The Myth of the Olympics

Olympics in Athens, 1896: The Invention of the Modern Olympic Games

by Michael Llewellyn Smith
Profile Books, 290 pp., £16.99


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…

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