The ancient athlete: amateur or professional?

Athletic training was a basic part of every Greek boy's education, and any boy who excelled in sport might set his sights on competing in the Olympics. The Olympic competition included preliminary matches or heats to select the best athletes for the final competition.

Ancient writers tell the stories of athletes who worked at other jobs and did not spend all their time in training. For example, one of Alexander the Great's couriers, Philonides, who was from Chersonesus in Crete, once won the pentathlon, which included discus, javelin, long jump, and wrestling competitions as well as running. However, just as in the modern Olympics, an ancient athlete needed mental dedication, top conditioning, and outstanding athletic ability in order to make the cut.

...When Hysmon [of Elis] was still a boy he was attacked by a flux in his muscles, and it was in order that by hard exercise he might be a healthy man free from disease that he practised the pentathlon. So his training was also to make him win famous victories in the games.   Pausanias, Description of Greece , 6.3.9

Toledo 1963.28, Attic bilingual eye cup
Side A: athletic victor
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art

Glaucus, the son of Demylus, was a farmer.
"The ploughshare one day fell out of the plough, and he fitted it into its place, using his hand as a hammer; Demylus happened to be a spectator of his son's performance, and thereupon brought him to Olympia to box. There Glaucus, inexperienced in boxing, was wounded... and he was thought to be fainting from the number of his wounds. Then they say that his father called out to him, 'Son, the plough touch.' So he dealt his opponent a more violent blow which... brought him the victory. "   Pausanias, Description of Greece , 6.10.1

Self-confidence was also an asset. A Libyan athlete, Eubotas, was so sure of his victory in a running event that he had his victory statue made before the Games were held. When he won, he was able to dedicate his statue on the same day.

Many athletes employed professional trainers to coach them, and they adhered to training and dietary routines much like athletes today. The Greeks debated the proper training methods. Aristotle wrote that overtraining was to be avoided, claiming that when boys trained too young, it actually sapped them of their strength. He believed that three years after puberty should be spent on other studies before a young man turned to athletic exertions, because physical and intellectual development could not occur at the same time.

Toledo 1961.26, Attic red figure kylix
Side B: javelin throwers
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art

Victorious athletes were professionals in the sense that they lived off the glory of their achievement ever afterwards. Their hometowns might reward them with free meals for the rest of their lives, cash, tax breaks, honorary appointments, or leadership positions in the community. The victors were memorialized in statues and also in victory odes, commissioned from famous poets.

To read more about these topics, see Further Resources.

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