Ancient Olympics and the West

As more and more museums are hosting exhibitions related to the Olympic Games, the exhibition that Athens 2004 president Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki inaugurated at the Museum of Cycladic Art’s Stathatos Mansion on Wednesday evening has a different touch, since it focuses on the importance of the Olympic spirit for the ancient Greeks of the West. «Magna Graecia: Athletics and the Olympic Spirit in the Periphery of the Hellenic World – Southern Italy and Sicily,» which will run to the beginning of October, contains finds dating from the early sixth century BC to the second century AD. The highlight of the exhibition is the fifth-century statue of the so-called Charioteer of Motya, but visitors can also see clay vases, various objects the athletes used, coins, votive offerings and the striking model of a second-century AD stadium, made out of marble and found in Emperor Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli. The exhibition is complemented by a children’s booklet and audiovisual material. «We wanted to do something different, something that would be appropriate to Athens’s Olympic summer but which would also bear similarities between the ancient Olympics and our times,» said Professor Nicholas Stampolidis, director of the Museum of Cycladic Art, at a press conference earlier in the week. «We were inspired by Greece’s modern medal-winners, like (Katerina) Thanou, (Niki) Xanthou and (Costas) Kenteris, who originate in outlying parts of Greece, or even (Pyros) Dimas and (Valerios) Leonidis, who belong to the Greek diaspora.» The exhibition aims at highlighting the participation of the Greek cities of southern Italy and Sicily in Panhellenic Games held on the mainland, especially the Olympic Games, events where only Greeks were admitted. Stampolidis drew a parallel between the Greeks who traveled from the West to the East to participate in the Olympics after the official invitation by the theoroi and the journey of the exhibition’s finds, many of which are on loan from museums in Italy and the Vatican City. «This exhibition is important because it promotes a better understanding of the Olympic ideal and it points out the universal application of such values, all the more so in the era of globalization,» said Yiannis Pyrgiotis, executive director of Athens 2004. «The Games are a bridge of communication,» he added, before saying that they helped spread the ever-lasting values of Greek civilization. The most impressive exhibit is by far the Charioteer of Motya, the statue of a winner of the chariot race, dating to 470-460 BC. The statue, found in Mozia (ancient Motya) in 1979, is thought to have been snatched by the Cathagenians after they destroyed the Sicilian cities of Acragas and Selinus in the late fifth century BC; it was probably on display in either a temple or a public space in one of the two cities. Its height is 1.84 meters (from an estimated original of 1.94 meters) and the details on the body of the young charioteer, from the carefully made folds of his chiton to the cuticles on his left thumb, are very striking. Both of the statue’s arms are missing, but this fails to reduce the visual effect of the young man’s proud posture. Another of the exhibition’s highlights is the second-century AD marble model of a stadium, found in the grounds of Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, which was probably used for the construction of a full-size stadium. Visitors can also see black-figure and red-figure clay vases, arranged according to the competitions they present, which include the stadium, the long jump, discus and javelin throwing and the so-called heavy events, boxing and wrestling among others. Some of the vases have been attributed to well-known vase-painters and workshops of antiquity. The exhibition includes objects athletes used for training or to clean their bodies, coins minted to commemorate Olympic victories, votive offerings and funerary sculptures, where the marble statue of the youth from Agrigento and the bronze statue of the youth from Castelvetrano stand out. A list with details of Olympic winners (the competitions they won, the dates and the city they came from) completes the exhibition, along with a map of Magna Graecia; all information is in both Greek and English, while the exhibition’s catalogue has also been printed in French. «Traveling with Glaukos to Olympia in 476 BC,» a children’s booklet, contains information about the ancient Olympic Games, athletes’ training and the participation of Western Greeks in the Games and will be available free of charge during the 2004 Olympics and Paralympics. Two short films, one on the statue of the Charioteer of Delphi which shares certain characteristics with the Charioteer of Motya and the other showing the process of organizing the exhibition, are screened on the Stathatos Mansion’s ground floor. Numerous museums and ephorates in Italy, the Vatican City, the National Archaeological Museum and the Rhodes Archaeological Museum have contributed to this exhibition. The exhibition is held at the Museum of Cycladic Art’s New Wing (Stathatos Mansion, 4 Neophytou Douka, tel 210.722.8321-3) and is open daily (except Sundays and Tuesdays) 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., until October 2.