Robert Rossi, Managing Editor, Emeritus, on August 21, 2012 5:04 PM
Stephen Amidon, the father of Boston College Eagles wide receiver Alex Amidon, is the author of Something Like The Gods, an examination of the athlete’s role in civilizations throughout history. Amidon’s book explores the evolution of the athlete from his origins at the first Olympics in Greece, through his glorified death pageants in the Roman Colosseum, to his present day status as an international icon.
By retracing the athlete’s roots to their very beginning, Amidon calls into question many commonly held opinions about athletics, and forces his readers to reevaluate the way they view the issues of money, race, and adoration within sports. We interviewed Mr. Amidon via email about the book’s most provocative revelations, and present his answers here along with:
5 reasons sports fans should read Something Like The Gods:
1. It exposes the myth of the “amateur athlete.”
Every college sports fan is familiar with the notion that “amateurs” should not be paid to compete, partly due to the supposed corruption of competition’s purity that monetary compensation entails. But when asked about the single most interesting fact he discovered when researching the book, Amidon replied:
“The most fascinating thing I discovered was that athletes who competed in the ancient Greek Olympics were not amateurs, but rather highly paid professionals. The wrestler Theagenes of Thasos, for instance, is now reckoned to have made the equivalent $30 million in his long career (during which he allegedly compiled a record of 1300-0). Medalists were rewarded with prizes of gold and olive oil from their hometowns, as well as free meals for life. In fact, the Greeks did not even have a word for amateur. The concept was invented by 19th century aristocrats. They did not want to mix with working class athletes, who could not afford to train and compete without being paid. So when people talk about the ‘Olympic amateur ideal,’ they are talking about something less virtuous than they think.”
2. Despite what you may think, many athletes don’t want to be made into symbols.
While we live in an age when Michael Jordan is one of the most influential advertising icons in the world, and other athletes like Curt Schilling feel like their opinions about politics matter enough to sway voters, some of history’s most symbolic athletes wanted nothing to do with projecting their on-field accomplishments onto something larger:
“I appreciate more than ever how resistant they [athletes] are to society’s desire to place superfluous meanings and pressures on them. Throughout history, politicians, jingoists and bigots have always tried to co-opt athletes for their own purposes, but athletes usually find a way to rise above this and just compete. The best example of this resilience was the 1936 Berlin Olympics, also known as the Nazi Olympics. Hitler, of course, wanted the games to showcase Aryan supremacy, though Jesse Owens quickly put an end to that nonsense by winning four gold medals. And yet Owens also befriended his biggest competitor in the long jump, the blond, blue-eyed German, Luz Long. The bond among athletes, it seems, is stronger than even the most virulent politics.”
3. There IS a reason African-Americans dominate the NBA.
But it’s NOT physical. Because if it was, according to the book, the dominance of other groups in other sports wouldn’t make sense:
“For a variety of reasons, certain sports become popular among certain populations, who then become identified with those sports. After a while, it begins to look like these groups are ‘naturals’ in these sports, when in fact their ascendency is due to the fact that they play them earlier and more passionately than most others. During Jim Crow, sports were one of the few ways that young African-Americans could excel. And so they put their energies into basketball and track, rather than, say, trying to become lawyers or hedge fund managers. It is really hard to overstate the importance of charismatic athletes like Jesse Owens and Joe Louis to young people in segregated Alabama or Harlem. There are many examples right now where certain sports are big among specific populations, and I think it would be wrong to attribute this to racial distinctions. Baseball in the Dominican Republic or Japan, diving in China, soccer in Brazil or the North of England – in all of these cases, the reason for a particular group’s success has to do with cultural popularity, not physiology.”
4. Athletes are becoming less human and more machine-like.
And it’s a full-circle progression:
“In terms of sheer numbers of spectators and the size of prizes awarded, chariot racing was the biggest sport in both ancient Greece and Rome. NASCAR really is a continuation of that tradition, though drivers are able to share in the winnings now, whereas during antiquity they were usually slaves. That said, I do think we are entering an era with the non-human competitor, or the meta-human athlete, is going to become bigger and bigger, and challenge how we think about this figure. Think of the case of Oscar Pistorius, the South African sprinter who recently competed in the Olympics on prosthetic legs. It won’t be long until we are able to field athletes whose legs, or hearts, or hamstrings, are superior to the originals. Do we want this? Speaking of hand-eye coordination, a former student of mine recently wrote to say that he pitted his team (West Virginia) against BC on NCAA ’13 to see how my son would do. This strikes me as a pretty modern phenomenon. Alexander scored a 70-yard TD, by the way.”
5. The Internet isn’t just changing how we view sports – it’s changing how we feel about them, too.
In ancient Rome, athletes would be slaughtered in the gladiator’s arena; today we simply murder them in the press and on blogs. However, the reasons for the anger have changed entirely:
“One of the reasons that criticism of athletes seems so much worse these days is the Internet. With the democratization of written expression on comment boards and blogs, opinions that used to be shouted from the bleachers are now available for millions to read in perpetuity. What’s more, the Internet gives us unprecedented access to the private lives of athletes, with mug shots, video from camera phones, hacked text messages, etc. It ain’t always pretty. But there’s a deeper reason at work. People invest a lot of emotional capital in athletes, much more than with movie stars or pop singers. The possibility of disappointment is immense. A lot of the nastiness we see stems from this sense of being let down by someone we have been relying on to pick us up.”
Something Like The Gods was published on June 5, 2012 by Rodale Books and is on sale now.