Olympia lies in a quiet, though easily accessible, corner of Greece. The beauty of the site, a hollow between gentle, well-watered hills, impressed the ancients. Even more important than the landscape was the impression that in that quiet countryside time had stood still. The tourist of Roman times could observe that sacrifices at Olympia were still performed “in, the archaic manner”: the simple country offerings of honey cakes and wine took him straight back to the uncluttered origins of the human race.
Throughout its long history, Olympia remained a holy place. The temple of Zeus was its center—not the stadium. Its monuments were altars and votive statues—not athletic facilities. Zeus sat in this temple: his statue, made by Phidias, became one of the Seven Wonders of the World. But centuries before the statue was installed—since 776 BC, to be precise—the games that took place at Olympia for five days every four years had been part of the worship of Zeus. This was the way in which Greeks worshipped—whether it was the worship of Zeus by games at Olympia, of Apollo, by the Pythian games at Delphi, or of Poseidon, by the Isthmian games at Corinth.
Without this connection with the worship of Zeus, an ancient Greek would have found the games themselves not merely shorn of colorful ceremonial trappings, but unintelligible. For this reason alone, the modern reader who approaches the subject hoping to find an equivalent in ancient Olympia to the modern events that go under the same name is bound for a great surprise: it would be as if a sports correspondent, setting out to cover the Montreal Olympics, should find that he had been sent, instead, to cover the Holy Week ceremonies at Seville.
Furthermore, the Greeks trooped to Olympia from all over the Mediterranean, and later from all over the Near East, in order to celebrate their own intractable oddity. Merely because we have imitated what we thought they did at the games, we should not be lulled into taking for granted the oddity of the fact that they had games at all. For to any non-Greek, the type of male competitiveness that went into the contests of which Greek games consisted was far too explosive to be handled in so light-hearted a way. The ancient Egyptians did not have games; the Jews of Palestine, when offered them, did not want them. This was not necessarily because these societies were stratified, cowed, or unwarlike. It was often the opposite: too high a value was placed upon male honor, and maintaining it involved too formidable a mechanism of retaliation for them to gamble with the affronts to which this honor might be exposed by the kind of athletic competition that the Greeks practiced. In most societies, images of male success and violence were either kept where they were directly useful, in warfare, or deflected, in hunting, safely away from touchy fellow humans on to the animal kingdom. It is not surprising that …