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Olympic Sacrifice: A Modern Look at an Ancient Tradition

  • Heather L. Reid (a1)


The inspiration for this paper came rather unexpectedly. In February 2006, I made the long trip from my home in Sioux City, Iowa, to Torino, Italy in order to witness the Olympic Winter Games. Barely a month later, I found myself in California at the newly-renovated Getty Villa, home to one of the world's great collections of Greco-Roman antiquities. At the Villa I attended a talk about a Roman mosaic depicting a boxing scene from Virgil's Aeneid. The tiny tiles showed not only two boxers, but a wobbly looking ox. ‘What is wrong with this ox?’ asked the docent. ‘Why is he there at the match?’ The answer, of course, is that he is the prize. And the reason he is wobbly is because the victor has just sacrificed this prize to the gods in thanksgiving, by punching him between the eyes. A light went on in my head; I turned to my husband and whispered, ‘Just like Joey Cheek in Torino.’ My husband smiled indulgently, but my mind was already racing. I realized that by donating his victory bonus to charity, Cheek had tapped into one of the oldest and most venerable traditions in sport: individual sacrifice for the benefit of the larger community. It is a tradition that derives from the religious function of the ancient Olympic Games and it deserves to be revived the modern world.



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1 For more on these connections, see Reid, Heather L.Olympic Sport and its Lessons for Peace’, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 33:2 (2006), 205–13, reprinted in Olympic Sport and Its Lessons for Peace’, Olympic Truce: Sport as a Platform for Peace, eds Georgiadis, K. and Syrigos, A. (Athens: International Olympic Truce Center, 2009) 2535.

2 Young, David C., The Olympic Myth of Greek Amateur Athletics (Chicago: Ares, 1984) effectively debunks the ‘myth’ that ancient athletes were amateurs, popular at the time of the modern Olympic revival. Even if we can conclude that the financial rewards were great enough to make athletics a lucrative career for some, we should not assume that the reasons they were paid (or otherwise rewarded) are the same as the reasons athletes are compensated today.

3 Virgil, The Aeneid, trans. Knight, W.F. Jackson (London: Penguin, 1956) V.480.

4 Op. cit. note 3, V. 482.

5 Sansone, David, Greek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988) 40.

6 Mikalson, Jon D, Ancient Greek Religion (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005) 25.

7 Burkert, Walter, Greek Religion, trans. Raffan, John (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985) 68.

8 Op. Cit. note 7, 56–7.

9 It is clear from archaeological evidence that some cult and sacrifice of some form preceded athletic activities at Olympia, but just when the games were added is a mater of dispute. For a review of the findings and their implications for cult activity at Olympia, see Mallawitz, Alfred, ‘Cult and Competition Locations at Olympia’ in The Archaeology of the Olympics, (ed.) Raschke, W. (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988) 79109.

10 Op. cit. note 6, 28.

11 Valvanis, Panos, Games and Sanctuaries in Ancient Greece, trans. Hardy, ‘David (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2004) 15, 50.

12 Op. cit. note 7, 56.

13 Op. cit. note 7, 56.

14 This is the thesis of Reid, Heather L, ‘Olympic Epistemology: The Athletic Roots of Philosophical Reasoning’, Skepsis 17:1–2 (2007), 124132. See also Reid, Heather L., Athletics and Philosophy in the Ancient World: Contests of Virtue (London and New York: Routledge, 2011) chapter 2.

15 Op. cit. note 11, 15.

16 Parke, H.W, Festivals of the Athenians (Ithaca, NY: Cornell U. Press, 1977), 48.

17 Op. cit. note 7, 54.

18 For more on this, see Reid ‘Olympic Sport and its Lessons for Peace’ op. cit. note 1.

19 MacAloon, John J., ‘Religious Themes and Structures in the Olympic Movement and the Olympic Games’, Philosophy, Theology and History of Sport and Physical Activity, eds Landray, F. and Orban, W. (Quebec: Symposia Specialists, 1978), 161.

20 de.Coubertin, Pierre, Olympism: Selected Writings, (ed.) Muller, Norbert (Lausanne: IOC, 2000) 580.

21 Barney, R., Wenn, S., and Martyn, S., Selling the Five Rings: The International Olympic Committee and the Rise of Olympic Commercialism (Salt Lake: University of Utah Press, 2004) xii.

22 Avery Brundage, ‘Why the Olympic Games’ quoted in Young, David C, ‘How the Amateurs Won the Olympics’, The Archaeology of the Olympics, (ed.) Raschke, W.. (Madison: U. of Wisconsin Press, 1988) 5578, 72. For more on Brundage's resistance to Olympic commercialism, see Barney, op. cit. note 21, especially chapter 4.

23 Young, op. cit. note 22, 56.

24 See, for example, Young, op. cit. note 22, 56–66.

25 For example, Cremer, Rodolfo, ‘Professionalism and its Implications for the Olympic Movement’, Olympic Review 26:14 (1997), 2324.

26 A point clearly explained by Young op. cit. notes 2 and 22.

27 Plato, ‘Apology’, Complete Works, (ed.) Cooper, John (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997) 36de.

28 David Lord Burghley, member of the IOC executive board, qtd. in Barney et. al. op. cit. note 21, 59.

29 Supporters of the Olympic idea must recognize that the staging of the Games requires revenue that can come either from public or from private sources. Of these, the private sources are certainly preferable since sponsorship is voluntary and taxation involuntary. What is to be resisted is not the financial support of corporate sponsors and the entertainment industry, but rather the reduction of the Games to a commercial entertainment product.

30 Preuss, Holger, Economics of the Olympic Games (Petersham, NSW: Walla Walla Press, 2000) 248.

31 Many in the Olympic movement apparently recognize this fact; Preuss characterizes the IOC as ‘effectively fighting the issue’ of over commercialization, op. cit. note 30, 257. Of course this statement begs the question of what an effective fight will be. No doubt it involves a clarification of and emphasis on the Olympics' so-called ideals, something we academics should be able to help out with.

32 Right to Play. ‘Right to Play at a Glance’, Right to April 5, 2006,

33 Cheek qtd. in ABC News, ‘Person of the Week: Joey Cheek’ ABC, February 24, 2006. April 7, 2006.

34 Bud Greenspan, Bud Greenspan's Athens 2004: Stories of Olympic Glory, Showtime Network, January, 2006.

35 Armstrong, Lance, It's Not About the Bike (New York: Putnam, 2000), 160.

36 International Olympic Committee, The Olympic Charter, (Lausanne, Switzerland: IOC, 2004) 11.

37 Briggs, Rachel, McCarthy, Helen, Zorbas, Alexis, 16 Days: The Role of Olympic Truce in the Toolkit for Peace (London: Demos, 2004).

(Briggs et al. 61–2)

38 An earlier version of this paper was published as Of Sport, Service, and Sacrifice: Rethinking the Religious Heritage of the Olympic Games’. Cultural Imperialism in Action: Critiques in the Global Olympic Trust. Eds Crowther, N., Barney, R., Heine, M. (London, Ontario: ICOS, 2006) 3240.

Olympic Sacrifice: A Modern Look at an Ancient Tradition

  • Heather L. Reid (a1)


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