Today, performance enhancing drugs are viewed as a threat to the integrity of professional sports. Athletes have to go through extensive testing, and those who test positive face lengthy bans.
Few know that back in time there was another performance enhancing aid, so widely accepted that its use was even joked about. And its shadows remain with us today.
This post may contain slight spoilers for Homer’s Iliad. But if you’re worried about that, honestly, you’ve had several thousand years to read it. What are you waiting for?
Any emphasis in the quotes is my emphasis.
Setting the scene
Patroclos was dead. After his funeral, Achillês threw games in his honour, and offered many fine prizes to the contestants. That led many to seek an advantage any way they could. And some found a dramatic difference in performance.
The running race
The running race contains the most obvious instance:
“Rise any who wish to run for this prize.”
Aias the Runner rose, Odysseus rose, then Nestor’s son, Antilochos, for he was the best runner among the young men. They stood in a row, and Achillês pointed out the goal. The pace was forced from the start, but before long Aias was leading with Odysseus close behind him, close as the weaver holds the cross-beam to her breast while she pulls the spool across the warp—Odysseus trod in his footsteps before the dust had time to settle, and the breath of Odysseus beat on his head as he ran; the spectators cheered his efforts, but he was doing his very best already. When they came to the last bit of the course Odysseus offered a silent prayer to Athenaia:
“Hear me, my goddess, give thy good help to my feet!”
Pallas Athena heard and made his limbs light, the feet and hands on him. And when they were just on the point to pounce on the prize, Athena tript Aias and made him slip, where the place was covered with offal from the beasts which Achillês had butchered in honour of Patroclos; and down he went, got mouth and nostrils full of the stuff. So Odysseus came in first and lifted the mixing-bowl, and then Aias took hold of the ox. As he stood holding the animal’s horn and spitting out the dirt, he said:
“Damn it, that goddess tript me up! She’s always by his side like a mother and helps him!”
All burst into a roar of laughter.
Odysseus appealed to a deity for help, and it worked. Not only did Pallas Athena improve his performance, but she also prevented his rival from winning.
What’s more, everyone knew that was what was going on. And they were OK with it. We might call it cheating and be outraged by it, but to them it was just a big joke.
Even the organisers referenced the role of the gods in victory or defeat:
“Prince Atreidês and gentlemen all, we invite the two best men to put up their hands and box for these prizes. He to whom Apollo shall grant endurance before the face of the whole nation, shall lead away to his quarters this much-enduring mule; and the loser shall carry off this two-handled bowl.”
A feat of skill - and sacrifice
We move on to the archery:
Next for the archers Achillês brought forward blue steel—ten axes and ten half-axes. Away on the sand he sat up a ship’s mast, with a rockdove tied to the top by a string round its leg. He told them to shoot at this: “Whoever hits the dove shall have all the axes to take home; whoever misses the dove but hits the string shall have the half-axes.”
Then up rose prince Teucros, and up rose Merionês that excellent servant of Idomeneus. They shook their lots in a helmet, and Teucros won first shot. He let fly at once a strong shot, but he forgot to vow that he would make due sacrifice of firstling lambs to the Lord. So he missed the dove, since Apollo grudged that to him, he cut through the string close to the bird’s foot. Away flew the bird into the sky, and the string fell to the ground amid the cheers of the people. But Merionês instantly snatched the bow from his hand—his arrow had been ready in hand while Teucros aimed. He vowed quickly that he would make due sacrifice of firstling lambs to Apollo Shootafar. High in the clouds he could see the dove: there he shot her under the wing as she circled round. The arrow went right through, and fell down before the feet of Merionês, and stuck in the ground; but the dove settled on the pole, head hanging and wings drooping. Then the life left her, and she fell away from the pole, to the amazement of all who saw it. Merionês took away the ten axes, and Teucros had the half-axes.
Skill plays a role, of course, but more important is placating the god involved. The one who did that was the unquestionable winner.
It’s also worth noting that here victim blaming has entered the conversation. And not for the last time, either.
Given how much difference it made, why wouldn’t you want the gods on your side?
What about today?
The Iliad pre-dated the ancient Olympics. Perhaps the gods were less involved by that time. Not sure.
However, I do know their influence is alive and well today. And it’s not hidden, either.
How many athletes have you heard giving thanks to one god or another for the god’s aid? They say it out loud on prime television, and no-one bats an eye-lid. I’m sure some of them offer prayers in private as well. Perhaps, like the Greeks, they offer other sacrifices.
Surely that’s an unfair advantage? Our sports are supposed to be a test of skill and training and natural ability, not which drugs you took or whether you appealed to the right god at the right time.
Maybe it’s stopped working?
So what would it look like if the gods were really involved in sports?
For a start, I’d expect it to be more obvious. Certain individuals would be particularly successful - and we do see that - but I’d expect it to be limited to people worshipping a specific god. I’d also expect this to benefit particular nations - for example, if the Christian god was the one granting sporting victory, the results would be different from if it was Allah granting victory.
And if it were more obvious, I’d expect it to lead to conversions. After all, when one particular god is delivering victory, why wouldn’t you sign up with them?
