"Olympia and the search for Identity":


11th International Scholars' Symposium on Sports, Society, & Culture in honor of the Ionian heritage

Symposium Program
12-15 July, 2022

All sessions' times displayed in EET (Greece Time)

July 12, 2022

9:15 Departure of participants from Athens to Ancient Olympia (details will be announced in due time)

14:00 - 17:00 Registrations

17:15 - 17:30 Opening remarks

Olympia was one of the cultural centers of the ancient Greek world and served as a focal point for identity building throughout its long history. Although the traditional view that the games were only accessible to Greeks may no longer be tenable, there is sufficient evidence that they were used to celebrate and map out a shared Greek identity. This process was not exclusive to the games at Elis, however. From the late classical period onwards communities all-over the Greek world started to organize their own Olympic games - making the name almost like a franchise. In this paper I want to explore the rise and distribution of these local Olympia. Where and when do we find such local Olympia? What were the implications of using this name? What were the motives behind their foundation? Who participated? What role did these local Olympics play in identity formation in different regions and periods?

July 13, 2022

This paper examines the role of athletics at the festival of Delian Apollo during the archaic period. Featuring dance, song, and boxing, the great gathering (agōn) of the Ionians at Delos constituted a medium of self-definition for its participants, honorandus, and even location. Through close comparative readings of all relevant texts and especially the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, this paper investigates the emergence of a Pan-Ionian ideology within the framework of Pan-Hellenic athletic competitions and especially the Olympics, where boxing was introduced in 688 B.C.E. As the archetypal pugilist, Apollo oversees the sport and grants endurance to the winner of the boxing competition at the Funeral Games for Patroklos (Iliad, 23.660), where Epeios' victory hints at a new social dynamic. As the patron deity of the Ionians, he delights in their assembly on the island of his birth (Homeric Hymn to Apollo, 146-55), where competitions (agōnes) consolidate their sense of belonging to a group of distinct ethnic and regional identity. By exploring the religious and communal dimensions of sport at the festival of Delian Apollo, this paper also sheds new light on the inner workings of identity formation in archaic Greece.

When the Baron de Coubertin announced the revival of the ancient Olympic games in 1896, he linked the identity of the athletes to ancient Greece, proclaiming that those who competed “from all places do not come as foreigners to a foreign land; they come as the spiritual children of ancient Greece, paying a tribute of gratitude to a common mother.”  De Coubertin’s assertion flowed naturally from historical circumstance: Greek identity seems always to have been intertwined with a unique kind of social practice—competitive athletics. As early as Homer’s Iliad, the great heroes competed in the funeral games for Patroclus in running, wrestling, boxing, and chariot racing. The link between Greekness and athletics was reinforced by the original Olympic games, because all participants were required to be citizens of Greek city-states or otherwise demonstrate their Greek lineage. By the sixth century BC Greek cities were providing athletic training for citizen youths in gymnasiums that functioned also as social gathering places. In this talk I would like to discuss the close interlinking of being Greek and athletic practice in three different times and places: (1) The Greek philosopher Plato set out his ideal city-state in the Republic and the Laws; for him athletics is integral to social formation, to the extent that he even proposes the systematic inclusion of women in athletic training for the good of the collective enterprise. (2) A century later, after Alexander’s conquest of the eastern Mediterranean and his early death, the Macedonian Ptolemies gained control of Egypt and ruled it for three centuries. These kings not only competed frequently at Olympia and at the other Panhellenic games (Delphi, Isthmia, Nemea), as their poets (the ancient equivalent of public media) proclaimed their victories, they instituted local contests modelled on the Olympics and even sponsored talented young athletes—why? Because as kings of a foreign place, it was essential for them to demonstrate that they were Greek. The Greek travel writer Pausanias makes this clear when he tells us that: “although Ptolemy was king of Egypt, he competed at Olympia as a Macedonian (i.e., Greek).” (3) After the Roman conquest of Greek city states, the institution of the gymnasium (and athletics) not only continued, it became central in preserving and showcasing Greek identity. Entry into the gymnasium class was an in means of gaining the status of a Greek citizen (a favored category in the Roman empire), but Hellenized Jews (and later Christians) in Alexandria and other parts of the empire often found their participation in athletics in conflict with traditional Jewish customs. While Jewish and Christian writers often opposed athletics, their writing also make clear how deeply embedded Greek athletics had become. Images of wrestling, boxing, and racing are used not in pursuit of a single, perishable crown, but with a view of the divine prize of salvation.

