Euripides' criticism of athletics

P222Euripides' fragmentary satyr play Autolykos offers the oldest Athenian criticism of athletes. The play was well-known in antiquity, for fragments are cited by several later authors, e.g. Galenus.

In this play Euripides emphasizes, like Xenophanes and Tyrtaeus, that an athlete was completely useless for the city. The playwrite mocks athletes by showing how ridiculous they would look on the battle field with their discus. It would be better to crown wise men for their merits for the city, instead of athletes.

A new element in his criticism is that Euripides exposes a psychological aspect of athletics: the competitors were a slave of their eating habits. The heavy athletes of the combat sports did not at all resemble the ideals of athletic beauty, like the Doryphoros of Polykleitos. This criticism is probably based of the medical works of the doctor Hippocrates.

It is not clear what Euripides meant with his criticism: was he just being ironic, as was characteristic for satyr plays, or was he really criticising contemporary society? In any case, his damnation did not diminish the popularity of sport: also after Euripides sport remained as popular as before. Euripides was, moreover, not completely negative about sports. In another fragment he praised the Olympic victory in the horse races of Alkibiades.

© KU Leuven, 2012