Tag Archives: sports

MLB PEDs, A-Rod, and Ancient Cheaters

With all of the talk surrounding baseball, Alex Rodriguez, and the seemingly never ending use of the word “cheating” I thought it would be interesting to discuss what happened to the ancient cheaters. So we know Alex Rodriguez has been suspended for essentially cheating; using performance enhancing drugs, although more of the suspension comes from impeding the MLB’s investigation and simply his obnoxious arrogance. While A-rod is just the most recent cheater to join the ranks of Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, and of course Barry Bonds, it is not the first time the question of legacy comes up for a professional athlete. The same questions about remembrance have been brought up about many other athletes such as Tiger Woods, Jim Thorpe, and Lance Armstrong.  We are still waiting to see how most of these will play out (exception being Jim Thorpe, I think he is remembered well, but then his crimes are not considered very serious nor cheating by most people). We can say that McGwire has been passed up multiple times now in Hall of Fame elections and prior to the steroids scandals many were calling him a first ballot Hall of Famer. For the most part, however, it remains to be seen what people will be saying about the steroids era in 10, 20, 50 years.

In the ancient world there were different theories about handling such people. While the Roman example didn’t apply to athletes as much as politicians and traitors, sometimes the same person fit all of those categories I guess, for comparison purpose I will say damnatio memoriae was their method of handling such unwanted stigmas. Damnatio memoriae is a system put in place by the Roman Senate to completely erase someone from history and that was meant in the most literal sense of erase. They would remove inscriptions with his name, remake statues to remove his image, and seize all property. Due to the nature of the practice not a ton of information is known about it, but it was used a few times in the imperial period for emperors who were disliked by the emperor succeeding them or for people who conspired against the emperor.

This is an instance when the Greeks handled things very differently than the Romans. The Greeks would put the story of cheating Olympians everywhere. Yes, cheating happened even in the original Olympic Games. When there are riches to be won and glory to be had, unfortunately if unchecked, cheating will occur; you may say a laurel wreath isn’t exactly riches, but many athletes received rewards either from their home city-state or through other means, but I digress as usual.  The Greeks actually erected statues, using the money of the cheaters, which were to serve as warnings to future athletes. On the statues were elegiac poems, interestingly the same style of poem found on grave markers. These poems extol the values of how the Olympics are to be won, through physical prowess, and criticize other methods of obtaining victory like paying money.

The contrast of the Ancient Roman damnation memoriae and the Ancient Greek example-making tactics are a good chance for history to show us what should be done. Some are saying the MLB should put a steroids era wing on the Hall of Fame to show the history of the game accurately and also to point out the terrible things steroids did to the game of baseball. This is obviously following the Greek example. The voters have consistently left steroid era players out of the Hall, however, maybe preferring the way of the Romans and attempting to erase them from the history of the game. This will definitely be something to watch in the years to come as many steroid era players reach eligibility for the Hall of Fame.

Comment below and tell me if you are for the Roman way or the Greek way? How about outside of athletics like for politicians, celebrities, traitors, etc.?  

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Battle of the Ultra-Athletes: Tarahumara vs. Spartans

The Tarahumara is a tribe of indigenous people in Central America, more specifically in the Copper Canyons of Mexico; they are known for running incredible distances. I think we all know who the Spartans are at this point since that historically inaccurate movie came out.  Ultra-athletes are people who compete in insane endurance competitions which can take place over a variety of disciplines.  I discovered the Tarahumara and Ultra endurance competitions just recently when I began reading Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. It is a great book (so far) and I will venture to say from what I have read, it should be on every must read list whether you are a runner or not.

Early on in the book McDougall makes a claim that there have not been better athletes since the Spartan warriors. This, of course, quickly got me scouring my knowledge of the Ancient Greeks and wondering if that was a fair comparison. First I should note that there are plenty of other tribes in the world which have shown excellence in endurance activities such as the Bajau people of Indonesia who are incredible apneists (great greek root there), holding their breath for long periods of time and showing great free diving ability.  So it is probably not the case that there have not been better athletes since the Spartan warriors, but the comparison still intrigues me.

The Spartan warriors are famous in modern times because of the 300 Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae who are legends for their military prowess. Most scholars agree that it was not just 300 Spartans at this battle, but I will leave it at that as to not burst the bubble of myth lovers. That being said there is a lot of evidence of the amazing athletic ability of Spartans. Those selected to be warriors were put into training at the age of seven. The Tarahumara start running as soon as they can although it is not exactly regimented training as was the case in Sparta. The Tarahumara are not an attacking people. They choose to retreat into the hills and use the terrain to stay hidden from enemies. Many will jump and say that is the main difference between the Spartans and the Tarahumara, but I want to remind you of Herodutos’ account of Thermopylae (book 7 around 222).  He talks about the retreat into the hills and ensuing battle in a narrow pass advantageous to the Spartans.  At the same time the poet Tyrtaeus claims that men in Sparta were trained neither to run away nor surrender.  Born to Run says that the Tarahumara have people who are very old running alongside people who are very young without notice of a difference in step. The Spartans were enlisted until age 60 and had to maintain fitness up through the age of 65 because they could be called upon up to 65 in war times.

Both groups wore a sandal-like footwear while doing their athletics for those of you on the barefoot running train.

As for comparing the actual athletic ability of the two it is a very difficult thing to do. The Spartan warriors are in fact warriors and are known for their athletics in terms of war. When we talk about distances they can march or run those numbers must be considered differently than marathon runners since they are weighed down by armor and equipment.  I have looked all over the texts I have for anything referencing a numerical value that I could use to compare the speed of the Spartans to that of the Tarahumara and I can’t. Pure athleticism will have to be left debatable, however the comparisons above should give an idea in terms of lifestyle about how the two measure up.

NOTE: The Athenians are actually granted credit for the term Marathon as they sent a messenger, Pheidippides, back to Athens from the battle of Marathon, a reported distance of 26 miles. The messenger collapsed dead upon completion, obviously not an ultra-athlete (Plutarch, On the Glory of Athens).  It is said that the last two tenths of a mile were added to accommodate a viewing box for the Queen of England many years later. I have no source for this information; I know it only as a legend passed around some running circles.

SECOND NOTE: I have not included any of Thucydides comments on the Spartans, but he provides a very different view, in fact he calls them weak a lot. The reason for this is most likely his historical bias, but I should note that his opinion on the Spartans is out there and can be found.

For more on the Bajau people see http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p009j7nc

Born to Run http://www.amazon.com/Born-Run-Hidden-Superathletes-Greatest/dp/0307279189


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