The self-control of athletes, an ascetic ideal

Athletes were praised for their self-control and discipline. To reach the top they had to work hard and had to abstain from many pleasures. In the gymnasion, where young men were educated in age groups, there were even contests in good and disciplined behaviour (eutaxia) and zest for work (philoponia).

For the athletes the mythical example of self-control was the hero Herakles. This is illustrated by the story of Herakles at the cross-road: one day the hero arrived at a cross-road and did not know which way to take. Arete, the personification of virtue, showed him a hard path with many tribulations, that led to fame. Eudamonia, 'Happiness', also called Kakia, 'goddess of evil', showed him how he could reach his goal in a much easier way if he took the path of vice. Herakles chose for the hard path of discipline and self-control.

An important aspect of self-control of the Greek athletes was their sexual abstinence. Just as today the Greeks wondered if sex before the contest was a good idea. The answer was negative. Sperm was seen as a source of masculinity and strength, two qualities you better had at your disposal during the games. The famous fighter Kleitomachos even refused to participate in conversations on erotic topics and looked away when he saw dogs mating. To avoid erections, athletes applied the technique of infibulation.

The ideal of self-control and discipline of the athletes was in late Antiquity adopted by the Christians. Many typically christian expressions, such as 'asceticism', are therefore derived from the Greek athletic vocabulary (Gr. 'askesis': training).

© KU Leuven, 2012