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The Myth of the Olympics


In Athens it is all over. The Olympic flame is extinguished for another two years. The tumult and the shouting dies; the trainers and the fans depart. Questions still linger about the Olympic Games. They “returned,” we were ecstatically told, to Greece. What does that mean? What were those ancient Games, why were they important then, and why are they still alive now?

Olympia, a rather inaccessible place in the west of the Peloponnese, was a very ancient site of cult practices. Even before 1000 BCE, so pottery found there indicates, it was a site of religious activity. It was a long way (in ancient terms) from Athens, and a long way also from Mount Olympus, the mountain in the north on whose summit Zeus assembled the other gods for those rowdy communal meals and lively discussions which impress and divert the audience of the Homeric poems. “The Olympian” is Zeus; he is the dominant god both on Olympus and at Olympia, as Athena was in Athens and Apollo at Delphi. “Olympus” is a pre-Greek word, unrelated to anything in the language of the incomers who settled down to become the people whom we call Greeks, but who called themselves, as they still call themselves, Hellenes.

Sporting contests have a long history in Greece. Before them, it seems, in the second millennium BCE, the Hittites in Asia Minor were holding chariot races. Sport is in our literature from the very beginning: Homer presents the heroes at Troy honoring the dead Patroclus, Achilles’ dear friend, with a great show of athletic contests, unforgettably recorded in the penultimate book of the Iliad. The Roman poet Virgil, creating the Aeneid, felt that his epic would be incomplete without them, and his Fifth Book contains funeral games for Aeneas’ father, in which the straightforward Homeric interest in sporting contests and individual personalities gives place to a virtuoso display of elaborate and learned poetical effects, the chief creative strengths of a poet who, we guess, was in private life no great sports fan.

Zeus presided at Olympia, and the Games had a religious flavor alien to the modern event. Also alien is the presence of competitions in musical performance, vocal and instrumental. The modern program, exclusively athletic, gives a much more one-sided impression. It is a quaint detail that a competitor convicted of cheating had to pay a fine, and the money was spent on the creation and erection of a full-size, or perhaps we should say man-size, bronze statue of Zeus. By late antiquity sixteen of these “Zeuses” were on display.

All competitors had to be men. That was taken no less for granted by those who revived the Games at the end of the nineteenth century. As late as 1928 there were still only five athletic events for women. Competitors had also to be Greek speakers; later on, of course, the point needed to be stretched for Romans. It needed to be stretched a good deal further, if the Roman emperor himself showed up as a competitor. In 68 CE Nero did that, entering both for athletic and for musical events. We read without surprise that he was victorious in all of them, winning the chariot race despite having the misfortune to fall from his chariot—one does not envy the judges, who had somehow to find a way of declaring him still the winner—and being duly hailed as “the greatest victor of all time.” One is reminded of Hitler, having himself proclaimed “the greatest field commander of all times,” der grösste Feldherr aller Zeiten: der Gröfaz, as it was subversively abbreviated. But—as with Hitler—it didn’t last. One year later Nero was deposed and murdered, and his whole triumphant Olympiad was promptly declared invalid and struck from the official lists.

The great period of the Games began in the eighth century BCE; they flourished, with few interruptions (though a Games was never actually canceled), for more than a thousand years, being finally closed down by the Christians, as a pagan cult, about 400 CE. Their original occasion is unclear. The simplest theory is that they were funeral games, and that view is represented in some ancient writers, who associate the first games with the death of Pelops, after whom the Peloponnese was named. Others have emphasized the connection with military training.

It is a seductive theory, as we shall see, that their origin was in reality connected with fertility. Later on, it is true, it was the chariot race which was the most spectacular and eye-catching event, with some of the atmosphere of modern car racing: it was expensive to enter, and it involved the danger of crashes. But always the senior event was the foot race, over a distance of some two hundred yards. Its winner had the honor of kindling the fire for the sacrifices, and his name is often used to date the Olympiad in which he won. Thus one way of referring to the year we call 490 BCE was “the third year of the Olympiad in which Tisicrates of Croton won the foot race for the second time.”

