In the excerpts below, I quote the 2nd century AD satirist Lucian’s parody of the pancratium, wrestling and boxing. It features a dialogue between the Greek Sidon and a visiting Scythian Anacharsis, the latter of whom is baffled by the brutality of athletic competitions. Sidon and Anacharsis both visit a gymnasium, and upon seeing how the athletes train, Anacharsis remarks how crazy the training program is:

  • AnacharsisThey push one another about with lowered heads and butt their foreheads together like rams. And see there! That man picked the other one up by the legs and threw him to the ground, then fell down upon him and will not let him get up, shoving him all down into the mud; and now, after winding his legs about his middle and putting his forearm underneath his throat, he is choking the poor fellow, who is slapping him sidewise on the shoulder, by way of begging off, I take it, so that he may not be strangled completely (1)… Others, standing upright, themselves covered with dust, are attacking each other with blows and kicks. This one here looks as if he were going to spew out his teeth, unlucky man, his mouth is so full of blood and sand; he has had a blow on the jaw, as you see. But even the official there does not separate them and break up the fight—I assume from his purple cloak that he is one of the officials; on the contrary, he urges them on and praises the one who struck the blow (3) … I want to know, therefore, what good it can be to do all this, because to me at least the thing looks more like madness (μανίᾳ) than anything else, and nobody can easily convince me that men who act in that way are not out of their minds (ὡς οὐ παραπαίουσιν). (5)

Athletes are maniacs! Why would anyone want to punish themselves this badly, wonders Anacharsis. The conversation gets even more ridiculous when Anacharsis asks what kind of prizes the athletes receive for their pain: 

  • AnacharsisAnd these prizes (τὰ ἄθλα) of yours, what are they?
  • SidonAt the Olympic games, a wreath (στέφανος) made of wild olive, at the Isthmian one of pine, and at the Nemean one of parsley, at the Pythian some of the apples sacred to Apollo, and with us at the Panathenaea, the oil from the holy olive. What made you laugh, Anacharsis. Because you think these prizes trivial? (9)

At this point, the conversation takes a serious turn. When seeing Anacharsis laughed at the ridiculousness of being choked, maimed and broken in two, all for a piece of parsley or crown of apple branches, Sidon explains why even just one of these wreath-crowns (in Greek στέφανος) were so coveted: 

  • SidonBut, my dear friend, it is not the bare gifts that we have in view! They are merely signs of the victory (σημεῖα τῆς νίκης) and marks to identify the winners (οἱ κρατήσαντες). But the glory (δόξα) that goes with them is worth everything to the victors (τοῖς νενικηκόσιν), and to attain it, even to be kicked is nothing to men who seek to capture glory through hardshipsthe one who wins is, in fact, counted equal to the gods (ἰσόθεον)    (10) [excerpts above taken from Lucian, Anacharsis 1, 3, 5, 9-10; Eng. trans. by Harmon, LCL, pp. 3-12]
So Sidon explains to the bewildered Anacharsis that the crown is the not the prize, but the glory, honor, praise and prestige that the athletes achieve for themselves and the cities which they represent. 

The goddess Nike presents a stephanos (wreath) to an athlete (ca. 5th cent. BC)
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   The above excerpts make the remarks of Paul in 1 Cor 9:25 even more poignant:

  • Every competitor/athlete (ὁ ἀγωνιζόμενος) exercises self-control (ἐγκρατεύεται) over all things; they do this to receive a perishable wreath (στέφανον), but we an imperishable one.

While Greco-Roman athletes train to get a perishable crown, a symbol of fleeting glory and prestige for oneself and one’s city, the Christian minister trains for an imperishable crown, a symbol of the eternal glory that is gained not for ourselves but for the God we seek to honor. Call it madness! Or call it the best and most worthwhile life a person can hope to experience!