In antiquity, sports training started early

NEW YORK – Ancient Greeks were sports mad. Olympia’s youngest champion, 12-year-old Damiscus of Messene, was crowned with an olive wreath and showered with acclaim for winning the boys’ sprint in 368 BC. At the Panathenaic Games in Athens, the winner of the boys’ sprint collected 50 urns filled with 2,000 liters of olive oil. Nearly 2,000 such vases were commissioned every four years for winners of the various events, including older youths and men. Some of the richly decorated prize amphorae that once held olive oil are displayed in «Coming of Age in Ancient Greece» at the Onassis Cultural Center, 80 antiquities comprising the first exhibit to focus on the lives of young people in the glory years of Athens. One section, «Striving for Excellence: Ancient Greek Childhood and the Olympic Spirit,» describes the role of athletics in molding adolescent boys and the lucrative prizes they won. Among the relics are a decorative marble discus and a small bronze of a muscular athlete tossing a discus, the quintessential Greek sport. Sports such as wrestling, boxing and javelin helped to teach boys the courage and fighting skills needed for compulsory military service in an era of perpetual warfare. Religion, financial rewards and family honor were other incentives to compete. The quadrennial Olympic Games, with its main stadium for 45,000 spectators, typified the Grecian obsession with city-state athletics. Because of their opposing political systems, no rivalry outdid Athens vs Sparta. Family sports dynasties emerged as fathers passed athletic skills to their sons who repeated the triumphs at various Panhellenic Games, according to a 64-page book about the exhibition, which runs until April 15. The book and admission are complimentary. The engrossing displays range over childhood scenes on painted vases, as well as sculptures, grave monuments and relics of ancient toys like rattles, dolls, tops, hoops and animal bones used in games of chance. The antiquities comprising «Coming of Age» were gathered over five years from collections in the United States and Europe and represent the most complete survey of young people in classical Athens, according to co-curator John Oakley of The College of William and Mary. The show provides glimpses of young people from all classes, as depicted in myths, family life, schooling and at play. In ancient Athens, the birth of a boy was celebrated with an olive wreath on the family’s door, signaling hopes for a future Olympic champion. Brothers and sisters were raised together by their mothers until the age of 6, then boys began rigorous schooling and athletic training. Girls stayed home to learn household skills in preparation for marriage at age 14, usually to men in their 30s. Slaves in almost every citizen’s home served as mentors and tutors, or did menial chores. Wealthy families hired private coaches to hone boys’ athletic skills and accompany them to the Olympics. Little is known about Damiscus of Messene, who won the «stadion» race of 200 meters at Olympia, although records show he also won wreaths at Panhellenic Games in Isthmia and Nemea in the pentathlon. The exhibition opened last fall at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College. After New York, it moves to The Cincinnati Art Museum in Ohio and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

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