Strength and Martial Arts: intertwined histories

Today I taught a class at Tracer, a Parkour facility owned by my friend Jean. I talked about the intertwined histories of the strength and martial arts – also known, today, as strength sports and combat sports.

The whole argument is simple but provocative. Both arts share a common origin: endemic war. The first manifestations of codified fighting techniques mastered by a special category of warriors are lost in the dawn of civilization and reach us through myth and legend. They are all related to some landmark in ancient endemic wars. The first manifestations of strength shows (feats of strength) are related to rites of passage, especially manhood rites of passage. The first strength games were public demonstrations of tribal strength, ritualized war displays. They, too, reach us through legend, but also through the stones they left.

Both arts share an origin in our species conflictive nature as it progressed from Paleolithic bands’ disputes over territory, ancient endemic war into medieval and modern wars. In both, however, our ancestors were able to produce a counterpoint to the conflictive raison d’etre. In the martial arts, fighting was an expression of honor. In the strength arts, they expressed inner strength. A spiritual perspective was the basis for a powerful ethos.

As both arts transmuted into institutionalized sports or military techniques, much of the ancient martial values of both were forgotten. Unfortunately, the setting in which we educate our fighters and lifters today leave little space to bring them into the fold of the traditional values.

As I dug the internet after images for my presentation I found some very interesting material about testing stones. One of them suggested that some of us do believe in recovering and restoring these practically lost values. In 2007, Randall J. Strossen tried to mobilize the lifting community to save the Fianna Stone. Why should he do this? Because, in his words, it is a “magnificent testing stone” and lifting it creates a connection both to the stone and to its location. A link to some forgotten past.

In my class today, were lost in dreams about this atavic bond to some essential sense of honor and belonging when one of the students asked me if there was some of this left in the lifting community today.

“No”, I said, free falling into reality. “Not in this, country, no”.

“What about in other countries, professor?” they asked.

I told them what I knew. That yes, there were clusters of lifters actually connected to a bond that went beyond buying themselves kitch trophies in fake competitions, only not in these tropical lands.

At some point they always come to the same question: is it possible to carve a space for sport shedding away all these deformities? Shallow egotism? Insane (fake) gold rush? Power games and power traffic? Degeneration of merit-based reward? Ugly intolerance and nationalism?

I don’t know the answer. And I am still here.


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