Tisicrates can serve also to bring us to the great unknown about the ancient Games: the existence of parallel games for women. The main games were closed to married women—we hear of the mother of one competitor disguising herself as a man to witness his victory, and being unmasked when she made an incautiously revealing gesture at the moment of triumph. She was spared death, we read, because of her exceptional athletic connections: in addition to her son, she was the sister and daughter of Olympic victors. A late source tells us that unmarried girls were admitted to watch the men, but one suspects that, if any, they were few.

The games for women were certainly taboo to men. They were held in honor of Zeus’ wife, Hera, and managed by a body of sixteen matrons. The course for the foot race, we read, was shorter by a sixth than that for men. We have almost no information about these Heraea, since our sources are all male, and they evidently knew very little about the matter. Our chief evidence is the indirect evidence of myth, and that is highly suggestive for the origin and nature of the Olympic Games.

It was pointed out by F.M. Cornford that the myths are full of stories of young men racing to win a bride. Sometimes the suitor carries off the girl from an obstructive father, as was done by no less significant a person for the Games than Pelops, their legendary founder, whose tomb was shown at Olympia. He carried off Hippodameia in his chariot, and her angry father gave chase in his; but Pelops had bribed the father’s groom to sabotage his vehicle, and the father crashed to his death. The beautiful outdoor girl Atalanta declared that she would marry only a man who could beat her in a foot race, the losers to be put to death, in the manner of Puccini’s Turandot; her successful suitor, too, needed a bit of foul play in order to win, dropping on the track beautiful golden apples, which cost her vital time when she lacked the self-control not to stop and pick them up. Danaus, King of Argos, had fifty daughters; faced with the problem of pairing them with husbands, he lined them up along the finishing line of a foot race, and, as each runner came panting in, gave him his pick from the rapidly diminishing bevy still available. More examples could be produced.

At the first modern Olympic Games, in Athens in 1896, the marathon was won by a Greek runner. It warms the heart of the classicist to read that

a well-born young lady was said to have promised herself in marriage to the winner, if he were Greek. A legend only, it appears, but quite in the ancient spirit.

Such a repeated mythical pattern must be taken to reflect something in the real world. It is a plausible inference that originally the winner of the foot race for men and the winner of that for women became, as we say, an item, but with some religious significance. That memory lingered on in the classical period, when all this was long past as a custom, and it contributed to the aura of sexual magic which continued to attach to the male victors for whom, in the fifth century BCE, Pindar wrote his splendid odes. Men look on the victor with admiration, he says, and girls (euphemistically) “take an interest.” Nor is that all. The youthful victor, magnificent in his strength and his triumph, was a pinup for men, too, the focus of erotically charged attention in those nude athletics: the word gymnos, root of “gymnasium” and “gymnastics,” means naked, and Greek athletes did perform nude. The Romans, like the Christians, were horrified. That, like religion, is an aspect of the ancient Games that is kept to a minimum at our modern events.

Successful athletes tended to come from the wealthier families, who could afford the arduous training, the time off from gainful work, and the journey to Olympia. There was no national Athenian or Theban team to take care of expenses. A victory strengthened the family’s position, both social and political. In fact, the prestige of Olympic victors was so great that some of them went on to seize power in their cities and become what the Greeks called tyrants. In the view of their supporters, Olympic victors shed glory on their home towns; but the democracy was not very keen on such larger-than-life figures. When the notorious Alcibiades, the most charismatic Athenian of his time, entered several chariots in the Olympic race and succeeded in taking first, second, and fourth position, it was widely seen as evidence that he was too big for his, or for the city’s, boots; and Alcibiades soon found himself in exile.

