Athletes have always had the ability to tap into the collective energy of a crowd. They dazzle us with their physical prowess, take our dreams with them when they soar and dash our hopes when they falter. Ours is just the latest in a long chain of cultures to venerate the athlete. In Something Like The Gods, writer Stephen Amidon takes the long historical view to discover why the athlete remains an enduring icon.
It is likely that sport emerged from exercises hunters used to keep themselves primed for the hunt. Exercise bred competition and eventually war. Athletic expression reached its full glory in ancient Greece where oiled athletes were revered and participated in a wide range of activities from running to wrestling. It took a darker turn in ancient Rome where gladiatorial combat was bloody, brutal and cruel. And yet, it is the image of this warrior-slave that burns brighter in our collective memory. After a long darkness, the athlete emerged centuries later in the guise of the jousting medieval knight. In the Renaissance, the athlete fell out of favor once again. It took the simple drama of boxing to bring the athlete back into the spotlight. The Victorian era gave rise to the gentleman amateur and the student athlete.
Once athleticism took off in America it took over the culture. From baseball as America’s pastime to the parade of athletes on Wheaties cereal throughout the decades, love of sports is entrenched in the spirit of the country. Athletes have become symbols of our nation’s strength, ingenuity, and power but this has had its drawbacks as well. Issues of racial tension have risen in athletics from the early days of separate teams to the more recent reactions to events such as LeBron James’ decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers. Boxers including two of the most famous men of their respective eras: Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali, were both popular and polarizing forces. Women too had to fight for their place on the athletic field, a battle that is ongoing as Title IX shows. The case of Caster Semanya, the young South African runner who had to undergo extensive gender testing in order to compete as female athlete, highlights the cultural anxiety that still follows strong women.
Today an athlete is a symbol of a team as well as often a brand or two through endorsement deals, and yet they still encapsulate our hopes and dreams. We love to love them and we love to hate them too. They have what we can not attain, glory, money, fame, and when they falter we pounce on them. Amidon also addresses what he sees as the dehumanization of the athlete, the reduction into statistics or a figure that can be inhabited or destroyed during a video game.
Throughout the book Amidon does a good job of drawing the direct connections between today’s athletes and those of the past whether he is comparing colorful tokens gathered by a knight to the decals on a NASCAR race car or pointing out the athletic link between King Henry VIII and President Theodore Roosevelt. There is an undeniable link also between athletic displays and political agendas from the super athletes of the USSR to the competitors in the upcoming summer Olympics in London. Amidon’s book is an intriguing meditation on why the athlete remains such an important cultural figure but at times Amidon appears to be looking down on the fans, without whom the athlete’s great accomplishments would be meaningless. The relationship between the athlete and the fan is a complicated one, at its best it brings cities and nations together; at its worst it can fuel destruction and mayhem. As a species we have changed a great deal since those early days of the first Olympics and yet the joy of winning and the pain of coming in last remain as fresh as ever.