Brian Cummings at the Times Literary Supplement:
Sitting in a drab hotel room with an old journalist friend after the latest alarm about his liver, watching an old video of his playing days, George Best suddenly jumped up from his armchair. “Jesus Christ!”, he shouted at the screen. “I’d forgotten I was that fucking good!”
Best probably was not thinking about Pindar at the time, but this stifled eulogy on himself raises the question asked with most acuteness by Pindar, of why we praise athletes, and indeed, why we watch them. The epinikion was the Greek lyric genre of the victory ode: Ibycus (sixth century BCE), Simonides and Bacchylides all are known to have composed them, and in the case of Pindar (c.518–438 BCE) there are forty-four complete odes, composed for winners in all four of the panhellenic games, the Olympic, the Pythian, the Nemean, and the Isthmian. If modern sportswriting has tended to concentrate on direct reportage (what happened next?), or else interviews with participants (how did it feel?), Pindar only occasionally offers details of the events themselves.
Pindar understood that we do not respond to sport only at the literal level. He mixes prayers to the gods with address to the muses and haunting retelling of topical myths, which he relates to the sportsman in action (for they are all men), whether it is a sprinter or a charioteer or a wrestler.