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The Aesthetics of Hellenism in the Modern Olympics

Charles H. Stocking

For Pierre de Coubertin, the self-proclaimed “founder” of the modern Olympic movement, the Games had a primarily aesthetic purpose and motivation, inspired by the ancient Greek tradition. Coubertin claims, “It was Hellenism, above all, that advocated measure and proper proportion, co-creators of beauty, grace, and strength. We must return to these Greek concepts to offset the appalling ugliness of the industrial age through which we have just lived” (Müller 2000, 202). There has been significant research among sports historians on Coubertin’s aesthetic conception of the modern Olympics relative to contemporary philosophical, social, and historical contexts (e.g. Durry 1986, Brown 1996, Krüger 1996, Seagrave and Chatziefstathiou 2008). Surprisingly, however, there has been almost no research on the relationship between Coubertin’s aesthetics and the ancient athletic tradition. In this paper, therefore, I offer a close reading of Coubertin’s notion of Hellenism in terms of ancient athletics and aesthetic theory.

 A close examination of Coubertin’s writings reveals that his work relied primarily on two ancient concepts: symmetria and eurythmia. Both of these concepts can be traced back to the classicizing ideals of the ancient Greek body reflected in the work of the sculptor Polykleitos (Pollitt 1974, Stewart 1978, 1997, Neer 2010, Squire 2011). When we consider the ancient reception of Polykleitan aesthetics, however, Coubertin’s views present us with a paradox. In antiquity, it was well acknowledged that Polykleitan sculpture was not an imitation of actual bodies but instead went “beyond reality,” supra verum (c.f. Quintillian Inst. 12.10.8). Yet Coubertin’s aesthetics of  Hellenism called precisely for the imitation of the impossible ideals represented in the ancient Greek tradition such that modern athletes were transformed into “living sculpture” (Coubertin 1921, 146). Thus, when we take into account ancient aesthetics, we may view the ideological tenets of “Hellenism” in the Olympic movement as part of a modern historical trend, starting with Winckelmann, which James Porter has referred to as Body-Bildung – an inversion of traditional mimesis, where the body itself becomes the art object within a discourse of “self-cultivation” (Porter 1999, 2006).

At the same time, however, the ancient contexts for the discussion of symmetria and eurythmia in sculpture demonstrate that the ancients themselves were also engaged in the project of Body-Bildung. For the very same rhetoric found in Coubertin’s writings also appears in our only complete athletic text from the ancient world – Philostratos’ Gymnastikos. This text, written during the Roman Imperial period, also calls for a return to ancient Greek ways of athletic training (cf. König 2005, Newby 2005). One of the primary means for returning to the Greeks, according to Philostratos, is by viewing and evaluating the bodies of athletes as though they were sculpture (Gym. 25, Stocking 2014). Like Coubertin, Philostratos relies on the Polykleitan principles of symmetria in comparing the athlete’s body to sculpture.

Not only do we find a parallel discourse on aesthetic Hellenism in both ancient and modern contexts, but the ancient discourse itself may have had a direct influence on the ideology of the modern Olympic movement. For the Greek born French Classicist M. Minoides published the first critical edition of the Gymnastikos just one year prior to the Zappas Olympics. The Zappas Olympics were one of the first efforts at Olympic revival, which occurred in Athens in 1859, and, in many ways, set the precedent for the first IOC Olympics of 1896. In that critical edition of the Gymnastikos, Minoides suggests that Philostratos’ text should serve as a paradigm for the revival of the ancient games, and he calls special attention to Philostratos’ discussion of the relationship between art and the body.

Thus, although Coubertin claimed that Hellenism was an antidote to the conditions of modernity, a careful examination of Coubertin’s writings in relation to ancient aesthetics suggests that Coubertin is simply continuing a discourse on art and embodiment that was equally characteristic of antiquity. 

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Ancient Athletics and the Modern Olympics: History, Ideals, and Ideology

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