Olympic myths, Greek realities

The coming of the 2004 Olympics has stimulated research on Greek themes that derive, often self-consciously, from antiquity. One notable work is Alexander Kitroeff’s «Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics,» published by earlier this year. This diligently researched text draws on Greek and English published sources and archives (Hellenic Olympic Committee, International Olympic Academy) that reflect its scholarly genesis. Yet its clear style and rough chronological flow can be appreciated by many. And, unusual for academic researchers, he is alive to and respectful of the recent media debate. His focus is on Greece’s relationship with the Olympic idea and the ways the national discourse, and Olympic movement, have co-opted ancient Olympic themes. Their continuance serves to affirm both Greece’s remote past and its modernizing present; and he argues that these twin elements have also helped sustain an otherwise artificial construct, the Olympic movement’s continued usage of Greek-based symbolism even in its own relentless modernization. Through his measured language, it is a salutary tale of how memories are built and history used or abused in surprising ways. Uses of history The book first discusses identity formation in the young Greek State, which produced calls for rediscovery of the classical past and emphasized linear continuity from antiquity. This was seen, for example, in the adoption of a formalistic language, the katharevousa, for official usage. The Zappas Games of mid-century gave a sporting face to this effort. It was an unlikely focus for a country with little modern sporting tradition or infrastructure. And the four Zappas events that did occur, he concludes, were mainly throwbacks to the past; it took an outside kick from Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin to throw the whole idea of society and sport into a more modern, internationalized context. The choice of Athens for the first revival Games served Greek interests as well as those of the fledgling Olympic movement. Many Greeks equated it with acceptance of their state into the international community, while for the IOC it provided a powerful symbolic locus and historical tie-in it otherwise lacked. And the 1906 Mid-Olympiad, a «calendrical anomaly of 20th-century sport,» which helped the Olympic movement find its feet again, was the rump end of a long Greek effort to corral the Olympics onto Greek territory for good. Made in antiquity The middle chapters detail the rediscovery of the classical legacy in the 1920s and 1930s, and its consequences good and ill. The «Tower of Marathon» that held the flaming cauldron at Amsterdam in 1928; the ancient overtones in the Los Angeles coliseum in 1932; and the curious attempt to reinstate «classical Games» in Athens in 1934 were all preludes to the notorious 1936 Berlin Games. Berlin adopted ancient Greek themes to help justify the Nazi regime, not least by staging the first torch relay from ancient Olympia. Blinded by pride, Greeks were seemingly unaware of the abuse of their own heritage. Later there is an interesting review of (the first) Constantine Karamanlis’s efforts to secure Greece as the permanent Games site. This unplanned, almost off-the-wall proposal garnered some unlikely support from The New York Times, the US Senate and Henry Kissinger following the debt-plagued Montreal Games and the Western-boycotted Moscow ones of 1980, before it died a noble failure. We also learn that Greek-US antagonism over the 1996 Games was matched earlier in relation to the commercialized Los Angeles Games of 1984, when the Greeks actually threatened to scotch the Olympia flame ceremony. In a jabbed-finger response, the LA organizers actually had a flame lit by students at Olympia and transported secretly to Lausanne, threatening to use it if the Greeks did not give in. They did. His treatment of the bids for 1996 and 2004 relates much on contemporary Greek politics; with much painful detail about the IOC’s descent into moral morass in the late 1990s. The «meanness and pettiness» surrounding the Atlanta-Athens tussle is eye-opening, while the free-wheeling bid process back then can only inspire outrage at what the IOC allowed itself to get into with free paid trips, gifts and payoffs to IOC members that eventually plunged the organization into its worst-ever scandal. This all gives good context to, without explaining away, Greece’s own lax preparations between 1997 and 2001. Defining the subject This book is based on years of research, is imaginative, and provides material that will prove useful to future historians. Yet it is not without its flaws, some the more apparent because of the work’s very precision. Early on this emerges in a series of faulty dates; a reference to the Battle of Marathon in 480 BC jumps out at you (later put correctly at 490 BC); another is a mention of de Coubertin’s (apparently first) visit to the US in 1899, whereas it actually came a decade earlier and shaped his emerging views. He refers to Ernst Ziller’s Panathenaic Stadium renovations in 1873 (they came in 1869-70), to Herodes Atticus’ renovations before that in 131 AD (they were in 140-44), and to de Coubertin’s retirement as IOC head in 1927 (later corrected to 1925). Other odd lapses creep in too; Costas Kenteris’s great 200-meter victory at the Sydney Games in 2000 is somehow labeled a 100-meter win in an appendix. Another potential problem is broader. His focus is modern Greek identity, as the subtitle implies. Yet the title is more appealing than accurate, for the reader looking for facts or insight on the ancient Games is apt to come away disappointed. Given the old adage «know thy enemy» (or thy opponent), the antiquity that he/we are wrestling with is left implicit, and the references to it far too vague and scarce. A section spelling out the ancient context seems imperative here. For example, there is no reference to the Pheidippides/Philippides legend so often cited (and misunderstood) regarding the marathon race. His references to Ancient Olympia refer to «the temple» and «the altar,» as if there were just one of either. His mention of the recent switch of the Olympic medal design, from a Roman figure to that of Nike, is welcome, but he misses the exact reference, which is that it takes the Nike of Paeonios (featured in the Olympia Museum) as the model, not the one of Samothrace in the Louvre. His repeated references to «Olympiad» instead of Games tends to grate (e.g. 20 African nations boycotted the Montreal Olympiad). It is obvious that he is not ignorant of antiquity, but much more is needed, in my view, to bring his main reference point into sharper relief. And in a putative return to classical philology in rendering Greek names and accents, the editors’ purist intentions can be a jolt for those used to conventional transliteration (e.g. Semites, Euangelos). Despite these gaps, this book is an informative addition to the literature, one happily shorn of ideological pretensions and full of learned observation. His thesis that modernity was destined to win out over the links to antiquity even as the «invented tradition of continuity» had to be preserved, both for Greek and the IOC purposes, is both subtle and solid – even if the results have not always advanced Olympic ideals.