Cult of the 'body beautiful'

The ancient Greeks admired athletes and immortalized their heroes in art

If a citizen of ancient Greece visited a modern-day training facility for Olympic athletes, he would likely feel at home. High-protein diets. Personal trainers. Strength training. Seclusion. Like today's competitors, the Greeks followed training regimens - whatever would improve their performance. The difference was that they ran, jumped, threw, or wrestled for the glory of their gods - and to attain the Greek ideal of a beautiful body housing a beautiful mind.

But today's athlete would be startled to learn that not only did the Greeks compete without Adidas endorsements and fancy athletic shoes, they competed without any clothes at all. (But more about that later.)

Such comparisons are just one element that stands out in a smartly timed exhibition "Games for the Gods" at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA).

Many a museumgoer has hurried past displays of ancient Greek vases and statuary in the world's great art institutions with only the vaguest idea of what these represent.

The vases serve as snapshots of life in Greek times, says Christine Kondoleon, a curator of the MFA's exhibition.

These artifacts - which include vividly painted jars, plates, and basins, small metal statuary, and large marble sculpture - point to a society in which athleticism was more than celebrated - it was part of a larger religious ritual that involved the attainment of "arete," or virtue.

The modern Olympics is descended from the most prestigious of the many athletic contests held regularly throughout Greece. These festivals served as proving grounds for Greek-speaking freeborn young men from wealthy families.

Starting about age 12, boys were taught philosophy, music, and athletics at complexes that often included the palaistre (wrestling school) and the gymnasium (derived from the word gymnos, or "naked"). Each boy was paired with an adult male mentor.

In the setting of the gymnasia, where women were excluded, these young men were initiated into their duties and privileges as citizens. The gymnasium provided a context for the nudity that was customary and compulsory. Without clothing, each man was equal in the gods' sight, according to Ms. Kondoleon.

Older men served as coaches and referees. These figures appear in Greek art as fully clothed and wearing beards. The youths, by contrast, are depicted as slim and beardless; these boys trained and competed in the nude.

Along with all this male bonding came a closeness between student and mentor that could cross over into pederasty. From what scholars have been able to determine, the Greeks encouraged young men to seek the wisdom and experience of their elders in matters intellectual, physical, and spiritual. It's clear, however, that the Athenians, at least, wanted to prevent after-hours, unsupervised contact between older men and young boys at the gymnasium. They set opening and closing times to be followed by the trainers.

At the same time, the Greeks greatly admired athletes who were able to abstain from any sort of sexual activity, believing that such behavior preserved their vigor.

While other cultures - most notably the Romans' - copied many aspects of the Greek games, they conspicuously dropped the Greek emphasis on nudity and relations with boys.

Among Greek contestants, the only exception to competing naked appears to be the charioteers. (This would seem prudent. Few of us would like to imagine being dragged behind a horse without even our skivvies.)

Humiliation was not unheard of in athletic contests, in which only victory mattered - there was no second or third place. It was believed that the winner was favored by the gods, and so brought honor and glory to his village. Other competitors who failed to measure up returned home in disgrace.

An athlete who cheated, if discovered, paid a fine that was used to make a bronze statue on which his offense was inscribed. The statue was placed on the road to the stadium as a permanent reminder and as a warning to other athletes. (Fans of today's Olympics might be tempted to see this tactic as a useful way to combat the current doping scandals.)

Successful competitors, by contrast, might be awarded anything from a wreath of laurel or olive branches to pots of valuable olive oil. Such pottery was produced at local kilns by artists who drew the figures from memory. Although these painters were not high-born, they must have had remarkable access to the gymnasia, according to John Herrmann, co-curator with Ms. Kondoleon of "Games for the Gods."

A viewer might marvel that the statues in the exhibition display little of the emotion or effort inherent in athletic competition. Not for the Greeks was the image of an athlete grimacing in concentration or pain. Instead, they preferred their heroes wearing serene expressions.

Throughout Greek metropolises, the gymnasium promoted an ideal of Greek masculine character, "the epitome of what it means to be human," says Nancy Evans, assistant professor of the classics at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. "The [athletes] became semigods."

As such, the marble or bronze statues that graced gymnasium halls were often idealized versions of famous athletes, placed there to inspire young participants. Today, a similar motivational tool might be a poster of LeBron James tacked up in a YMCA gym.

Over the next two weeks, admiration for these exceptional physical specimens will drive millions of television viewers to tune in to the Athens Games.

One such admirer is photographer John Huet, whose work is displayed in the MFA exhibition as a modern counterpoint to the ancient images. A self-confessed Olympics fanatic, Mr. Huet has been hired to shoot the Athens Games.

"Just about every society puts their strongest, fastest athletes on a pedestal - or on a vase," he says. Huet is awed by the drive these individuals possess, a feeling conveyed in his photos of athletes as sculptured forms of great strength and courage.

"The height of their careers may only last nine seconds," he says. "I want to depict them as heroically as possible."

Today, the heroism of the games is shared equally by women and men. But when the Olympics were first devised, women were denied a role of any kind. While unmarried girls were permitted to compete in footraces and occasionally view the men's contests, married women were banned - on pain of death - from watching, let alone participating in, the competitions.

Kondoleon tells the story of a widow named Kallipateira who wanted so badly to see her son compete that she broke the rules. She disguised herself as a male trainer, and when her son won his match, in excitement she jumped over an enclosure, in the process revealing herself to be a woman. Instead of paying the ultimate penalty, she was let go because the men in her family were all successful wrestlers. "They must have thought she was good breeding stock," Kondoleon says with a wry laugh. (However, after that incident, trainers were required to strip before they entered the stadium.)

Whether male or female, the athletes followed similar grooming rituals that might sound bizarre today. In preparation for competition, they spread olive oil over their bodies, and followed that with a coating of sand or dirt. This served two functions: Because olive trees were associated with the gods, the oil had religious significance; it also gave some protection from sun and wind.

After the contests, athletes used a tool called a strigil to scrape off the dirt, oil, and sweat. Artists frequently depicted these ablutions, and much ancient Greek art concerns itself with this cleaning process.

More than two millenniums have passed since Greek athletes competed in honor of Zeus, Athena, or Hermes. The victor's reward could be as fleeting as a wreath of sacred olive branches or as lasting as a poem or statue dedicated to one's memory. But the athlete's struggle to perfect him or her self endures, igniting the spectator's imagination.

Games for the Gods: The Greek Athlete and the Olympic Spirit' continues at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through Nov. 28. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition; 'The Games in Ancient Athens: A Special Presentation to Celebrate the 2004 Olympics,' continues through Oct. 3.

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