A handbook on picking up women advises its readers that sport is the irresistible bait that will lure in attractive women like a convoy of ants. The author comments wryly ‘they come to see, they come to be seen, that place destroys decency and shame.’ Make sure you sit close to her, always express vocal support her favourite team, and enthusiastically applaud the statue of Venus when it parades before the crowd. Written in 2 A.D., Ovid’s the Art of Love was so shocking to ancient Roman audiences that it earned him banishment from Rome, and eternal notoriety. 2,000 years later, the poet’s recommendations are remarkably like the strategies I see in use today.
In my recent foray into Tinder I encountered many young men who seemed convinced that their professed love of sports and carefully posed gym selfies were key to success on the popular dating app. Profiles read like player bios, complete with useful stats such as age, height, weight, and size of eggplant emoji. This is not to mention the odd professional athlete, who always appears uniformed and occasionally bloodied from some sports-related injury (Swoon?) Sports, with the assistance of technology, are truly coming into their own as the epicentre of modern hook-up culture, but are still only beginning to the unparalleled debauchery of our sporty ancestors. Whether it’s a convenient pretext for perving, or an opportunity to show off the goods, sports and hook ups have a long history of working together.
In ancient Greek myth, the Olympic Games were founded in no small part thanks to the gods’ boundless sexual appetites. When Poseidon, god of the seas, fell madly in lust with Pelops he snatched him from under his father’s nose, and made him his lover at Mt Olympus. When Pelops returned to the realm of mortals, he fell in love with famed beauty, Hippodameia, but her father had already killed thirteen of his daughter’s suitors and wasn’t going down without a fight. Pelops decided that it was time his former lover repaid his debt of gratitude, so Poseidon gave Pelops a golden chariot and winged horses that never tire so that he could finally defeat his girlfriend’s overbearing father. Pelops went on to marry Hippodameia, and found the racecourses on which the Olympic games were held – all thanks to the power of sugar daddies.
In 5th century Greece, the practice of athletics was an essential part of a citizen’s education, (including a woman’s education, if you were from Sparta). It’s no surprise that a discipline devoted to control over the body would translate easily into appreciation for the body. Greek art abounds with images of idealised athletic bodies, usually male, whose bodies were godlike in their perfection. To heighten the exhibitionism even further, athletes were required to perform completely in the nude. As a result the line between spectator and voyeur was perilously thin. In Athens, the gymnasia in which young athletes would train became popular cruising spots – not unlike gyms today. The father of philosophy Socrates, himself, observed how the young men at the gym were always followed by a large troupe of admirers, hoping to win their affections. It was alleged that after winning great renown for his plays, Aristophanes would go down to the gym, hoping to pick up a handsome young athlete, although Aristophanes repeatedly denied this.
The love of athletes was not confined to spectators; the athletes were known to have strong emotional bonds with each other that could turn into something more. An excavation of an Ancient Greek stadium discovered messages of love and admiration written on the walls of the tunnel between the locker room and the stadium. Messages typically included the name of the beloved athlete followed by the description ‘beautiful’. It was the ancient equivalent of carving a name into a tree, or writing it in a notebook – positively quaint compared to the explicit propositions we have come to expect from online dating today. Exercising was a popular precursor to sex, a dialogue of a fictional dinner party conversation records that Alcibiades tried to use wrestling (in the nude, of course) to seduce Socrates.
The ancient Romans credited sport as the reason for their city’s existence; when Romulus, founder of Rome, realised that there were no women in town, he announced that Rome would be holding games, and invited the neighbouring Sabines to come watch. As the audience settled in for the show, the Romans gave the signal and swooped in to seize the Sabine women, thus securing wives for themselves and ensuring generations of offspring. Prudish 1st century commentators were tripping over themselves to explain away the non-consensual nature of Rome’s foundation, all except Ovid, who seems proud to advocate his ancestors’ example.
In the 1st century B.C., Greek athletics were deemed too risqué for conservative Romans according to Roman lawyer Cicero, who commented ‘to strip the body naked among citizens is the start of vice’. This did not stop Romans from flocking in their thousands to games, festivals, and spectacles. Even where athletes were fully clothed, such as in chariot races and gladiator battles, hook-up culture flourished. In the 1st century A.D. satirist, Juvenal, wrote a treatise against marriage and teased his aristocratic friend, ‘let’s decorate the doorposts and the doors with abundant laurels, Lentulus, so that your noble child in his tortoiseshell cradle can remind you of — Euryalus the gladiator!’ Women love the sword, warned Juvenal, so much that they put up with the gashed arms, disfigured faces, and lumpy noses that come from a lifetime of professional fighting. We can only hope for our visibly wounded, athletic friends on Tinder, that modern women feel the same way.
In a highly stratified society, the sex appeal of sport could also be a subversive force. Sport invited spectators to consider a person for their body, and not their social standing. Emperors, Empresses, and army generals alike became embroiled with sportsmen on more than one occasion. In 48 A.D. the Empress Messalina, wife to the Emperor Claudius, became notorious for her infidelity, including an alleged affair with a gladiator. In the 3rd C A.D. the rumour spread that the Emperor Elagabalus was watching the chariot races when a driver stumbled and lost his helmet, revealing a handsome face and blonde hair. The driver was whisked away by palace guards to the Emperor’s bedroom, and soon become the Emperor’s boyfriend and confidante. Whether these stories were more truthful than the average gossip rag, the stereotype of the aristocrat and the athlete remained as popular and appealing as it was dangerous.
Love it or hate it, sports and hook-up culture are here to stay. At the 2016 Rio Olympics Tinder reported a 129% surge in matches in the Olympic Village area alone – and you don’t need to be a Roman Emperor to partake, with a selection of famous athletes being spotted on Tinder by single sports fans. Sports culture on Tinder is no more debauched and ridiculous than the sports culture of the ancient Rome and Greece. I don’t know whether that’s good news for Tinder, or bad news for the dignity of ancient civilisations.
 Ovid, Ars Amatoria, 1.99.
 Cicero, Ad Familiares, 7.1, Tusculan Disputations, 4.70.
 Juvenal, Satires, 6.78-81.
 Cassius Dio 60.28.2.
 Cassius Dio 80.15.2.
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