With the summer games approaching David Stuttard contrasts the ancient and modern Olympics:
While today’s Games stress inclusivity, their ancient counterparts were rigidly exclusive. To compete in this celebration of not just Greek (and, later, Greco-Roman) identity but of proud god-fearing masculinity, you had to speak Greek, be free from the pollution of murder — and be male. Women couldn’t even be spectators. Only the priestess of Demeter could attend.
The chief reason for these restrictions is that the original Games were not really about sport at all. Rather, they were one part of a major male religious festival in honor of the great god Zeus. Indeed, Olympia, site of the Games, was named for Mount Olympus, where Zeus was considered to have had his throne.
I’m not sure sure that the modern games aren’t religious — depending on your definition.
The first Games, in 776 B.C., were small-scale and local:
Apart from sacrifices and other religious rites, it included only one sporting event, a footrace of 200 yards, a distance which the Greeks called a stade (hence our “stadium”), and which took well under a minute to run.
The stade race, run at the midpoint of the Games, remained the centerpiece — so much so that in the fifth-century B.C., when it became desirable to introduce an internationally recognized dating system, the polymath philosopher Hippias hit on the formula, “in the xth year of the yth Olympiad, when z was victor in the footrace.”
The formula caught on, not only promoting the importance of the Games still further but becoming the means whereby a triumphant runner could win everlasting fame.
The words gymnasium and gymnastics come from a time before lycra:
Like other athletes at the Games, runners competed naked. Again, the origins of this tradition were debated, but the most well-known involved Orisippus, a young man from Megara near Athens. Until 720 B.C., loincloths were de rigueur, but that year Orisippus raced so vigorously that his fell off. When he crossed the line to victory, it was seen as a sign from the gods and henceforth any kind of clothing was banned.
But the athletes probably didn’t look exactly naked. By Roman times, if not before, it was common first to anoint the bodies of competitors in oil, then to sprinkle them with dust or powder. One treatise recommended the dust of terra-cotta for helping to open pores, asphalt dust for heating the chilled and yellow earth for softening the skin, commenting that: “Yellow dust also adds glisten, and is a delight to see on a body which is in good shape.” Athletes may well have looked like moving statues.
It was also a time before sunscreen.
There were no team events in the ancient Olympics, by the way.
I find the tone of this passage almost quaint, like something from the pre-UFC 1980s:
The only contact sport forbidden to boys was the pancration, an almost-no-holds-barred free-for-all, in which only biting and eye-gouging were prohibited. A Roman commentator reflected that the competitor must “endure black eyes…and learn holds by which the fallen can still win, and they must be skillful in the various arts of strangulation.”
One pancratist’s win was particularly unconventional. Arrhachion came from Phigalia, a city in mountainous Arcadia. In 564 B.C. the two-time winner came to Olympia where “his opponent, whoever he was, got a grip first and held Arrhachion with his legs squeezed around his neck at the same time. Meanwhile, Arrhachion dislocated a toe on his opponent’s foot but was strangled and expired. At the same time, however, Arrhachion’s opponent gave up because of the pain in his toe. The judges proclaimed Arrhachion the winner and crowned his corpse.”
The ethos has changed most of all:
When Baron de Coubertin revived — or reimagined — the Olympics in 1896, drawing on the ethos of both the ancient Games and English public schools for inspiration, he averred: “What is important in life is not to triumph, but to take part; what is essential is not to have won, but to have fought well.” This may have been a fine late-Victorian ideal, but it was far from the ancient view. At Olympia there were no prizes for coming second, and, fueled by the Homeric exhortation “always to be best,” the desire to win kudos at almost any cost motivated every competitor.
For the aristocratic elite, it was in that most dangerous and exciting of all events, the chariot race, that the most kudos could be earned. Since its introduction in 680 B.C., leading Greek families from Sicily to Libya to the mainland and beyond coveted this prize above all others, because to win it was a sign of immense wealth and good judgment — and, since they hired charioteers to race for them, they ran no physical risks themselves.
Now I’m wondering why there’s no gilded Trump NASCAR car.