On War and Games in the Ancient World
By T.J. Cornell
Sixth International Symposium for Olympic Research (2002)
Introduction: That there is a connection between warfare and sport is evident enough. Competitive games, in the form of contests between individuals or teams, imitate war in a more or less conscious manner. This fact is most obviously reflected in the language of sport. When sports writers use terms like catastrophe, tragedy, massacre, or annihilation, people sometimes complain that such metaphors are exaggerated or even in poor taste, since what is happening is “only” a game, and should not be taken too seriously.
Those who are closely involved in sport, whether as players, managers or fans, tend to differ, however, and many familiar anecdotes illustrate this tendency among professionals. The most famous saying of Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, was: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Bill Shankly, the equally legendary manager of Liverpool FC, is supposed to have said: “Football is not a matter of life and death; it’s much more serious than that.” The idea that sport is not a matter for play is famously summed up in the comment of an anonymous Yorkshireman: “Come on lad, this is cricket — it’s not a game you know.” But on any view, even those who admit a playful element in sport, and are prepared to concede that it is not actually war, talk of victory and defeat, triumph and surrender, offence and defence, strategy and tactics. Such language is not metaphorical at all, but a literal description of what actually happens. That competitive sport represents a form of combat can hardly be denied.
Some of the resemblances between war and sport can be briefly enumerated. Both entail contests of physical strength and skill. Both tend to reinforce group solidarity and identity (“us” against “them”). Both arouse strong emotions among participants and interested non-participants (spectators or fans in a sporting context, non-combatant civilians on the “home front” in war). The qualities that are admired in both are similar (e.g. courage, loyalty, stamina, and discipline), and both confer honour and prestige on their heroes. In almost all cultures, the conduct of war resembles that of sport in being to some extent artificial, regulated, and ritualised. Indeed, as will be argued below, the more ritualised and artificial it is, the more war comes to resemble a form of play. Finally, note should be taken of the important fact that war and sport are essentially male activities. Until very recently women were excluded entirely from both, with only a few marginal exceptions. Historically speaking, both war and sport have had an important social function as mechanisms for male bonding, for the social construction of masculinity, and in reinforcing and perpetuating male domination.