Victory or death

The modern Olympic device 'Participating is more important than winning' is certainly not applicable to the ancient games. The ancient mentality was rather one of 'over my dead body!'. Before the contest, athletes begged Zeus for 'victory or death'. Boxers or pancratiasts who had preferred death to defeat were set as examples. This ideal is comparable with the war ideal of 'dying for your country'.

In combat sports this ideal was on rare occasions converted into reality. Especially boxing and pankration were rough sports in which the athletes could get heavily wounded. In only a few cases the match indeed ended in the death of one of the athletes. The most famous example is probably the death of Arrichion.

Killing your opponent was not forbidden: a victory could only be taken away if the death was the consequence of an offence to the rules, as in the case of Kleomedes.

© KU Leuven, 2012