A final difference. Greeks did not possess our accurate timepieces, and they had no idea of comparing the performance of this year’s winners with those of last year, or of any previous occasion. There was no conception of breaking records. There also were no silver and bronze medals for the athletes who came second and third. It was all or nothing. That is all the more striking, because in Homer’s description of the funeral games held for Patroclus there are indeed prizes, and quite generous ones, offered for the second and third. In the chariot race, indeed, prizes extend right down to the fifth to reach the finish. Number four, we see with some surprise, received two talents of gold; but the winner got “a woman, skilled in handiwork” (any erotic implication is left firmly unexpressed), and a fine large tripod with “ears,” ring-shaped handles. But in classical competitions the aim was simple: it was to win; nothing could be less true to the spirit of the ancient Games than the good Baron de Coubertin’s edifying notion that what was important was not winning but taking part. The victor was, in his moment of victory, supreme.

So supreme was he, in fact, that the line distinguishing mortal men from gods was drawn, at times, into question. Pindar compares his victorious athletes to the heroes of myth, sons of gods and goddesses, to Achilles and Ajax and Heracles. In the fifth century BCE the great boxer Diagoras of Rhodes, himself an Olympic victor, saw both his sons win victories at the same Games. At that supreme moment one of the bystanders, seeing the old man supported on the shoulders of his sons, both freshly crowned with the Olympic wreath of olive leaves, uttered the memorable words: “You had better die now, Diagoras, for you can’t ascend to heaven.” That is: “You have attained the summit of felicity which is accessible to a mortal; from now on, it will be just downhill all the way. Quit while you are ahead!”

The Greek gods saw no need to bestow eternal happiness on anyone after death. Pindar, too, often reminds his victors that this is the limit: immortality is not available. It is a significant, perhaps rather sour, afternote that we find Diagoras giving his name to the reactionary faction, the Diagoreioi, who fought to detach their island of Rhodes from the league devised and dominated by the Athenians, which imposed democracies, as far as the league could, on the island states of the Aegean.

Nigel Spivey, of Cambridge, gives a good survey of the Olympics, well informed and concise, but not unopinionated. He is anxious to debunk the Olympic myth (the word “snobbery” occurs frequently in his pages). If we had been able to visit Olympia in its classical heyday, he says, we should not have liked it much: “it must have reeked to high heaven”; it was bloody and noisy; and it “should not be idealized with too much faded grandeur.”

As for the origin of the Games, in his view, that is simple: it is war.

The entire programme of athletic “games” could be rationalized as a set of drills for cavalry and infantry fighting…. Essentially…all the games were war games.

That is, no doubt, one strand of thought. But we cannot help noticing that many contemporary Greeks did not see athletics in that light at all. The poet Tyrtaeus, the philosopher Xenophanes, the tragedian Euripides, all contrast athletics sharply with military service, regarding such activities as being its opposite. Nobody is a better soldier, a more reliable defender of his country in battle, says a character in Euripides, for his skill at punching an opponent or his skill at wrestling with him. And there is a notably bad match between the solo performances and exclusively individual ethos of Greek athletic competition (there were no relay races, no team games, and no team spirit) and the homogenized and collective nature of hoplite warfare: serried ranks advancing together, each man covering his left-hand neighbor with his shield and in turn depending on his right-hand neighbor to cover him. No room there for individual excellence; the emphasis is all on holding one’s ground and supporting one’s comrades.

Spivey is right, though, to emphasize the central role of the gymnasium in the life of a citizen of a classical Greek city. It served as one’s club, as the place to hang out, and often (it is clear) for intrigues, both political and sexual. The community approved: the position of gymnasiarch, the person responsible for a gymnasium, could be both honorific and correspondingly expensive. Some gymnasia were the scene of intellectual discussions, if there were regulars who had a taste for them.

Spivey also sets out what we know of the rewards of the victor. We have all been told that the Greeks competed for nothing more than a symbolic garland; that piece of information was crucial for the nineteenth-century cult of the amateur at British public schools, elite academies in North America, and the early years of the modern Olympics. It was never really true. There were in fact very large rewards. An Athenian who won an Olympic crown, for instance, was entitled to dine free of charge in the town hall for the rest of his life. At the greatest Athenian games, the Panathenaea (All Athens Festival), a runner could win, it seems, a hundred jars of the best Athenian olive oil, each holding something like thirty-eight liters. Not an inconsiderable prize.


