Top Five Sports Scenes

You would think, given that the ancient Greeks invented the Olympics, that there would be loads of Classically themed sports scenes to choose from, wouldn't you?

You would be wrong.

Well, it all depends on your definition. There are lots of scenes of gladiatorial combat. Whether or not that counts as a 'sport' is hard to say. Is the aim to win, at risk of death? That's sport all right - not only would ancient chariot-racing come under the same heading, so would modern motor sports (the mortality rate in mid-twentieth century Formula One was pretty terrifying). Or is the aim more simply to stay alive, in which case it's not so much sport as survival? I think I'd be inclined to say that an execution in the arena is definitely not sport, a fight to first blood or anything not-death (even if death accidentally occurs) is sport, and a fight potentially to the death is in some grey area in the middle. But it's a tricky one.

I think it's also true that there are a lot more representations of ancient sport in books than in films. This is partly because it can be easier to present sport in an exciting way in a written narrative (you can get inside the heads of the participants more easily) and partly because there are more books set in Greece, which lacked gladiators and chariot-racing, so authors have to use more mundane sports like running. But here I have to confess that it's quicker to watch a film than read a book, and I have a preference for Roman-set books anyway - the net result of which is, I haven't read many books with ancient Greek sport in them. I am absolutely confident that they exist, though. Lindsey Davis' See Delphi and Die is probably the place to start, and there's a Xena comic called Xena Warrior Princess and the Original Olympics and an Asterix one called Asterix at the Olympic Games, which actually has been made into a film, though I haven't seen it.

Also, if one were to represent ancient Greek sport accurately, all the participants should be naked. Personally I think that's a point in its favour.

Of course, I'm determined to jump on the Olympic bandwagon anyway. I'm British, I can hardly ignore it, I might as well join in! As well as going to the actual Games (to watch Table Tennis - I fought for Greco-Roman Wrestling but Brother was unconvinced) I feel honour-bound to produce some kind of post on sport (in addition to Monday's post on Hercules' 'Let the Games Begin'). But, after more than three years blogging representations of the ancient world in popular culture, I find myself struggling to come up with great, ancient-set sports scenes.

So here's my solution: rather than produce a 'Top Five' that's actually 'five representations of ancient sport I can think of' I'm going to cast my net extremely wide and for for 'five great sports scenes with some kind of connection to the ancient world, however vague.' They may not have much of an ancient connection, but they're at least they're genuinely great scenes!

Spoilers follow.

5. Scopas wins a chariot race, The Roman Mysteries: The Charioteer of Delphi
How exactly is this connected with the ancient world? No cheating here - this one is a proper representation of ancient sport, a chariot race taking place in the Circus Maximus in Rome.
Do we win? Yes. This is the last of the Roman Mysteries to have a fully, gloriously happy ending, as Scopas' victory also wins slave Sisyphus his freedom.
Will I feel inspired to take up chariot-racing? Possibly, but given the mortality rate, I wouldn't advise it.
What makes it great? That happy ending. The best sports stories should leave you feeling excited, exhilarated and on top of the world, and thanks to a thrilling victory and Sisyphus' even more important personal victory, this one does.

4. Harry and Cedric race for the Goblet of Fire, Harry PotterHarry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
How exactly is this connected with the ancient world? Well, it takes place in a maze, i.e. a labyrinth, which is a bit like the one from the myth of the Minotaur. In the book version there's a sphinx in it which we can assume is just around the corner in the film. And Harry uses a Latin spell to get the staff to rescue Fleur ('Periculum!' which means 'Danger!'). OK, I'm out.
Do we win? Technically yes, though since the prize is Being Attacked By Lord Voldemort, that isn't really a good thing.
Will I feel inspired to take up chasing my friends through a maze trying to find a trophy? You might find you feel like popping down to Hampton Court Palace or Crystal Palace Park or similar, yes. Just make sure the trophy isn't secretly a Portkey (that word comes from Latin too...).
What makes it great? Being a strange and contrary person, Goblet of Fire is my favourite of the films, and this scene is extraordinary. The desperate need to win almost leads Harry to abandon Cedric to a man-eating plant as the tension rises and the maze starts literally to close in on them. The fact that Cedric would have been better off if he had just makes the whole thing even more emotive.

