When the caldron is lit in London this summer and the XXX Olympics begins, one familiar participant will play a more active role than any other, taking center stage at 23 individual events. To the delight of billions, and without concern for its own well-being, it will be thrown, kicked, punched, slapped and struck with no fewer than three different instruments of torture. That abused but beloved participant is, of course, the humble, ubiquitous ball.
This universal object of play has become so integral to our very notion of sport that it would be unthinkable to host the Games without it. But the elevation of ball play to Olympic status is an entirely modern phenomenon. It would have been equally unthinkable in Classical times for an object as fun and frivolous as the ball to have been allowed entry to the hallowed sanctuary of Olympia.
It’s not that the Greeks didn’t love to play ball. When Odysseus was shipwrecked on the shore of Phaeacia, he encountered the beautiful princess Nausicaa playing an ancient version of dodgeball with her maids. While oxen were being sacrificed and athletes rubbed down with olive oil to compete for Zeus’ honor at Olympia, ordinary Greeks were playing a silly game called ephedrismos, in which players mounted on the shoulders of teammates threw a ball at a target or to another pair of players. Scenes of women and men playing variations of this strange game of people polo appear repeatedly on painted jars and statues of the Classical period, and in much earlier scenes from ancient Egypt — suggesting it was more than just a passing fad.
More reminiscent of today’s competitive team sports was episkyros, a rugby-like game played by two teams of a dozen or so players with a feather-stuffed leather ball. The 4th century playwright Antiphanes vividly described a game in progress, handing down possibly history’s first play-by-play sports commentary: “He caught the ball and laughed as he passed it to one player at the same time as he dodged another ... and all the while there were screams and shouts: ‘Out of bounds!’ ‘Too far!’ ‘Past him!’ ‘Over his head!’”
But these entertaining games were in a class apart from the Olympics, which were regarded not as “games” — a term not associated with the events until modern times — but as agon (root of “agony”), serious “struggles” of body and will. Young men of worth engaged in these sacred contests as proxy and preparation for battle; the muscle-bound Olympian represented the ideal of the man prepared to defend the city-state. To win was glorious: Along with an olive wreath and lifelong admiration, victors received a lifetime annuity and exemption from taxation (so much for amateurism).
To come in second, however, was to know the true agony of defeat. The 5th century poet Pindar described losing athletes returning home in shame: They “shrink down alleyways, bitten by failure.” Ball games, by contrast, were described as paizein, or child’s play. No ancient account of a ball game mentioned victory or defeat. To win or lose was beside the point.
This dichotomy between frivolous ball games and serious sporting contests persisted through the Middle Ages. What is believed to be the first mention of “football” in the English language is from a 1314 royal decree banning the game within the very city that will soon host it for 90,000 fans at Wembley Stadium. Why was the game banned not once but nine times in the first century of its existence? Because medieval football, an unruly mob game played by peasants, was considered a “vain game of no value.” Kicking balls around, fun as it was, distracted from time spent at archery, which was required of all able-bodied men in defense of the kingdom.
So what should we make of the ball’s slow march to Olympic credibility? Are the modern Games more playful than their ancient counterparts? Hardly. With this year’s costs spiraling to more than $15 billion, the event has become more serious, and the stakes higher, than ever. In 2008, the Chinese gymnastics coach threatened to jump off a building if the team didn’t capture multiple gold medals. When American swimmer Michael Phelps won his eighth gold and was asked how he felt, he offered, “Everything was accomplished” — words you’d more expect to hear from your accountant than from someone who just crossed the natural boundary between man and fish.
For better or worse, our ball games have been transformed into agonistic rites of their own, well worthy of their Olympic stature. During the Beijing Games, the U.S. women’s soccer team would have made Zeus proud in its all-out battle to claim gold, scoring the winning goal against Brazil in the 96th minute of play.
Nevertheless, when the Games kick off in London, the presence of the ball on the field or court can serve as a healthy reminder that there’s more to these Games than struggle over national honor, medal achievements and future sponsorship deals. There’s the fun and the joy of watching the world play together.
• Fox is the author of just-published “The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game.”