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The Difficulties of Interpreting Ancient Sporting Cultures

This is an excerpt from History and Philosophy of Sport and Physical Activity 2nd Edition With HKPropel Access by R. Scott Kretchmar,Mark Dyreson,Matt Llewellyn & John Gleaves.

Careful examination of the depiction of physical culture in Sparta as a tool and in Athens as a jewel reveals that such concepts are idealized archetypes that sometimes mask deeper complexities. For instance, ancient Spartans sometimes exercised to experience the joy of movement rather than as ceaseless preparation for combat. Similarly, ancient Athenians sometimes found sport a useful tool in training citizens for the mundane duties of war and commerce rather than always practicing athletic habits as deep philosophical commitments. Thus, interpretation of ancient sporting cultures requires careful analysis and must often go beyond simple acceptance of evidence at face value.

Ancient cultures certainly provide both archaeological and iconographic evidence of the tool and jewel importance of sport in the civilizations that developed during the Neolithic Revolution. We have sporting implements from ancient games, such as the halteres (hand weights) used by ancient Greek long jumpers. We have the remains of monumental structures devoted to sporting contests—the hippodromes and stadiums of Western civilization and the ball courts of Mesoamerican civilization. These material relics comprise the archaeological record. We also have depictions, etched into stone and painted onto pottery, of sporting contests from all corners of the ancient world that demonstrate their connections to the development of warrior skills and the expression of religious convictions. These relics comprise the epigraphical record. We even have some early writings about sporting contests, culminating in Homer’s Iliad, the earliest well-developed literary account of the meaning of sport in ancient culture. We have other remnants in the legends, sagas, and myths not only of Western cultures but also of other centers that led the “rise of civilization.”

Still, in contrast with the massive amounts of data we have about sport in the past few centuries, we must make bold interpretative speculations based on our limited ancient evidence from literary, epigraphical, and archaeological sources to explore and explain their sporting worlds. Moreover, accounts from ancient civilizations are often swaddled in their own cultural, political, and religious contexts and should not be interpreted through simple literal logic, as demonstrated by the stories of pharaohs performing superhuman athletic feats.

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