3. Eric Liddell falls halfway through a race, gets up, and wins anyway, Chariots of Fire
How exactly is this connected with the ancient world? Running was an event way back in the original ancient Greek Olympics, and Liddell is considering entering the modern version.
Do we win? Oh yes. Just.
Will I feel inspired to take up running? Possibly, though the sight of the exhausted Liddell tends to make me feel more inspired to take up sitting on the sofa and eating a lot of chocolate.
What makes it great? He falls over halfway through the (relatively short) race. And gets up. And catches up to everyone else. And wins. It is completely awesome.

2. The Jamaican bobsled team crash out but pick up their bobsled and cross the finish line on foot, Cool Runnings
How exactly is this connected with the ancient world? Well, see, in ancient Greece they had the Olympic Games. And the modern Olympic Games were inspired by and named after the ancient ones. And the Winter Olympics are a sister event to the Summer ones. And the team are competing in the Winter Olympics. Basically, the competition has a Greek name.
Do we win? No. But it's not the winning, it's the taking part (and finishing, sort of).
Will I feel inspired to take up bobsledding? Possibly, though you might feel more inspired to take up go-karting, as that can be done in a much warmer climate.
What makes it great? Cool Runnings is based so loosely on real events as to be, essentially, fiction. The real Jamaican bobsled team were not the victims of so much derision, they crashed out in a heat, and although they walked over the finish line, their bobsled was pushed by others (you can see the real footage on You Tube). But none of that matters. I am incapable of watching the fictional version lift their bobsled onto their soldiers like a coffin and walk over the line without crying. It's like that bit in The Railway Children where Jenny Agutter screams 'Daddy, my Daddy!'... excuse me, I have to go fetch a tissue.

1. Ben-Hur wins a chariot race and kills Messala in the process, Ben-Hur
How exactly is this connected with the ancient world? It's a chariot race! Taking place during the Roman Empire! With Romans in it! Huzzah!
Do we win? Yes, but at a cost.
Will I feel inspired to take up chariot-racing? Depends how good at it you think you'd be... I just feel inspired to go watch old Popeye cartoons based on this scene.
What makes it great? It's tense, it's dramatic and it was one of the most spectacular scenes ever filmed (though the 1925 version is also very impressive). Ben-Hur achieves complete revenge over Messala, both defeating him in the race and, indirectly, taking his life. Of course, afterwards he'll realise that his vengeance will never truly be complete or satisfying, but for a few glorious moments, he has well and truly succeeded in what he set out to do.

Bubbling under: The pod race is Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was based on the chariot race in Ben-Hur and is the only good bit in The Phantom Menace (apart from that bit where they nearly get eaten by a giant fish) but it lost points for being in The Phantom Menace. I really, really wanted to include something from Asif Kapadia's brilliant documentary Senna, but 'well, Formula 1 is a little bit like the modern equivalent of chariot-racing', while true, seemed a bit too tenuous a link even for this list.

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  1. good fun post Juliette!

    Now, you have 10 days before the Games end... go read and watch Asterix and the Olympics and compare the two! (now there's an idea... maybe I should do a page vs screen?)

  2. Unfortunately I am supposed to be writing a book right now so I won't have time to do that! Never mind, I'll get to them eventually.

  3. Of course, Cedric biting the dust in Goblet of Fire works on another level entirely, for those of us who have a deep loathing of sparkly vampires.

  4. In view of the badminton players being disqualified for not trying hard enough, perhaps you should have included Livia's pep talk to the gladiators.

  5. True! Though I would hope for a better survival rate from badminton...

  6. I don't know; I think badminton to the death would actually make it pretty watchable, compared to its current state.

  7. I wouldn't be so keen to play it though!

  8. Perhaps an honorable mention for young (alternate universe) Arnold Rimmer stumbling during a school race and choosing to allow another boy to win, thus leading to his eventually becoming Ace Rimmer. I can't remember, but there may have been a bit where "our" Rimmer tripped a boy in order to win.

  9. Neil Faulkner has some fascinating things to say about pankration in ancient Olympic games. Like the movie "Fight Club"! Also reminds me of M. Renault's Last of the Wine! And his great quote: "We'd have experienced extreme culture shock if we'd been transported back to the ancient games." OR go to National Gallery Podcast on iTunes for August (episode seventy)

  10. I must read some Mary Renault, I haven't read any at all but she's been inspirational to so many people! It's a shame no one's made a TV series of the Iliad complete with funeral games...

  11. I could have sworn that "Last of the Wine" included some Greek sports scenes. I'm surprised you didn't mention them.

  12. Jason, I'm not familiar with 'Last of the Wine' I'm afraid, but will keep an eye out for it


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