Super Bowl

February 3, 2013
February 5, 2012

It may not be an official holiday, but today is one of the most spiritual days in American culture. For today, over 100 million Americans gather together and pray…that their team will win the Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl is of paramount importance to Americans, and one can tell, not only because of the vast media attention and commercialism that surround it, but because they apply Roman numerals to it., e.g., Super Bowl XLIII.

The location of the Super Bowl changes each year and is determined three to five years in advance. Unlike championships for basketball and baseball, the location has nothing to do with the teams involved. Though 2009’s contenders hail from Pittsburgh and Arizona, Super Bowl XLIII takes place in Tampa Bay, which is expected to see a $300 million boost to its economy because of the festivities. No team has ever played in the Super Bowl on its own turf.

Those spectators who aren’t among the 100,000 or so to attend the live festivities gather in small communal groups, usually in the home of whichever friend has the largest TV. [In previous years Super Bowl week has seen the purchase of 1.5 million TV sets, although that number may have gone down this year.]

Almost as important as the game itself are the commercials during the Super Bowl, which have become a phenomenon in themselves. A 30-second spot during the Super Bowl will cost about $3 million, enough to feed a family of four for four centuries.

There’s a reason they’re so expensive.  According to approximately 140 million Americans watched Super Bowl XLI, more than the number that went out to celebrate New Year’s Eve. The exact number is unknown, since many viewers watch in groups, but Neilson estimates that of the top ten primetime network telecasts since 2000, the Super Bowl has accounted for nine of them.

Super Bowl is also the U.S.’s second-highest food-consumption day of the year, right behind Thanksgiving.

Speaking of which, Reverend Matthew Lawrence, Rector of the Church of the Incarnation in Santa Rosa, has written a Super Bowl Confessional Prayer, in which he points out the similarities between the Super Bowl of today and the bloody “games” of the Roman Coliseum, where unruly pagan crowds once rooted for the slaughter of early Christians:

Most merciful God,
Forgive us for what we are about to do;

For our blood-curdling cries,
Lord, have mercy;
For our lust for violence,
Lord, have mercy;
For our emulation of military conquest,
Lord, have mercy;
For our favor to the strong,
Lord, have mercy;
For our scorn upon the weak,
Lord, have mercy;
For the vengeance which we seek
upon enemies whom we oppose for the most arbitrary of reasons,
Lord, have mercy.

We acknowledge and bewail our mortal sins and weaknesses;
We are troubled by these dark comparisons:
the football stadium and the coliseum;
the fans and the pagan mobs;
the star athletes and the demigods;
the linebackers and the gladiators;
the cheerleaders and the furies;
the commentators and the chorus;
the corporations and the slave owners.

We can only hope that you see, as we do,
that this is only a game;
and that you haven’t lost your sense of humor.
Despite appearances to the contrary, our heart remains faithful to you.
Even as we glory in the spectacle of our football enemies
being pounded into the dust, we will strive to remember you.

God, be with those who will taste dirt this day.
Heal those who will be injured;
Console the losers with gratitude for the privilege of having played;
Ennoble the victors with gentle reminders of their mortality;
And show your favor toward all contestants
Who this day will shed their blood and break their bones
for our trivial sakes…


Ludi Romani – Roman Games

September 13


The Romans knew how to party. So much so that their toga ensemble has become the symbol of a decadent good time, especially in the “Greek” system in colleges across North America. Of course the Greeks didn’t wear togas—the Romans got it from the Etruscans—but we’ll let that slide.

Thanks to writers like Ovid and Cicero, we know that every month of the Roman calendar was flooded with festivals and sacred days for the pantheon of gods and goddesses. With one exception:


There were only two notable holidays in the seventh month. (September didn’t become the 9th month until the second century BC.)

On September 13th, Romans observed the Ides, the day honoring the Roman king of the gods, Jupiter.

But the Romans honored Jupiter every month on the Ides. The 15th of March, May, July, October, and December; the 13th of all other months.

The other September event was known as Ludi Romani, or the “Roman Games“.

Ludi Romani was one of the most anticipated and biggest events of the year, and in its heyday stretched for over two full weeks, from September 4 to September 19.

