A Passion for Victory: The Story of the Olympics in Ancient and Early Modern Timesby Benson Bobrick
From the barefoot races of 8th century BC to the underwater obstacle courses in the early 20th century to the high-tension Berlin Games preceding World War II, the Olympics have always been exciting dramas of athletic prowess and human interest. In A Passion for Victory, award-winning author Benson Bobrick tells the details of the captivating story of the Olympic Games, starting with their inception in Ancient Greece. This wonderfully readable narrative is rich with anecdotes and profiles of athletes and weaves in important historical events to create a complete picture of each installment of the Games. This thorough account of an international fixation is gripping, poignant, and occasionally hilarious.
Abby McGanney Nolan
“Supported by loads of fascinating quotes, this history of the ancient and early modern Olympics shines.”
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A Passion for VictoryThe Story of the Olympics in Ancient and Early Modern Times
By Benson Bobrick
Knopf Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2012 Benson Bobrick
All right reserved.
The Games Begin
Thousands of years ago, sports fans stood in stadiums like our own and cheered like crazy for the athletes they adored. One fan in the second century AD wrote to a friend, “Oh, I can’t describe the scene in mere words. You really should experience firsthand the incredible pleasure of standing in that cheering crowd, admiring the athletes’ courage and good looks, their amazing physical conditioning--their great skill and irresistible strength--all their bravery and their pride, their unbeatable determination, their unstoppable passion for victory! I know that if you were there in the stadium, you wouldn’t be able to stop applauding.”
He was talking about one of the ancient Olympic Games. By then, the Games were an established institution and had been occurring every four years without fail for almost a thousand years. For nearly that long, they had also been the rage of the Mediterranean world.
In addition to the Greeks, many ancient civilizations, including those in Egypt, Crete, and Celtic Ireland, incorporated athletic festivals or contests into their annual cycle of celebrations. But none kept going for as long as the Olympics have. Yet when the Olympics began, who could have imagined they would have such staying power? Their main purpose was to help hold widespread Greek communities together by a shared event.
In the eighth century BC, various Greek peoples had settled along the shores of the Mediterranean and adjacent seas. There were many differences between them, which eventually gave rise to rival city-states, like Athens and Sparta. But they had their “Greekness,” or Hellenic nature, in common. So the idea was to have a Panhellenic, or all-Greek, celebration that would affirm their common bond.
Only much later did the Games include representatives from other nationalities, and sportsmen from colonies as far away as Africa and Spain.
Over time, the Games also took on a life of their own. They remained communal but acquired the status of tradition. The determination to keep them going would outlast war, famine, turmoil, and even the conquest of Greece itself. They became a symbol of continuity amid the changing fate of nations and revolutions in world affairs.
Today, the Olympic Games are huge multicultural, multimedia events. They are global extravaganzas in which almost every nation takes part. Heroes of the Games enjoy enormous popularity and stature, and the principles the Olympics represent--athletic striving, fair play, goodwill among men--continue to excite the enthusiasm of sports fans throughout the world.
Yet the ancient Olympics could hardly have had a more humble start. As far as anyone knows, the first recorded Olympic event took place in 776 BC, when a 200-yard footrace was held in a meadow beside the Alpheus River in Olympia. The race was won by a man named Coroebus, from the nearby town of Elis, where he worked as a cook. Ideas for a local festival began to take hold, but for a dozen or so years the 200-yard footrace was the only Olympic contest. Then other races were added, drawing larger crowds. New events, too, joined the program, including the discus throw, the chariot race, the long jump, the javelin throw, wrestling, and boxing.
The footraces were of various lengths. The shortest, known as the stade, was a dash the length of the running track or stadium (hence its name), which at Olympia measured 200 yards. There was also a double stade race (up and down the track) and a 2 1/4-mile run twenty times around. As depicted in ancient art, the contestants were anything but lean or spare-looking, like some modern runners, but had substantial upper-body strength and bulging calves and thighs. “They evidently combined,” as one historian observes, “a driving knee action with a punching, piston-like movement of the arms for extra momentum.” Many sprinters, in fact, run like that today.
