The name of the game

Greek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport by David Sansone Berkeley: University of California Press. 136 pp. $19.95 AS rainbow-hued shadows of tiny athletes crawl over our faces for the next fortnight, we won't ask why we are spending so much time in front of the TV. Even when broken every 12 minutes by ads; even given the terrible misfit between the idea of amateur sports and the realities prevailing in different cultures; even when all we know of the Olympics gets mixed up with Tom Brokaw and ``Dallas'' - some kind of catharsis is involved.

I understand this better having read ``Greek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport,'' by David Sansone, a classicist who teaches a course in the sports of ancient Greece and Rome at the University of Illinois. The first Olympic torch was passed in 776 BC in honor of Zeus. Of the official symbols used today, the five interlocking rings of blue, yellow, black, green, and red (symbolizing five continents) were introduced 10 years after the modern movement started on June 23, 1894; and the torch became official only in 1928.

These facts are not in this book. In Sansone's discussion of the persistence and diversity of sports, practice and meaning come together. From the sometimes painful rituals of preparation to the crown of leaves and the victory cup, Sansone traces the vivid details of sports culture back into prehistory.

Free and joyous to us spectators, sport is a form of ritual, says Sansone. Drawing on ethology, or the science of behavior taught and practiced by Konrad Lorenz, Sansone breaks down ritual in terms of communication, bonding, and stylistic exaggeration. Prehistoric ``superstition'' becomes symbolic communication; it bonds cultures and may even speak of mankind. Stylistic exaggeration helps explain the flare of athletics and the importance of records, and record breaking. Sansone carefully makes the case for his triumphantly - and some would say impossibly - elegant definition: ``Sport is the ritual sacrifice of physical energy.''

Sacrifice of energy? Trying to capture essences in a definition makes sport of intellectual desire. Differentiation is a key to this process. What for Lorenz is essential - aggression - is, in sports, accidental. Not all sports are competitive. Indeed, Sansone argues that the rituals of sacrifice function, in fact, to ``undo the violence'' of the hunt. Consider sport fishing (not hunting), and the way the sportsman sometimes throws the fish back! And, argues Sansone, the ancient gods had no reason to want what was sacrificed to them - bones, skin, etc.; its reason lay elsewhere and was as practical as the athlete's sacrifice of physical energy is culturally symbolic in the Olympic Games. SANSONE'S style is itself athletic and as varied as his subject matter. He's up front about principles (no activities are practiced for their own sake; people who practice rituals can't explain them; and so on). As he pursues the complex bends in his logical path, he may digress. Discussing the Greek athlete's ritual of covering his body with oils and sand, he notes how this originally worked to disguise the body odor of the hunter. Then he expatiates on smell in general.

Like all theory, this book totalizes: Hunt origins seem to explain everything, even, he feels, the ``vestigial'' shame of sex. Yet he ignores the role of women in ancient sports. And in his discussion of sacrifice of energy, he never mentions losing. Still, his style mixes speculation, history, common sense, and personal experience (his wife gave him one of his best ideas), into a continuously provocative argument.

The argument gradually narrows to focus on his concept of the professional athlete as a priest sacrificing for the people, but a priest who is himself the sacrificial victim. Seen against an even larger background of the ``logic'' of ritual: ``Just as sowing is requisite for reaping, so reaping is requisite for sowing'' - this is not so absurd.

Sansone relates the story of the mythical founder of the Olympic Games, Pelops. He tells the story of Pelops being chopped up, boiled in a big pot, and served to the gods by his father, Tantalus. ``The gods, of course, were outraged at this impiety, and Zeus ordered Hermes to put the meat back into the cauldron and thus to restore Pelops to life.'' The tomb and shrine of Pelops are at Olympia, and Sansone connects the caldron in this story, and elsewhere, with the custom of using a pot - precursors of all the cups? - as the prize.

It does make one think. The parameters of sacrifice - giving and receiving, the concept of the ``thank offering,'' the impulse to ``give back'' what we take from nature - suggest, for example, why baseball players expectorate throughout those long summer evenings. This constant making and destroying of vital juices is a version of energy sacrificed by the athlete, which, says Sansone, may be traced back to ``a liquid that resides in the body and that can be conserved, expended and replenished'' - like sweat, or, as he notes, ``elbow grease.'' Think, too, of the athlete's grunt - this explosion of breath, of giving out, is a sign of self-sacrifice. AND is not autumn the great sports season, the tumbling leaf, the short, bright days and lengthened shadows in which we walk toward the sacrifice - the Big Game, all those fine young men in desperate, ritualized combat...?

Both priest and sacrifice, Sansone's athlete is the universal behind the cultural chauvinism of the Games. The Olympic flame is hot as well as bright. We do feel grateful, for some reason, to our Olympic heroes, and not just those from our own country.

For the Greeks, the victor embodied aret'e, often translated ``excellence'' (this going beyond is happy word wisdom). Sansone quotes a scholar: ``If a man throws all that he has to give into pursuing a wholly ideal end: if he gives up his time and money, if he takes the risk of defeat and disgrace, if he undergoes the long and severe discipline of training with all its pains and privations and efforts, and puts out every ounce of his strength in the event itself; and if then the grace of the gods, without which no achievement is possible, chooses him as victor from all his competitors, then ... he has given convincing proof of his aret'e.''

And, by analogy, proof of the spectator's excellence, too. Communication, bonding, style: The Olympic heroes, having made the sacrifice, stand tall until the Olympiad comes full circle and the rites begin again.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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