Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.12.22 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.12.22

Eleni Fournaraki, Zinon Papakonstantinou (ed.), Sport, Bodily Culture and Classical Antiquity in Modern Greece. Sport in the global society: historical perspectives.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2011.  Pp. xvi, 186.  ISBN 9780415667531.  $133.00.  


Reviewed by Alexander Kitroeff, Haverford College (akitroef@haverford.edu)

Table of Contents

This book, a reproduction of the International Journal of the History of Sport vol. 27 issue 12, consists of five essays bracketed by a prologue and an epilogue all of which address the importance of the legacy of the classical past on sports culture in modern Greece. The essays focus on a range of topics: historiography, female bodily culture and public rituals associated with physical exercise and sporting events. Overall, the greater emphasis is much less on modern Greek sports and much more on the classical legacy.

Zinon Papakonstantinou, one of the two co-editors, discusses in his introduction the ways the classical past and the assumption of continuity between ancient and modern Greece have shaped Greek society. His essay sets the scene for those that follow. All of these confirm the significance of the classical legacy in the modern era. This is certainly the case in Christina Koulouri’s contribution on the place of sports in Greek national historiography from the establishment of the modern Greek state in 1830 through the early 1980s. Nineteenth century historiography in Greece was at the core of nation building and a central pillar in developing the idea that the modern Greeks were direct descendants of the Ancient Greeks. It was in that light that the major works by Greek historians discussed sports only with reference to Classical Greece rather than any other period of the supposedly continuous trajectory of the history of the Greek people. As Koulouri notes, the concern with sports in those historical works reflected primarily cultural (one could also say “ideological”) concerns rather than any special interest in athletic events per se or physical exercise. A cluster of publications that appeared at the time of the first modern Olympic Games, held in Athens in 1896, confirmed the overwhelming emphasis on classical Greek sports and their significance. In the twentieth century, historians began filling in the gaps by portraying sport and physical exercise in the eras in between the classical and the modern, as part of a continuum. Those periods were “athleticized” as Koulouri notes, and not always persuasively. Overall, she notes, the history of sports in Greece remained underdeveloped until the 1980s because of traditional academic disdain for physical exercise but even more importantly because modern Greece did not embrace sporting activities and physical activity as part of its contemporary public culture or as part of its educational policies.

Koulouri’s chapter is placed first after Papakonstantinou’s prologue and these contributions combine well to frame the volume and prepare the reader for what follows, a predictable highlighting of the classical symbolism surrounding sports and physical activity in modern Greece, rather than treatments of sports culture or particular sports. As Koulouri notes, the actual history of sports has evolved since the 1980s but has done so relatively slowly and remains in a process of maturation. In the meantime, scholars will have much to reflect upon with regard to the legacy of classical Greece and Greek sports with the help of the rest of this volume.

The shadow that ancient Greece casts on modern Greek sports may be predictable yet the ways this unfolds can be quite unexpected. This is the case with Eleni Fournaraki’s essay entitled “Bodies that Differ: Mid- and Upper-Class Women and the Quest for ‘Greekness’ in female Bodily Culture (1896-1940).” Fournaraki focuses on the Greek women’s movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the ways it promoted its goals through associating women’s bodily culture with the classical Greek paradigm. She cites two instances: the first was the ways an early feminist magazine used the occasion of the Athens Olympics of 1896 and the interim Olympics held in Athens in 1906 to promote the idea that the classical legacy legitimized female physical exercise, something which was disparaged in Greece at the time by the male establishment. Fournaraki’s careful research yields interesting findings including an ambivalence on the part of Greek feminists to women’s cycling and tennis which were thought to be beyond the proper confines of exercises and overexposed women’s bodies to the public gaze. The other case Fournaraki examines is a pioneering women’s cultural organization that organized dance performances by women. Their repertoire included so-called ancient and folk dances, a tactic designed to achieve popular acceptance through playing upon national and patriotic sentiments.

The other three contributions to this volume are about the performative aspects of national identity. Antonis Glytzouris’ chapter is a close look at the chorus in two ancient Greek plays at the Delphic Festivals of 1927 and 1930. The festivals were organized by the Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos and his American wife Eva Palmer-Sikelianou at the site of Ancient Delphi and their purpose was to revive ancient Greek culture and drama. Glytzouris’ close reading of Prometheus Unbound and Suppliant Women suggests that Palmer-Sikelianou’s concern with reviving the chorus entailed an idea of creating or rather recreating a purely Greek form of gymnastics that would inform the chorus dancers’ artistic expression.

Gonda Van Steen’s chapter, entitled “Rallying the Nation: Sport and Spectacle Serving the Greek Dictatorships” is a well-documented study about how two twentieth-century Greek dictatorial regimes used public performance as propaganda. Those were the Fourth of August dictatorship of 1936-1940, which is also known as the Metaxas regime after its leader Ioannes Metaxas, and the Twenty-first of April dictatorship of 1967-1974 also known as the Colonels’ regime. Both these dictatorships crudely appropriated the concept of continuity between modern and ancient Greece in their nationalistic ideologies. In what were futile attempts to attract public support, both organized public ceremonies glorifying ancient Greece. The Metaxas regime, which was a pale version of the fascist and Nazi prototypes in Italy and Germany, established a youth organization whose activities included gymnastics, physical exercise and sporting activities. Van Steen offers a careful analysis of the exploitation of sports and the rhetoric praising ancient sports that both regimes pursued. What remains to be studied is the relationship of the Metaxas regime and especially that of the Colonels to professional sports and especially to soccer. It is in that sphere, rather than in the caricature-like ancient festivals, that many questions are raised about whether or not and to what extent top-level Greek soccer became a form of “bread and circuses” between 1967 and 1974.

The final essay in this volume addresses the role of the flame and the torch relay in the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. Elena Yalouri's purpose is very broadly to describe the transformation of the flame and its oscillation from tangible to transcendental, metaphorical and metaphysical. The essay is richly illustrated with photographs and cartoons that her careful research has yielded and this pictorial material is the article’s main strength. Indeed the author seems content to take the reader through the series of uses to which the flame and torch relay were put before and during the 2004 Olympics. Ultimately one is left to draw one’s own conclusions. There are allusions to the symbolic significance of fire and to George Mosse’s work on Nazi symbolism, but the material might have benefitted from an additional analysis drawing upon the important work on Olympic ceremonies, ritual and torch relays that John MacAloon and other Olympic scholars have produced.

In his two-page Epilogue, co-editor Papakonstantinou correctly points out that what one can take from this volume is an understanding of some forms of the reception and uses of classicism in Greece and how in particular classicism is employed in terms of physical culture and by extension connects with issues of gender and identity. In many ways this is a pioneering collective work, not so much for its contribution to Greek sports history but rather to body culture studies that analyze bodily practice in the broad context of society and culture. Body culture studies include scholarly investigations into dance, play and games, festivals, sport and even outdoor activities. To the extent that modern Greek academic study follows the lead of western scholarly developments, we can expect more studies on Greek body culture to appear in the near future. The significance of this particular volume lies in its overall thesis that the legacy of Ancient Greece plays a central role in body culture. This of course is the case with many other spheres of Modern Greek culture and society, and above all the understanding of modern Greek identity. The study of bodily culture may be a new development in modern Greek studies, but its early findings represented in this volume have a familiar ring to them and invite further investigation.

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