Brief Review: Greek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport

Greek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport

This book is made up of two essays. The first essay focuses on the origins of sport in general, while the second focuses on Ancient Greek athletics in particular; and as instance of the general theory Sansone proposes in the first essay.

Sansone starts by discussing various accounts of where sport came from, dismissing them before offering his own. He argues the roots of sport are to be found in distant human pre-history: in particular, rituals and rites engaged in for hunting among Paleolithic hunters. He argues that sport is a form of ritual sacrifice of human energy. As human cultures moved away from sole reliance on hunting as source of food, the rituals used by hunters persist, evolving into various cultural features, including sport. The energy used for the hunt shifts away from the hunt into other ritual behaviors. While there are some very interesting descriptions of various rituals and different cultural rites across cultures from all over the world, the argument is unpersuasive. First, there are key assumptions of motivations and explanations of pre-historic and ancient peoples that seem impossible to know with any measure of assurance. Why did the hunter bath before the hunt? There are various possible reasons, but so far removed how could we possibly know with any confidence? Second, the links between the rituals and sport is too speculative to establish more than interesting possible connections.

The second essay focuses on Ancient Greek athletics and how these too are rooted ultimately in the hunting ritual. The focus is really on aspects of athletics: why the Greeks engaged in sport naked, why they anointed themselves with oil, etc. There is not much in the way of trying to explain the origin of sport as such (I supposed Sansone takes himself as having established that in the first essay). Like the first essay, I found the discussion itself very interesting, in particular some of the striking similarities in disparate cultures, but I don’t think the overall argument is all that persuasive. What Sansone takes as having established with confidence still seems far more speculative. I think Sansone is correct that sport contains much that is rooted in pre-historic rituals; and that many of these ritual behaviors have been repurposed to fill some new needs. But he doesn’t discuss these needs that sport is meeting; why adopt these ritual behaviors, why put them to these new uses? Moreover, I don’t think Sansone answers the main questions he takes himself to be answering: why do humans engage in sport? Why has sport persisted through time and cultures? I am not sure we can ever know the answers to these questions. At one point, Sansone says “But people engage in sport today for the same reason they have always engaged in sport, namely because they have always engaged in sport” (56). It’s not much of an answer, but it might just be the best we can get.

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