In his Sport: A Cultural History, Richard Mandell leads the reader through the history of sports and really gets at the core of what makes sports such a quintessentially human activity and enterprise. For the Greeks, for example, sports were a time for ritual and pageantry. They set their calendars according to the various sporting events that they loved so much. Sports and sporting events were inherently tied to religious practice and offerings to the gods would be made at the various Olympic games. Indeed, the Olympics began as a way of honouring the important gods whom the Greeks loved so much. Athletes were worshipped as paragons of physical beauty and power and their deeds were written about in epic poems. Indeed, some athletes were even seen as human gods and were worshipped by their followers. There was of course an additional element to the athletic prowess, as Mandell clearly indicates in his fine book:
Athletic talent, potential or proved, was a precious commodity in the economic and political commerce of Greece. Established or promising athletes were therefore worth nurturing. The superior athlete, then, functioned in a quasi-sacred atmosphere, his performances ritualistically arranged and reverentially viewed. The awesome semi-divine status given the victor . . . has never been equalled subsequently. (53)
Mandell's book was written in 1984, before the rise of celebrity cult that surrounds many athletes today. Just as in the ancient world a cult would develop around a god or a goddess, so today many athletes have thousands of fans. In the past, gods and saints would have icons-today fans cover themselves in logos and put posters on the wall. There are a lot of similarities between gods and athletes in today's contemporary world. So while athletes such as David Beckham and Alex Rodriguez may not literally be considered divine in today's world, they certainly do occupy a position of significant power and fame-more so than nearly anyone else on the planet. They are often involved with beautiful women, fast cars, and advertising campaigns. They make tens of millions of dollars and can do virtually anything they like. Indeed, it is fair to say that in today's world the culture of sports celebrity has never been so vibrant. We truly live in unique times.
In the 20th century sports have been about celebrity, but they have also been about politics too. This is another important point made by Mandell in his book. He compares the rivalries between Communist countries and capitalist countries throughout the last one hundred years. He shows how much governments and people invested in their athletes as representatives of their political ideologies and their nationalist hopes. Sports was in a way an extension of war by other means. The Soviet Union especially is an interesting case study in the subject. Mandell writes:
There was no indigenous sports tradition acceptable for the vast empire of many cultures, so the Soviets adopted all those sports that since 1896 had been steadily integrated into the Olympic program. The thorough recruiting of potential stars, the scientific investigation of principles of movement and performance, the refinement of apparatus and training that had characterized American and then Japanese and Nazi sport were pushed much further. Fitness exercises were introduced at all levels of education and even on the job. (265)
Sports for the Soviets were politics. Sports were international prestige and a