According to tradition, the first games were instituted by King Tarquinius Pricscus (Tarquin the Elder) in the 6th century BC, after a Roman military conquest. He created the Circus Maximus to hold such an event.

recreation of Circus Maximus
How the Circus Maximus would have looked

The Circus Maximus was constructed between two of Rome’s seven hills, Aventine Hill and Palatine Hill. At over 2,000 feet long, the Circus could seat upwards of 150,000 spectators, and more could view the Games from the surrounding hillsides.

The main event of the Games was chariot racing, or ludi circenses. These races could be far bloodier than any Ben Hur movie. Other attractions included boxing, battles with wild animals, and gladiator bouts, though these were all later moved to other venues designed for such events. (The lack of a barrier between the stands and the track didn’t protect spectators too well from wild animals.)

Originally the Games were only one day, then two: September 12th and 14th.

The Games were celebrated intermittently until 366 BC when they became “the first set of Ludi to receive annual sponsorship by the Roman state…” (The Roman Games: a Sourcebook, by Alison Futrell)

Three years later, ludi scaenici, or theater plays inspired by the Greek, premiered at the Games.

By the time of Julius Caesar the Games lasted two full weeks. After his assassination, Rome honored him…by adding another day.

Three Manly Games – Naadam in Mongolia

July 11

This week thousands of Mongolians gather to celebrate Revolution Day, July 11, and to compete in Mongolia’s biggest festival: Eriin Gurvan Naadam, or the Three Games of Men.

The “Three Manly Sports” as they’re called, are: Archery, Wrestling, and Horseback-riding. (Sorry guys, for whatever reason Ultimate Frisbee didn’t make the cut.)

“For 2,000 years, these three sports were not just entertainment, but a vital part of military training for the nomadic tribes of the steppes between Siberia and China.”  — Christian Roy, Traditional Festivals

Naadam ceremony 2006, photo by Vidor
Naadam 2006

Around a thousand years ago the three activities merged into the Naadam Festival. The historic games were a rite of strength and courage among the region’s nomadic warriors. In the 13th century Genghis Khan and grandson Kublai incorporated Naadam into the political ceremony of the newly unified nation.

The festival began to be celebrated every third year under the religious leader Zanabazar in 1641. In the 20th century the government moved the annual celebration to July 11 to commemorate the Mongolian Revolution of 1921.

Naadam means “to play.” Day One of the three-day festival begins with the Mongolian President’s inaugural speech and the impressive opening ceremonies, followed by archery and wrestling in Ulaanbaatar Stadium. The wrestling bouts are a sight to behold. According to journalist Ron Gluckman,

“The field is empty when the national anthem is chanted by the crowd. Then, without warning, hundreds of men suddenly toss aside robes, and scream madly as they bound down into the arena, stripped down to little more than leather boxing shorts.” — The Alternative Olympics

A wrestler is out the moment his elbow or knee hits the ground. Two full days of intensive bouts whittles the playing field down from 512 wrestlers to just two. There’s no division by size—the smallest wrestler can prove himself against the largest. Legend has it that a woman won one year, which is why the men now wear revealing tops. Wrestling is the only one of the three ‘manly’ sports in which women aren’t allowed to compete.

Women's archery, Naadam, 2005

The archery competition involves Mongolia’s weapon of choice since the 12th century. The arrows are made of willow, vulture feathers, and bone, and bows are strung with bull tendons. Mongolians are proud to point out that their ancestors perfected the bow as a weapon, and that even back in 1224 AD, according to the ancient Stone of Genghis Khan, a Mongolian archer named Yesunke hit a target 536 meters away in a competition organized by Genghis himself.

Mongolians learn to ride horses before they can walk. According to the UB Post, back in the day the Naadam races included up to 45,000 jockeys. The races take place out on the open steppes. Children as young as 6 compete, as well as women, who often do so in stiletto heels. (Mongolian women love their stiletto heels. Even the policewomen wear them.) Finishing first in the race is no small honor. The winner gets to bow before the President of Mongolia.

After hundreds of years, Naadam is still a vital part of Mongolia’s national heritage. For three days, beginning on Mongolia’s national day, Mongolians celebrate mastery of the three skills that allowed a group of horsemen to conquer much of two continents.

