Sport and war

P174Modern sports commentators often depict sports contests as military battles. They talk about 'attack', 'a good defence', 'tactics'; a famous sentence of a trainer is 'football is war'. For the Greeks the association between sports and war went even further.

Some events were embedded in the military sphere. Most games organized a race in armour. P208In another race, called apobates, the participants jumped off a chariot riding at full speed, ran alongside of the horses and jumped on the chariot again. This reminds of the Trojan war, when a chariot brought the heroes to the battle field and picked them up after the battle. Also javelin throwing, an event of the pentathlon, is clearly connected with the military sphere. For other events, e.g. discus throwing or wrestling, the link with war is less evident.
Some contests were instituted to commemorate a war. The most famous among them are the games at Plataia, the Soteria at Delphi and the Actia.

Sport and war are also connected on the ideological level. Athletes are often attributed the same qualities as soldiers: courage, endurance and exertion. In inscriptions athletes sometimes mention their military feats along their athletic victories. The military ideal of 'dying for your country' is comparable with the athletic ideal of 'victory or death'. Conversely, war is also sometimes compared with a sports contest. Soldiers are then considered athletes who have to train to win the contest.

Despite the obvious connections between war and sports, the Greeks disagreed whether athletics were a good preparation for war. Critics like Tyrtaeus denied this.


© KU Leuven, 2012