Under a burning Greek sun one Saturday morning last month, more than 500 runners hooked their bare toes into the grooved starting line of the ancient sports stadium at Nemea, and kicked up a little dust on its track for the first time in more than 2,000 years. In the old days, the Nemean Games were one of four sport and religious festivals that made up the peridos or “circuit,” of which the most important was the Olympic Games. But the men and women who took off their shoes and slipped into tunics to run through the ruins at Nemea last month did not have to be especially fast. They were competing for old times, not record times.
“Many of us are dismayed by developments in the modern Olympics—their commercialism seems to overwhelm the sportsmanship,” argues Stephen Miller, the American classics professor who has supervised excavation of the Nemean stadium since 1973 and who helped organize the day of races. “We were trying to forge a link back to the fourth century B.C., to allow people to touch and feel what those ancient festivals were really like.” So although the participants at Nemea did not compete in the nude as in classical times, they did run barefoot because, says Miller, “with our shoes off, our common humanity is revealed.” As in antiquity, prizes were wreaths of wild celery—inedible, certain to wither and die—evidence that victory was neither profitable nor eternal.
As the modern Games reach their 100th birthday, grumbling about the betrayal of ancient ideals has become almost an Olympic sport in itself. Everyone knows the refrain. Money is murdering the spirit of sportsmanship. Endorsement riches tempt wanna-be millionaires to cheat. All that flagwaving nationalism mocks the ethos of harmony and brotherhood. Somehow, the Olympics—alone among international sports festivals—are supposed to remain above the raw nationalism and commercialism that afflicts, say, soccer’s World Cup.
It is a seductive argument. Who doesn’t feel a pang of dismay at the Burger King poster that puts a Whopper into the hand of the famous sculpture of the discus thrower? And at first glance, those ancient Games did set an extraordinarily high moral standard. Wars stopped for the classical Games; 20th century armies fight on. The ancient Games did not miss a four-year beat over a millennium, while in just one century three modern Olympiads have been cancelled because of war.
But closer scrutiny pokes holes in this idyll. The historical record—handed down from the literature and painted pottery that survive—uncovers a less romantic picture of those five-day festivals held in the sweltering Elis valley. Participation—the modern Games’ lofty exhortation that virtue is “not in the winning but the
Competition was just as ruthless in ancient Greece
taking part”—never carried much weight in antiquity. “It was not enough to excel, you had to win,” says classical scholar Judith Swaddling, curator of an exhibition on the ancient Olympics at London’s British Museum in the 1980s. There was no glory, and no prize, for finishing second or third. Odes were written for and riches awaited only the winners, and the glory they brought their home city-state encouraged rich benefactors to subsidize some athletes to train full time. A dictionary would call them professionals.
The rush for Olympic wreaths tempted some athletes to bribe their way to victory or bend rules. “There’s plenty of evidence of cheating,” says Swaddling, pointing out a fifth-century B.C. drinking cup on which two pankratiasts—an early form of Extreme Fighting in which only biting and gouging were prohibited—are digging their thumbs into each other’s eyes. In those days, city-states anted up fines to build statues to Zeus if their athletes were caught cheating (imagine Canadians digging into their pockets for a monument to cover Ben Johnson’s shame). Disputes over bumping and tripping other runners were common—which puts Mary Decker-Slaney’s 1984 tumble at the feet of Zola Budd in historical context. Tired of businesses exploiting the Olympics to turn a buck? Ancient Games were magnets for merchants, including prostitutes who worked outside the stadium grounds—women being barred, of course, from actually attending. Upset by the emphasis on national medal counts? “Do you not know that I am fighting for the glory of Greece?” the boxer Clitomachus demanded of the Greek crowd that was cheering on the Egyptian underdog Aristonicus. “Would you prefer an Egyptian to carry off the Olympic wreath?” The crowd swung to Clitomachus who, invigorated, pummelled the Egyptian. Even the much-admired Olympic truce was hardly a utopian act. Wars were stopped solely so that athletes and spectators could travel safely to the Games. Chariot races and foot races were regarded as simply a proxy for battle and training for war.
So the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympics might mark the moment to shuck off that mythical baggage from ancient times. It is precisely because it will be an overhyped, extravagant carnival for elite athletes that Atlanta is a continuum of Olympic history, a link to the worst as well as the best of man’s sporting history. As the first-century travel writer Epictetus noted: “There are enough irksome and troublesome things in life; aren’t things just as bad at the Olympic festival? Aren’t you scorched there by the fierce heat? Aren’t you crushed in the crowd? Aren’t you bothered by the noise, the din, and other nuisances? But it seems to me,” he continued, “that you are well able to bear, and indeed gladly endure all this, when you think of the gripping spectacles that you will see.”
All he forgot to mention was the traffic on the interstate. □
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