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A Cultural History of the Athlete from Achilles to LeBron

by Stephen Amidon

Pub Date: June 5th, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-60961-123-1
Publisher: Rodale

A brief but enlightening history of the athlete as a cultural icon.

From the shamanistic athletic rituals of Paleolithic hunters to the exploits of today’s millionaire sports superstars, athletes have fascinated and transfixed us for centuries. This is true, writes Amidon (co-author: The Sublime Engine: A Biography of the Human Heart, 2011, etc.), for both a universal and a particular reason. At their best, “athlete[s] ha[ve] always been able to transport us out of our daily lives,” to stop time for an instant and allow us to suspend disbelief. At the same time, the athlete has always held the ability “to represent the ethos of his era.” In rich yet concise prose, Amidon explores this universalist nature of the athlete, including the godlike efforts of the Greek warriors of the ancient Olympics; the tragic heroics of the Roman gladiator; and the romantic image of the jousting knight errant to the civilized amateur ideal of the Victorian era. In his discussion of the modern era, the book’s most accomplished section, Amidon emphasizes how class, race and gender worked to initially limit who could become an athlete—working-class competitors, for instance, were explicitly barred from the first modern Olympics—and how those excluded overcame such barriers. Women athletes now hold sway in the public imagination more than they ever have. The black American athlete has moved from being an occasional patriotic icon (Joe Louis) to a political rebel (Muhammad Ali) to a cultural avatar (Michael Jordan). Though he occasionally lapses into questionable comparisons—the early-era baseball player, reflecting the industrialization of work, as a working-class Joe who worked overtime (like everybody else) if a game went into extra innings—Amidon’s broad historical sweep fascinates with its facts and challenges with its commentary.

A cultural history of sports that says as much about all of us as it does about athletes.