Sport and education

Although competitive sports was the terrain of the very talented, sport as pastime was part of the life of many Greeks. They were not only passive spectators but also active practitioners, who trained in their spare time in the gymnasion. This started from a young age.

The Greek education (paideia) tried to turn boys into complete adults. Some boys were therefore taught by three different teachers from about the age of seven: one for their intellectual education (mainly reading and writing), one for their cultural upbringing (to play music) and one for their sports training (athletics). Because they learned from a young age from a professional trainer, the most talented boys were ready to compete in the Olympics from the age of twelve, in the age-category of the boys. Girls did generally not receive such a complete education. With the exception of Spartan girls, they had less occasion to practice sports.

For teenagers too sport was an important element of education. In the fourth century BC the city of Athens developed a program in which 18-year old boys were trained by the state. This program, the ‘ephebate’, had at first a primarily military focus. From the third century BC on, however, this program spread in the Greek East (Greece, Turkey, the Middle-East, Egypt) in an adapted form. Athletics was now the main element. The program included contests especially for the ephebes, that is the boys following this program. Besides, the ephebes also participated as a group in processions of civic festivals.

As preparation for a later career or profession, the ephebate was not particularly useful. Only a fraction of the boys who followed the program would eventually become professional athletes. Nevertheless, the ephebate was quite popular from the third century BC until the third century AD, especially among the higher classes. People felt that future citizens learned the right values with this program: by training strenuously, the boys learned perseverance, by competing with each other a competitive mindset was sparked and by walking in processions together their loyalty to the home city was strenghtened.

© KU Leuven, 2012