Mongol Archer
Mongol Archer

Turkey – Youth and Sports Day

May 19

Four of Turkey’s national holidays stem from the Turkish War for Independence (1919-1923). Youth and Sports Day commemorates the beginning of the Turkish War for Independence on May 19, 1919.

*  *  *

After World War I, the Ottoman Empire found itself under the influence of Western powers. Sultan Mehmed VI appointed Mustafa Kemal, a general and hero of WWI, to oversee demobilization of army divisions. However, concerned about foreign dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, Mustafa Kemal took a ferry from Istanbul to Samsun on the main Turkish peninsula on May 19, 1919 to rally support for a unified, independent Turkey. His landing is considered the beginning of the Turkish War of Independence.

In Ankara the following year, Mustafa Kemal convened the first Turkish Grand National Assembly. In 1921 and 1922 he defeated the Greek army at the battles of Sakarya and Dumlupinar, and he refused to sign any treaty that undermined Turkish sovereignty. The Treaty of Lausanne recognized Turkey’s independence in 1923 and Mustafa Kemal became the country’s first president in October of that year. He remained in power until his death in 1938.

Mustafa Kemal established Youth and Sports Day during his presidency; however, since his death, Turks have observed it more as “Commemoration of Ataturk.”

Ataturk is Mustafa Kemal’s honorary title. It means “Father of the Turks.”

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Basra, 1924
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Basra, 1924

Kentucky Derby

1st Saturday in May

…it’s a run for the roses
as fast as you can.
Your fate is delivered,
your moment’s at hand.
It’s the chance of a lifetime
in a lifetime of chance
And it’s high time you joined
in the dance.

Run For the Roses, Dan Fogelberg

Exterminator, winner of the 1918 Kentucky Derby

On the first Saturday in May, the eyes of the country are on a bunch of three year olds. For roughly two minutes.

Since 1875 the Kentucky Derby has showcased the fastest three year-old thoroughbred horses in the country. The Bluegrass region of Kentucky became known for American horse breeding back in the 18th century. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. conceived of the race after witnessing the Derbies of England and France on a European tour in the 1860s.

The Kentucky Derby is the first of the races that make up the U.S. Triple Crown, the other two being the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. Eleven horses have won all three races of the Triple Crown. The first was Sir Barton in 1919. The last was Affirmed in 1978.

The Derby is often called the “Run for the Roses” because the winner receives 554 roses, not to mention a hefty cash prize.

Only three horses have run the 2.5 km Kentucky Derby in under two minutes. The most recent was Monarchos in 2001 at 1:59.97. The previous sub-two minute finisher was Sham, who completed the 2.5 km race in 1:59 and 4/5s seconds. (They didn’t time the race to hundredths of a second back in 1973.) Despite being the second fastest horse in Kentucky Derby history, Sham didn’t win the race.

Sham was racing against Secretariat, the horse ranked by ESPN as one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. 1973 was the year Secretariat set the Kentucky Derby record that still stands to this day: 1:59 and 2/5’s seconds, barely edging out Sham in a race considered by many fans to be the greatest in the history of the sport.

Amazingly, Secretariat started out the 99th Kentucky Derby dead last. In fact, for much of the race, you can’t even see him in the TV footage. But he made a move unparalleled in Triple Crown history. He ran each length of the race faster than the last, overcoming his challengers one by one until finally beating out Sham.

After the Kentucky Derby, Secretariat went on to win the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes, and hence the U.S. Triple Crown, breaking a record at Belmont (2:24) that also still stands, and is the fastest race time ever recorded for 1 & 1/2 miles on dirt. His margin of victory in the Belmont Stakes (31 lengths) remains the largest cushion in Grade 1 stakes history.

Every year Derby fans wait to see if someone will match or even break Secretariat’s record. It hasn’t happened in the past 35 years, but it’s led at least one site to proclaim:


This year [2009] the favorite is I Want Revenge at 3:1.
Update: I Want Revenge was removed from the race this morning on account of a “hot spot” (suspected wound) on his leg. Apparently, revenge will have to wait.

published May 2, 2009