That brings us to the other athletic festivals of the Greeks. They were surprisingly numerous, and there were athletes who must have spent their time going from one to another. Pindar lists the victories of one or two such men, carrying off a woollen cloak here, a silver jug there, and so on. But four stood out as tops: the Olympic Games, held every four years; the Pythian, held at Apollo’s great shrine of Delphi in the third year of each Olympic cycle; the Nemean, held every other year at a site sacred to Zeus in the Peloponnese; and the Isthmian, celebrated in honor of Poseidon, in alternate years with the Nemeans, at the Isthmus of Corinth.

Professor Panos Valavanis, of the University of Athens, has produced an interesting and intelligible general account, very handsomely illustrated, of these four festivals, and of the Panathenaea. Delphi, second in importance for athletics, but in some ways at least the equal of Olympia, was exceedingly rich in the offerings made by visitors, some remarkable bits of which still survive, and also in legends; the oracular shrine of its prophetic god contrived to become the most important in Greece, and both Attic tragedy (think of the story of Oedipus as it unfolds in Sophocles) and the history of Herodotus are full of stories about it. The site is a magnificent one, a great cleft in the mountains, haunted still by eagles, and for the ancients the center of the earth. (Zeus proved it, by releasing an eagle simultaneously from each end of the world: Delphi was the place where they met.) It was felt to be special from an early date, and the local museum is rich in Mycenaean and later artifacts.

The great buildings and statues of Olympia and Delphi, of which there survive tantalizing and evocative remains, are well illustrated in Valavanis’s book. Phidias, greatest sculptor of antiquity, created the colossal statue of Zeus for his temple at Olympia, 12.4 meters high, covered in ivory and gold. One of the Seven Wonders of the World, it gave classic form to the Greeks’ conception of their supreme god, and it survived until the fifth century CE, when it was removed to Byzantium and soon destroyed in a fire. We have a number of pictures of it; we also have a most poignant discovery, the pottery cup on which is written “I belong to Phidias.” It was left behind, along with other suggestive debris, in his workshop at Olympia.

In antiquity several wars were fought, at various times, for the right to control the Olympic Games. The cities of Argos, Elis, and Sparta all tried to seize them. The modern Games have a strikingly similar history, entertainingly set out by Alexander Kitroeff, of Haverford College. If the Olympics were to be revived in the modern world, where should they be held? From 1850 William Penny Brookes held a series of “Olympic Games” in the improbable setting of Much Wenlock, in Shropshire, England, where they still continue. But it was, of course, the passionately held conviction of the Greeks that the Olympics belonged in Greece and should only be held there. That idea has always had supporters. It was only after all sorts of intrigues and compromises that the present Olympic timetable and rotation were agreed.

The wealthy Evangelis Zappas financed the “Zappas Olympics” in Greece in 1859, 1870, 1875, and 1889, in which sporting events came second to agricultural and industrial material exhibitions. Greece even tried the experiment of interpolating an extra Games in Athens in 1906, which the official Olympic movement has rather sulkily refused to recognize. The idea of a permanent home in Greece was revived in 1945, floated by Senator Bill Bradley in 1976, and seriously discussed as recently as 1980. It was strengthened by various disasters in the Games held elsewhere: the outrage felt over some of the Nazis’ behavior at the Berlin Games of 1936, and the boycotting by the Soviet Union of the Montreal and Los Angeles Games (1976 and 1984), and by much of the West of the Moscow Games (1980). There was also the murder of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Games of 1972.

Less tragic, but still disturbing, have been the repeated recent allegations of corruption, both by individuals and by nations trying to secure the Games for one of their own cities. Corruption is a sad fact of sporting life; but at least we have not, since 1896, witnessed any actual wars fought for the right to host the Olympics.

Athletics has never been immune to an acute sense of class distinction. Gentlemen were reluctant to compete with artisans, and the history of amateurism and shamateurism is one of the more comical sidelights on the human animal. Already in the fourth century BCE, the son of the high-born Alcibiades is found declaring that his father went in for the equestrian events but

looked down on the athletic events, knowing that many of the contestants were of low birth, came from obscure states, and were not well educated.