11:00 - 11:15 Break

Victory odes celebrating athletic successes of Sicilian Greeks in the Panhellenic competitions account for about a third of Pindar's epinician corpus and at least half of them are for victories at Olympia. In these odes Pindar employs various poetic devices to emphasize how deeply the cultural, mythological, and genealogical heritage of the Greeks in southern Italy (Magna Graeca) is rooted in the mainland Greece. Most of these devices concern their predominantly Dorian descent, which ultimately connects them to the greatest of the Greek heroes, Heracles. On occasion, however, Pindar also places their athletic victories in a broader context of the contemporary military and socio-political exploits, which he directly compares to the mainland Greeks' victory against the Persian invasion at the end of the 5th century BCE. This presentation explores all of those connections and parallels, as well as their implications for the formation of the identity of the Greek city-states in Sicily.

13:00 Lunch

17:00 - 18:30 Workshops

July 14, 2022

8:30 - 10:30 Group visit to the Archaeological Site of Ancient Olympia

10:30 - 11:00 Break

It is well known that de Coubertin promoted Hellenism as the foundation for the Olympic movement as a new political religion of the modern era (see Müller 2000, 580). Yet Coubertin’s philhellenism was not necessarily Panhellenic. Upon inspection, Coubertin’s view of Hellenism and its political-athletic function was distinctly Athenocentric, or at least anti-Spartan. In an early letter on physical education, Coubertin praised the Athenian gymnasion, as the training grounds for freedom and democracy, while simultaneously condemning Sparta as an “anti-Greek-state.” Coubertin claimed that the Spartans “cultivated gymnastics for their bodily military, and disciplinary utility” whereas the rest of Greece “perceived in sport a mark of nobility….”(MacAloon 2013, 161). In Coubertin’s distinction between Athenian and Spartan modes of physical education, therefore, we find a more general distinction which sports sociologists make between horizontal and vertical sport. Horizontal sport is understood to be associated with egalitarian democratic societies, promoting peace and cooperation. Vertical sport on the other hand, is a highly disciplinary practice associated with authoritarianism, where physical training is understood as preparation for war (Christesen 2012). Yet the choice to define Hellenism in terms of Athenian versus Spartan modes of physical education constitutes an ideological discourse that is not limited to Coubertin’s renewal of the Olympic games. Rather, this discourse has a history, which is rooted in the ancient past and continues well into the present. In antiquity, the debates between Athenian versus Spartan modes of athleticism runs from Herodotus’ Histories in the Classical era through to the Roman Imperial period with Philostratus’ Gymnasticus. The same ideological divide expressed specifically through sport and physical education has also come to define the history of political struggles in the modern Olympics, well after Coubertin. In promoting the modern Olympic movement, Coubertin’s faith in the positive work achieved by Hellenism was absolute. Yet a brief history on the more complicated ideological debates over Hellenism and athletics, between Athens and Sparta, from antiquity to the present, would suggest that the very notion of Hellenism itself has and will continue to be an object of contention.

Christesen, Paul. Sport and Democracy in the Ancient and Modern Worlds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
MacAloon, John J. This Great Symbol: Pierre De Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
Müller, Nobert. Olympism: Selected Writings. Lausanne: International Olympic Committee, 2000.

This talk examines relationships among Olympia, Hellenism, and sport. While much has been written on the importance and influence of the Olympic Games in antiquity and today, less focus has been given to Olympia itself. The site, however, is key to both ancient and modern Hellenism and sport. Buildings such as the Temple of Zeus brought visitors and helped to cement the site’s status as the “home” of sport in the Classical period; and, later additions like the gymnasium-palaestra complex and the Leonidaion provided necessary facilities. Across antiquity, Olympia was the home of dedications and monuments that stressed athletics at the same time as they emphasized a more and more available Hellenic identity. After the re-discovery and restoration of the site in the late nineteenth-century, and especially after the establishment of the modern Olympic Games, Olympia once again became a “home” for sports (and a now-global Hellenism) that features buildings constructed for tourism, sport, and education, but also monuments that attest to the site’s international importance. This paper examines how Olympia’s buildings and landscape has contributed to Hellenism and sport. While this talk takes a broad approach in its concept, it specifically focuses on three periods: early Olympia (ca. 800-600 BCE); Roman Olympia (ca. 100-200 CE); Modern Olympia (ca. 1870-2022). The following two themes run throughout my analysis: 1) how the material record of Olympia contributed to its development from regional sanctuary to global icon; 2) how Olympia reflects the changing meaning of the site, from a place where the divine were imagined to have literally walked to a manifestation of cultural Hellenism.

13:00 Lunch

17:00 - 18:30 Workshops

July 15, 2022

9:00 - 10:00 Roundtable discussion and conclusions

10:00 - 10:45 Closing ceremony of the Symposium

12:00 Departure to Athens

* The language of the proceedings is English.
** The duration of the lectures is indicative and includes time for discussion.
*** During the workshops, emphasis will be added on the ongoing dialogue between the ancient and the modern. Participants are encouraged to enrich and elaborate on this dialectic relation between the two.

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