The footraces were run over a surface of layered sand and along a track with as many as twenty lanes. At the starting line, there was a stone slab into which grooves for toeholds were cut. As the runners took their places--in an order determined by lot--they warmed up for a few minutes, then (instead of going into a crouch like modern sprinters) stood up with their arms stretched forward, one foot slightly advanced. The blast of a herald’s trumpet sent them off. False starts were checked severely and offenders were struck by an official with his whip. Eventually (in the fourth century BC), the Greeks devised a starting mechanism known as the hysplex, which featured a series of starting gates released by strings.
The last of the race events (introduced in 520 BC) was unlike any other. It was more like a military field exercise than a race. Greek foot soldiers known as hoplites lined up and, at a signal, began to toil as best they could two times up and down the track in full body armor weighing about fifty pounds. According to the Greek historian Plutarch, the event was meant to remind the public that the real point of athletic excellence was the development of martial strength and skill.
In those days, there was no record-keeping or timing of events, so there were no records to be broken or means to compare achievements from year to year. Each Olympics was a world of competition unto itself.
Some events were much like our own. Others--such as the discus and javelin throws, long jump, boxing, and wrestling--were somewhat different. The discus, for example, weighed about three times more than a modern discus and, instead of being thrown after a complete rotation, was pitched “from a fixed-foot position, with centrifugal force generated by flexing the knees and twisting the trunk.”
In the long jump, there was a takeoff board, and athletes helped propel themselves forward by swinging metal dumbbells in their hands. These dumbbells weighed from five to ten pounds. Instead of slowing the athletes down, the weights apparently enabled them to make amazing jumps, for the pit was fifty feet long.
From vase paintings, we also know that the javelin was thrown with the help of a loose cord. The cord was looped around two fingers, and after the thrower took a few steps forward, he extended his arm and hurled the javelin in an upward arc. The unwinding cord spun the spear like a bullet, enabling it to sail distances of over one hundred yards.
There were two different kinds of wrestling--standing and ground--which modern wrestling usually combines. In the first, the combatants circled each other and tried to throw each other to the ground. A score was made with each throw, and the first to get three throws won. In ground (or mud) wrestling, the opponents tusseled in a pit of wet sand until one of them was pinned. Since there were no timed rounds, sheer endurance often determined who won.
Similarly, in ancient boxing there were no rounds, breaks, or even weight divisions. A man had to go the distance once he was in the ring. Instead of padded gloves, boxers wrapped leather thongs tightly around their hands. That made their hands even harder, and with every blow the leather strips would cut into the skin.
All these sports were popular, but the biggest and most popular of all was the four-horse chariot race introduced at the twenty-fifth Olympics in 680 BC. It eventually replaced the footrace as the kickoff event. The chariot race was held in a rectangular area called the hippodrome, where bareback riding and riding without stirrups also took place. The starting gate of the hippodrome was V–shaped, like the prow of a ship. It had a rope barrier across a row of stalls, and the rope was released by timed stages for an even start. Up to forty chariots might be entered in what was an arduous test of stamina and skill. The chariots were small two-wheelers, open at the back with four spokes to a wheel. The driver stood exposed, as in a cart. The race went round and round the track for about nine miles, with many hairpin turns. Every turn circled a central post. Almost invariably, it was a violent event with bloody pileups and fatal accidents, which always roused the crowds.
