Xenophanes' criticism of athletics

Xenophanes of Kolophon (ca. 565-470 BC) was a philosopher and poet, who travelled widely all over the Greek world. With mordant sarcasm he criticized many things, including the anthropomorphical representation of the gods. If horses could make divine statues, he said, they would make them after their own image.

P176In one passage of his fragmentarily preserved work, Xenophanes criticizes the rewards offered by the home towns of successful athletes. Xenophanes radically rejects the praise of the great poets of his time, when athletics was highly esteemed at all levels of society. According to the philosopher, the rewards for athletes were not in the right proportion to their merits. Xenophanes does in fact not criticise the athletes themselves, but the community that rewarded physical strength instead of mental strength or wisdom. An athlete uses his talents in his own interest, while a philosopher or intellectual uses his wisdom in the interest of the community.

Perhaps Xenophanes' repugnance to the excessive rewards originated during his visit to the Greek West (Southern Italy and Sicily), where athletes were sometimes even honoured as demi-gods. The Sicilian tyrants tried to ensure Olympic success by recruting athletes elsewhere and binding them to their own city with immense rewards.

© KU Leuven, 2012