In the early years of the revived Olympics it was felt by many that the purity of the Paris and St. Louis Games (1900, 1904), both of which turned out disappointingly, was contaminated by the simultaneous, rather opportunistic opening in those cities of World’s Fairs. In St. Louis there were also embarrassingly racist “anthropological days,” exhibiting to enlightened gaze and superior amusement the native sports of non-European peoples.

Nations compete and intrigue passionately, and very expensively, for the right to host the Games. Politics can be kept out only with great difficulty and perhaps never with complete success. The 1948 Games were awarded to London, it seems, as a sort of reward for the British part in the recent war. The connection with nationalism is especially important for Greece. The Olympics have been a central strand in that link with the classical past which helped to establish the identity of the modern Greek nation: it was to be seen not as a mere fragment of the decaying Ottoman Empire, backward and impoverished, remote from the history and the interests of the West, but on the contrary the motherland of art, science, and education, the home of a great and still vital tradition. Sport was something respected by the leading nations of the West in the nineteenth century. So it is not surprising that we find Greek writers asking, as early as 1833, “Where are our Olympic Games?” Agitation on the topic recurred sporadically through the century. Major Greek soccer teams with names like Olympiakos and Panathenaikos show that in Greece the connection with antiquity, even now, appeals to sportsmen no less than to intellectuals.

After great exertions, the Greeks got the modern Olympics established in Athens in 1896. Athens had hoped to get the centennial Games, in 1996, but in the event had to wait until 2004, when skillful lobbying brought the Games “home.” Michael Llewellyn Smith, sometime British ambassador in Athens, sets out the surprisingly long and complex story of the first Games. The excavation of the ancient site of Olympia comes into it. Begun tentatively in the eighteenth century, it was carried out properly by German archaeologists from 1875 on. Oscar Wilde, an undergraduate at Oxford, visited the site in 1877, apparently without asking his college for leave of absence; he was suspended on his return, allowing him to say, “I was sent down from Oxford for being the first undergraduate to visit Olympia.”

The Games were reborn under highly international auspices. German scholars excavated the ancient site; a Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, author of L’Education en Angleterre, and a passionate supporter of sport as part of education, led the agitation for the revival of the Games; the prestige of the public schools and their cult of sport made the proposal irresistible in Britain. But the hauteur of the public school men proved in one way disastrous. Surprisingly few Britons took part in the first Games, in 1896: apparently they were waiting for formal invitations, which did not arrive.

The mechanics of ancient athletics, including such questions as “How did the starting gate for a race actually work?” are interestingly discussed by Stephen G. Miller of Berkeley, himself the excavator of the sporting arena at Nemea. His account is admirably inclusive, and he brings out, as most writers on this subject fail to do, the importance of these great gatherings, above all of the Olympics, as a setting for musicians, philosophers, quacks, politicians, and all sorts of people in search of publicity or profit.

The significance of the Olympics is not exhausted. We can point also to the beginnings of accurate chronology, since the Olympic victor lists were made basic to the dating system devised and accepted by later Greek writers. No less important, perhaps, is the role of the Olympics in getting the Greeks, in sharp contrast with most of their neighbors, to embrace the nude in art: something which was to be absolutely central to their aesthetic, and to its rediscovery in the Renaissance.

That suggests one final thought. There are those, said Plato, who go to the Olympics to compete; there are those who go to watch; and there are those who go to buy and sell things. Of the three, he characteristically adds, the noblest are those who go to watch, for their activity is closest to pure contemplation, the highest activity of the human mind. It is a striking thought that in our own time many would vote to give the most honored place to the competitors, the jocks who work out, while others would prefer to single out the entrepreneurs who promote economic progress (and often benefit themselves); but few or none would vote for the observer, the mere spectator, who is the standing butt of rebukes, delivered de haut en bas, from our social and political commentators. The sports fan, so often patronized by the contemporary highbrow, can console himself that he has the approval of the king of philosophers.

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