Research on Ancient Sport


Seal: the goddess Nike crowns a victorious athlete
(Picture: Foto by © Trustees of the British Museum licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

For a long time the history of sport was not taken seriously, being seen as mere play. Today, however, sport is undeniably a central topic for historical scholarship. The immense importance of sporting competition in society is evident all around us, and especially in the light of major global events such as the Olympic Games or the Soccer World Cup. Few other events unite so many people, whether in the stadium or in front of the television, and nowhere else can social tension and ambivalence be seen as clearly as here. Sport represents understanding among nations as much as the persistence of hostile stereotypes; a discourse of equality as much as of discrimination; a common agreement on written and unwritten rules as much as pure pragmatism.


Sport has been and continues to be practised in all human societies. Nowhere, however, was its social importance so high as in ancient Greece. In the Greek view, a man’s value was measured above all by his physical capabilities. Accordingly, successful athletes were honoured in their home cities and were famous throughout the Greek world. Sport was a popular topic in ancient literature and fine art. The largest surviving corpus of classical Greek poetry is Pindar’s Odes for victorious athletes. Depictions of athletes are a recurring motif on vases and, according to Pausanias’ Description of Greece, the victory statues at Olympia constituted the most important collection of statuary in the ancient world. In the light of its paramount social significance, in ancient history in particular, sport is a highly productive object of research.


Mannheim is one of the leading centres of research on ancient sport. However, the focus is not on the reconstruction of sporting techniques but rather on questions of cultural and social history. Which social strata did athletes come from? Who was allowed to take part in competitions, and who was excluded? Was it possible to gain social status through athletic success? How were athletes organised? Did sporting competitions, in which the participants understood themselves as being theoretically equal, lead to a democratisation of society? Which typically male traits were associated with sport, and what was the significance of female athletes? What influence did political leaders have on sporting competitions? These are only a few of the questions dealt with in Mannheim, in teaching as well as in research.