Sports offers historic insight beyond games

Zinon Papakonstantinou likes to tell the story of the original super fan.

In the first century AD, a Northern Greek baker attended 12 Olympic Games. That was quite an investment for a regular man during the Ancient Games – time, money, not to mention the trip to Olympia alone, required a week of travel one way.

His Games attendance is not a fact we would commonly know about regular citizens of ancient Greece. He was not a famed warrior, or politician, or even a wealthy man. But he was a fan – a super fan. So much so, when he died, he was buried beneath a headstone that captured only three pieces of information about his life:

His name. His occupation. And the fact he attended 12 Olympic Games.

“He was so proud of that fact. He attended The Games. He needed to record that – forever,” Papakonstantinou laughed.

Zinon Papakonstantinou, a University of Illinois-Chicago professor, with expertise in Ancient Greek social and cultural history, will deliver the Ion Ioannides Memorial Lecture, Greek Athletes in the Roman Mediterranean: Mobility, Competition, Cultural Agency, at 3:30 p.m. March 31 in the Sonia & Arthur Labatt Health Sciences Building, Room 35.

Special to Western NewsZinon Papakonstantinou, a University of Illinois-Chicago professor, with expertise in Ancient Greek social and cultural history, will deliver the Ion Ioannides Memorial Lecture, Greek Athletes in the Roman Mediterranean: Mobility, Competition, Cultural Agency, at 3:30 p.m. March 31 in the Sonia & Arthur Labatt Health Sciences Building, Room 35.

For more than two decades, Papakonstantinou has used our historic passion for sport to bring the issues and experiences of the ancient world to modern audiences. It is this work, when combined with other disciplines within the humanities, he sees as valuable in creating a society free from “problematic situations.”

The University of Illinois-Chicago professor, with expertise in Ancient Greek social and cultural history, will deliver the Ion Ioannides Memorial Lecture, Greek Athletes in the Roman Mediterranean: Mobility, Competition, Cultural Agency, at 3:30 p.m. Mar. 31 in the Sonia & Arthur Labatt Health Sciences Building, Room 35. The event is sponsored by Western’s International Centre of Olympic Studies.

“Sport is a valuable entry point. It is a window to understand a number of issues – social movements to the cultural aspects of daily life. That was the case in antiquity; that is the case today,” Papakonstantinou said. “It is so popular, so widespread. People talk about it – argue about it, even. They follow it closely. They practice it, play it. It reflects several features of life.

“It’s everywhere – it’s all around us. And for many people, it defines who they are.”

A former high school athlete, he was inspired to incorporate sport into his Ancient and Medieval History studies after attending a seminar hosted by the International Olympic Academy in Athens as a fourth-year student at the University of Crete. Since then, Papakonstantinou has used sport to understand both how the world was then, and how the world is today. And it is through the everyday people – the fans – that he has found connections.

“The attitudes and feelings of sports spectators are very similar,” he said. “Audiences in Greek and Roman sport were very passionate. They had their favourite athletes and teams. They bet on it. They had arguments about it. Just like we do today.”

Papakonstantinou has written and edited a handful of books, including, most recently, his edited collection on Sport, Bodily Culture and Classical Antiquity in Modern Greece. He also works on Greek epigraphy, Greek literature and Classical reception. During the summers of 2013-16, he served as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow for Experienced Researchers, hosted by the University of Hamburg, Department of History.

As a classicist and a sport historian, Papakonstantinou is no stranger to questions of ‘value’ placed on his, and other areas, within the humanities. Expectedly, he is a passionate defender of the discipline.

“The humanities are so basic for creating responsible, open-minded citizens with analytical skills. They are so important in shaping society,” he said. “I blame the decline in humanities education for a lot of the bizarre and problematic developments in politics and other fields around the world.

“Without humanities, without critical thinkers, without people who understand how to read between the lines, without people who can dissect a text, dissect a speech and understand what is at stake, inevitably, we will see more and more …”

* Laughs. *

“… problematic situations.”

Such a shame, Papakonstantinou explained, because the erosion of a humanities education is an erosion of society itself.

“I am, by nature, optimistic. I hope this is a temporary blip and, eventually, the humanities will make a comeback. I am encouraged by the students I see – they are eager to learn, eager to open their minds,” he said. “At the same time, I know it is getting more and more difficult for students to do this. It is not all the fault of universities, either. In secondary education, subjects like Classics are almost non-existent now.

“Classics. Languages. History. These are all crucial – we should cherish and nourish the humanities. That is what I am trying to do.”

Since 1986, the Ioannides lecture has focused on topics relevant to sport in ancient times. It returns this year after a two-year absence, since Western Classic professor Charles Stocking delivered the lecture in 2014.

THE GAMES WE PLAY

University of Illinois-Chicago professor Zinon Papakonstantinou will deliver his Ion Ioannides Memorial Lecture, Greek Athletes in the Roman Mediterranean: Mobility, Competition, Cultural Agency, at 3:30 p.m. March 31 in the Sonia & Arthur Labatt Health Sciences Building, Room 35.