A Cultural History of the Athlete From Achilles to LeBron

By Stephen Amidon Rodale. 240 pp. $24.99

More than any other cultural figure, Stephen Amidon argues, the athlete captures the imagination, hopes, dreams, fears and frustrations of the average American. “Rappers, rockers, movie stars, politicians, self-help gurus, and talk show hosts all have their own constituencies,” he writes, “but none of them have the ability to stop the world in its tracks like the athlete.”

‘Something Like the Gods: A Cultural History of the Athlete from Achilles to LeBron’ by Stephen Amidon. (Rodale)

Amidon’s smartly written and thoroughly researched new book, “Something Like the Gods,” traces the path of the modern athlete from the Greek battlefields to the basketball parquet and, for the next few weeks, to the Olympic compound in London. On the way, Amidon demonstrates the jock’s evolution from sword-wielding warrior to bat-swinging baseball player. Hunters engaged in games to perfect their deadly skills, he notes, citing a 1969 study by the German historian Gerhard Lukas, who claimed that “the first sport was spear throwing.” Amidon adds, “The line from the hunter’s club to the Louisville Slugger might be a long one, but it is also unbroken.”

Throughout history, the athlete’s rise has been associated with communication and technology. Their deeds first spread by word of mouth, and then by ink on parchment and papyrus scroll, and then by pixel on television and now by iPhone. The title of Amidon’s book emphasizes the high regard in which fans hold athletes today. Their nearly mythical abilities and transcendent public personae have changed people’s expectations of their private behavior. “Teddy Roosevelt believed that the athlete was the greatest exemplar of his nation’s core values,” Amidon writes. “In our time of predatory lending, leveraged buyouts, political gamesmashsip and television reality shows that pit contestants in ruthless competition, he just may be right.”

But should we talk about the achievements of Tiger Woods or Lance Armstrong in godlike terms? Amidon suggests that we do so at our own peril. “People who once only expected the athlete to play with courage and skill now look to him for guidance in matters that have nothing to do with scoring goals or hitting home runs,” Amidon writes. “Although he has occasionally risen to this challenge, these great expectations have mostly led to an increasingly profound sense of disillusionment.”

— T. Rees Shapiro