The ancient Greek dramatic poet Sophocles vividly describes such a wreck in Electra, one of his plays:
At the sound of the bronze trumpet, off they started, all shouting to their horses and urging them on with the reins. The clatter of the rattling chariots filled the whole arena, and the dust flew up as they sped along in a dense mass, each driver goading his team unmercifully in his efforts to draw clear of the rival axles and panting steeds. . . . Then one team of colts got out of hand and bolted as they finished the sixth lap. As they turned into the seventh, they crashed head-on with another. After that, team crashed into team and overset each other. Soon the whole plain was full of wrecks. Yet [one of the charioteers] Orestes got his horses safely past the disordered mass of teams. At each turn of the lap, he reined in his inner trace-horse and gave the outer one its lead. Each time his hub just grazed the post. But at the last turn he erred and struck the post. The hub was smashed across, and he was thrown across and tangled in the reins. As he fell, his horses ran wild across the course. When the crowd saw him fallen, they cried out, “How young he was and gallant!” “How sad his end.” When at last the runaway team was stopped, he was so mangled not even his friends could recognize his corpse.
The order of bouts, heats, and lanes for racing was assigned by drawing lots. For the combat events, the contestants gathered in a circle, and a helmet or an urn was passed around. In the urn were matching pairs of marked tokens or chips. Everyone took a token and was paired with whoever drew a match. If there happened to be an odd number of contestants, whoever happened to draw the unmatched token got a free pass to the next round.
In time, there were also combined contests like the pentathlon. This fivefold event involved a footrace, the long jump, the discus throw, the javelin throw, and wrestling. It was meant to highlight all-around skill, and of all ancient athletes the pentathlete was the one most admired. The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote: “Beauty in a young man consists in having a body that is both handsome to look at yet lithe and quick and sturdy enough to hold up under violent blows. That is why pentathletes are the most attractive, being trained for both power and speed. Such men in their prime are good-looking and awe-inspiring at the same time.”
A very different combined combat sport called pankration was introduced in 648 BC. The word pankration essentially means “anything goes.” It combined boxing and wrestling and was the most brutal of all events. There were few rules and almost no holds were barred. You could kick, strangle, and even beat your opponent to death if you had to. About the only thing you couldn’t do was bite him or gouge out his eyes. The bout went on for as long as it took for someone to win, which happened--short of death--when an opponent was beaten senseless or signaled his surrender by raising the finger of one hand.
Like the chariot race, the pankration became a crowd favorite. In keeping with its savage character, it was held before a towering pagan altar compacted out of the calcined ashes and charred remains of sacrificed beasts.
Excerpted from A Passion for Victory by Benson Bobrick Copyright © 2012 by Benson Bobrick. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House, Inc.
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Meet the Author
BENSON BOBRICK earned his doctorate from Columbia University and is the author of one other nonfiction book for young people, The Battle of Nashville, and several critically acclaimed books for adults. In 2002, he received the Literature Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He and his wife, Hilary, divide their time between New York and Vermont.
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It's the Summer of 2012, which means it is time for the Summer Olympics in London, England. This athletic tradition has deeper roots than some kids can imagine. A Passion for Victory seeks to tell the story of that tradition, starting with the Ancient Greeks through the early modern era. It opens with a chronology that highlights major events. The first story is about a man who survived the icy waters after the Titanic sank and went on to be an Olympic champion. The timing of that story is also notable because 2012 marks the 100 year-anniversary of the Titanic sinking. The first two chapters go into a lot of detail about the original Olympic games that took place in Ancient Greece. It compares those games to the modern ones. The next several chapters focus on the revival of the modern Olympic games in the 1800s, particularly the first 100 years. The epilogue focuses on the Olympics around WWII and includes several photographs. An appendix features lists of medal records won from 1896 to 1948. This book reads very much like a textbook and isn't as engaging as others I have read. The language used is more appropriate for older readers, which is why I have it classified as young adult and not so much as a chapter book. Also, discussions of Hitler and political topics are more appropriate for older students. These aspects of the Olympics are not as often discussed when talking about the topic. I did also notice much more discussion of women in the politics, as well. It is full of lots of information and resources for further study. I received a complimentary eARC in exchange for my honest review. This also appears on Andi's Young Adult Books.