The temples would become the most important part of the Olympic village. Nations wanting victory would need to bring their best sacrificial animals. Perhaps we’d even have to cancel the Brisbane Olympics because Australia’s strict biosecurity laws prevented sacrificial animals being imported.
So many reactions. Some might try to figure out ways of regulating this performance enhancing aid. Some might refuse to accept the final result, or even just refuse to compete because it’s not fair. And I’m sure the victim blaming would be in force too.
Maybe the gods are less involved because they’ve grown up and got involved with serious things like world peace. Or perhaps part of my problem is just that I expect there to be one true god. I know, I know - sometimes my Christian upbringing gets in the way of seeing the reality of the world around me.
Perhaps there are too many gods nowadays, and the disputes between them prevent any of them from helping their favourite sportspeople or their most loyal followers.
This was already causing problems before the walls of ancient Troy:
At once Eumelos’ mares took the lead, followed by the stallions of Diomedês, the famous breed of Tros—not far behind, indeed quite close—they seemed ever on the point of trampling on Eumelos’ car, and their breath warmed his back and shoulders as their heads leaned over his body.
And now Diomedês would have passed, or at least made a dead heat, if Apollo had not been annoyed at his success; so he knocked the whip out of his hand. Tears of anger filled his eyes, as he saw the mares going better than ever and his own team slackening without the prick. But Apollo’s cheating did not escape the eye of Athena: she picked up the whip and gave it back, encouraged the horses, ran after Eumelos furious and broke the yoke of his chariot. His horses ran away off the road, and the pole was left dragging on the ground; the driver was rolled out over the wheel, and barked his elbows and mouth and nose and bruised his forehead. Tears filled his eyes, he choked, and could not utter a word.
Tydeidês kept his team in hand and cleared them, galloping now far in front of the others, for Athena put spirit into the horses and made him win. After him came Menelaos; but Antilochos who was next shouted to his pair:
“Go it, you two! Pull away—there’s no time to waste! I don’t ask you to beat that pair in front; Athena has made them go like that, and she will make him win. But do catch up Atreidês, don’t let his horses beat you. What a shame—let a mare beat a pair of stallions! Why are you behind, my brave boys? I tell you plainly and I shan’t forget—there will be no more fodder for you in Nestor’s stable, he will just cut your throats at once if we make poor sport by carelessness! After him—put on a spurt! I know what to do—I’ll head past him at the narrow way, he shan’t escape me!”
Really, for all their skill, the two competitors became proxies in a dispute between gods. So perhaps it’s just as well that the gods don’t seem to get involved in our sports any more.
Perhaps they’ve grown a new sense of fairness - or perhaps there’s a celestial betting market that enforces non-interference. There are already hints of it in this text: Athena seems happy to label Apollo’s intervention as “cheating” and to retaliate in kind. Though this is of course a double standard: It didn’t seem to trouble her when it was her who was aiding her favourite, Odysseus.
More victim blaming
Let’s skip ahead to the end of that race:
Eumelos came in last of all, dragging his car behind and driving the horses in front. Achillês was very sorry for him and made no secret of his feelings:
“The best man comes last,” he said, “but let us give him a prize, as he deserves. He shall have the second, but Diomedês must have the first.”
There was a cheer at this, and he would have given him the mare with general approval, but Antilochos Nestoridês pleaded his claim before Achillês Peleidês.
“Achillês, I shall strongly resent it if you do what you have said. For you intend to rob me of my prize, and your only reason is that his horses and car came to grief, and himself too though he is such a good man. Well, he ought to have made his prayers to heaven, and then he would never have come in last at all. If you are sorry for him and want to show your friendship, there is plenty in your quarters—there is gold, there is bronze and sheep, there are captive women and horses: take some of that and give him even a bigger prize by and by, or even now, that every one may be pleased. But the mare I will not give up. If any one wants it let him fight me for it.”
Isn’t victim blaming awesome?
The benefits of age
But there’s another problem to consider: How would the gods handle it if multiple people in the same race appeal to the same god for victory? Who will they assist?
That brings us to our final quote for today:
Antilochos carried off the last prize smiling, and he said to the people:
“You know it quite well, my friends, but I will repeat it: The saying now is true agen, the immortals honour older men. Aias is a little older than I am, but this Odysseus is one of the ancient generation—a green old age is his, as they say. Yet it would be a hard job for any of us to beat him in running, except only Achillês.”
Age, cunning, a deity on his side, and a contract in his back pocket to be protagonist in the first novel. Must be nice to be Odysseus.
We can’t dispute the historical record: There was a time when the favour of the gods was an essential performance enhancing aid for sportsmen. Everyone knew it was happening, and it didn’t need to be concealed. It’s a little odd that we can’t see it happening any more, but the ways of the gods are higher than our ways.
That said, people continue to thank God for their victories today. Do they really believe that their god changed the outcome, or are they just saying the words they’re expected to say? I have no idea - but at least we’ve (hopefully) left behind the victim blaming.
The only remaining rule is that you’re not able to blame God for your failures.