Of all our Classical inheritances, perhaps the most enduring is the tradition of the Olympic games. In its modern recreation, the Olympics retain many aspects of the ancient games: the lighting of the Olympic flame, the valorisation of individual strength, and the enjoyment many spectators derive from watching. 

However, in ancient Greek culture, the Olympic games went far beyond a mere competition or form of entertainment. Ability to participate in the games was a core aspect of Greek national identity that also separated citizens from non-citizens. The Olympics were also infused with religious meaning as a form of worship, with the eponymous games taking place in Olympia and dedicated to the god Zeus. 

It is no surprise, then, that the Greeks highly celebrated their Olympic victors: poets such as Pindar wrote epics commemorating the ponos (struggle, toil, work) of athletes such as Hieron in the Olympic Ode (476 BC), whilst victors won the right for their likeness to be made as a statue and placed in the sanctuary at Olympia – an incredible honour for an ordinary citizen. 

Naturally, these statues evolved throughout the classical period, but all retain certain key traits. Almost exclusively, male athletes are depicted in the nude. Whilst somewhat shocking to the modern viewer, nudity was not equivalent to nakedness in Ancient Greek culture. As Exhibition Curator Ian Jenkins writes for the British Museum, “nudity…was the uniform of the righteous”. 

In a sporting context, nudity displayed the prowess of one’s body: ancient stories tell of the potential opponents of one wrestler dropping out at the mere sight of his physique. During the games themselves, athletes competed in the nude with the addition of oil to further flaunt their body. The nudity of the statues therefore not only fit with the naturalistic style of portraiture that emerged around 400 BC, but also invited the viewer to marvel at the body before them.

These bodies were invariably muscular – although the degree to which a statue was muscled fell in and out of favour over time. Despite these trends, the most popular type of athlete depicted were those involved with ‘light’ sports, and especially the pentathlete. Conversely, heavy-weight boxers were rarely rendered in full-body sculpture, appearing only occasionally in some surviving vase paintings. 

Of all sculpturists, Polykleitos was by far the most celebrated. In a now lost text, Polykleitos outlined his principles for sculpture in his Kanon, which detailed a formula for mathematical perfection in the athletic body. This text was highly influential to contemporary sculpture, and defined the athletic nude as balanced, and through this symmetry, beautiful.

In the words of Charles Heiko Stocking, this made sculptures “hyperreal”: simultaneously equal to and more than what they depicted. However, it is through this hyperreality that it is evident that the purpose of such sculpture was not simply to commemorate the physique of the athlete, but to instead imbue their physique with philosophical meaning.

Polykleitos’ love of symmetry and balance evokes Grecian philosophical thought and ideas of the perfect soul. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle outlines his concept of virtue as a mean: the halfway point between excess and deficit, or in other words, balance. Similarly, in Plato’s Republic, Plato outlines a tripartite model of the soul, requiring balance between the three elements in order to achieve perfection. Heather Reid argues that in such sculpture, the ideal athletic body thus became reflective of the ideal soul – balanced, harmonious, and perfect. 

Reid also connects this idealised body to the ideal citizen. Slaves were barred from training in public gymnasia, meaning only free men were capable of cultivating such physiques, let alone participating in the Olympic games. The well-trained body was also capable of military service – another virtuous endeavour. Whilst also being symbolic of harmonious virtue, statues of the well-trained body doubly indicated individual virtue of a citizen.

It is important to note, however, that this is a symbolic presence from which female athletes were excluded. Within strict parameters, women were allowed to compete in sport: the conditions being that they were unmarried, they were virgins, and that they competed separately to men in their own games in honour of the goddess Hera, the Heraean games. Interestingly, as depictions of male athletes were almost uniformly nude, depictions of female athletes were almost always clothed – Heather Reid argues that this is a product of the belief that women’s souls were imperfectable, or unbalanced, and thus unsuitable for such idealised physical representation. 

It is this rich context that makes Greek representations of athletes so fascinating to consider – encapsulating not only the physical ideal, but the philosophical ideal.

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