatives would enjoy the plenipotentiary capacities of Tribunes before Gracchus.

In 1788, the Federalists won, but throughout American history, Tiberius Gracchus’ view reasserted itself. It is tempting, but would indeed invite anachronism, to look at this contest of representational ideals as Madison himself did: through the lens of the history of the Roman Republic. One important reason for the Federalists’ take on constitutional representation was of course their interest in the crisis, civil wars, and collapse of that ancient Republic. This crisis was precipitated—or so the Federalists were led to believe by a prominent Roman tradition—by Gracchus’ unconstitutional deposition of Octavius.

Featured image credit: Cicero Denounces Catiline by Cesare Maccari, 1889. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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