Poor and rich

From its origin Greek sport was a privilege of the aristocracy and it always remained an expensive venture. The emergence of the gymnasion in the sixth century BC did offer training possibilities for non-aristocratic youths. Though the upper classes now lost their monopoly in the sport, the elite still had more possibilities: more and better food from their youth, more free time to train, money to travel to other cities and expensive professional trainers. Only occasionally an exceptionally talented sportsman from the lower classes succeeded in making a career.

P176The Olympic games were certainly very expensive: Olympia was difficult to reach and athletes had to be present one month before the games started to participate in the obligatory training. During this whole period of training and games the athlete had no income. Less wealthy athletes probably had to restrict themselves to the local games, where victors received material prizes. If they were successful there, they could make money and raise their ambition. Victors of the games of the periodos received only a crown as a symbolic prize, but they were richly rewarded at their home town. Since inscriptions unfortunately never mention the social background of victors, we have no clues how many athletes actually rose from the lower classes to an international career in this way.

A poor athlete could try to find a sponsor. Not only the home town or the king, but also wealthy individuals could sponsor promissing athletes. Zenon, a manager from Egypt, supported for example the young Pyrrhos in both his studies and his athletic career.

P207The horse races, the most prestigious events, always remained the domain of the aristocracy. The Athenian Alkibiades chose at the Olympic games of 416 BC for the four-horse chariot race, because no common citizens were found here. A poor young man could only participate in the horse races as a jockey; the contest was, however, not between the jockeys, but between the owners of the horses.

© KU Leuven, 2012