The Greek competitive mentality

It is no coincidence that precisely in Greece sports contests between citizens enjoyed great popularity and high standing. The whole Greek culture was permeated with a competitive spirit. It was a part of the education: young Greeks were encouraged to be the best, always and everywhere, and to outdo all the others. This ideal is already present in the Iliad, the book that formed the basis of the education of the whole Greek elite. Winning a contest led to fame. To lose was not an option. This does not mean that all Greeks were egocentric. Always trying to be the best could also benefit the community.

That competition was a central aspect of Greek culture and of the life of every Greek also found its expression in the Greek language. Greek has one word covering all forms of competition: agon. This could mean 'war', but also 'dispute', philosophical, political or juridical, or 'contest'. There were not only contests in sports, but also in music and drama, between potters and even between doctors. And in every contest participants tried to be the best and, in this way, to achieve honour. The Greek word for this ambition or urge to compete, philotimia, can be translated literally as 'love for honour'.

© KU Leuven, 2012