As we begin our journey to learn modern lessons of high performance from the original Olympic athletes, we need to understand the meaning of the word. A brief look into etymology – the history of words – provides surprising revelations about the original meaning of an athlete. This reveals not only the unique perspective the ancient Greeks had on these original athletes but helps us embrace and embody the proper identity for our growth.
The English word athlete is the romanization of the ancient Greek word athlētēs (in Greek άθλητὴς). Like most of the Greek words in our modern vernacular, athlete is the product of rendering non-Latin words into a Latin style. As the ancient Romans conquered Greece, they integrated the Greek culture and their vocabulary. Our modern English language has many of these Latinized Greek words and athlete is one example. Today’s dictionaries will define athlete in similar ways: a participant in a group of sporting activities or a person trained in these sports, exercises or games. That seems to coincide with our modern understanding of an athlete. But it’s not what the Greeks meant in their original definition. We should start by taking guidance from the original creators of the word. That’s where etymology helps. The ancient Greek athletes idolized the divine hero Hercules (romanized from the Greek Herakles). Hercules was arguably the greatest of Greek heroes. The Greeks knew him from many adventures, especially his labors. These were difficult feats or challenges he was forced to do as penance for upsetting the gods. If he succeeded he would be granted immortality by the gods of Olympus. British classicist Nigel Spivey explains how trying to be like Hercules reveals how ancient Greek athletes thought of themselves: