The ancient Olympians ‘were not Homeric heroes’

The setting for the earliest Olympic Games some 3,000 years ago was both a sanctuary of soaring marble temples and a foul, drunken shantytown plagued by water shortages, campfire smoke and sewage. The athletes, glistening with olive oil, competed naked. Gymnasiums were restricted to keep the sex trade from overrunning events on the field. With the 2004 Summer Games set to begin in Athens next month, archaeologists and scholars are demythologizing and viewing the original Olympics as they really happened. Contrary to the modern stereotype, the Games weren’t tightly scripted Homeric epics in which warriors dropped their weapons every four years to honor the twin virtues of amateur sport and brotherhood. While the Olympics’ 3,000-year history is dotted with the heroic champions like the wrestler Arrhichion who fought to the death, researchers say they also were plagued by cheating, scandal, gambling and outsized egos. «The ancient Greeks were not as idealistic as we represent them to be,» says David Gilman Romano of the University of Pennsylvania Museum and director of a new excavation at Mount Lykaion, 27 kilometers (17 miles) from Ancient Olympia. «They had many of the same problems we have today.» The ancient Games were held in a remote valley. Forty thousand spectators crowded a hillside above a sacred precinct containing some of the greatest temples in the empire. Sport, they believed, was a high tribute to the gods, who favored the athletes who won. Before the Games, athletes pledged their piety as they were paraded past a row of statues of gods and former champions that were paid for from the fines of disgraced cheaters. At the feet of a huge statue of Zeus – one of the seven wonders of the ancient world – they sacrificed oxen and boar and roasted hunks of the flesh in a sacred flame. Then the Games would begin, lasting five days. The athletes would consult fortunetellers and magicians for victory charms and potions – the ancient precursors to steroids, classics experts say – as well as curses on their opponents to fail. The first recorded incident of actual cheating occurred in 388 BC, when the boxer Eupolus of Thessaly bribed three opponents to take a dive. Others were induced to swap allegiance, often at the risk of exile from their homelands. When Syracuse induced sprint champion Astylos to quit Kroton in southern Italy, fans in his hometown tore down his statue and turned his house into a prison. Olympic corruption peaked under Roman influence; in AD 67, emperor Nero bribed the judges to include poetry reading as an event. They also declared him the chariot champion, overlooking the fact that he fell out and never finished the race. For the fractious city-states of the empire, the Games held every four years offered a slightly less violent respite from their near-constant state of war. Athletes and spectators from all parts of the realm were promised safe passage to and from the neutral site. Archaeologists have uncovered some evidence of the complexity of the ancient Games in excavations at Olympia and other sites that hosted preliminary games, including discus fragments, javelin points and metal objects that could be prizes or religious votives. Greek art adds rich visual details to the historical record, with paintings on vases, urns and other fine pottery the most important source. They depict disfigured boxers with bloody noses and sprinters thundering down the track, elbows flying. Judges flogged the athletes for transgressions ranging from false starts on the track to eye gouging. Literary sources offer still more details, from florid victory odes to inscriptions on statue pedestals. Experts differ on the number of Olympic events. Was it 14 or 18? The mule cart race was held for just 56 years in the fifth century BC. And, should the competition for heralds and trumpeters be counted? Regardless, the Games were considerably smaller than the 300 rounds of competition staged now with 10,500 athletes from 202 nations. A few events have persisted over the millennia, like the discus, javelin, running, wrestling and boxing – although the ancient versions often had different rules. Other events vanished with the empire, like the full-armored sprint and the pankration – which resembled a bar fight that allowed finger-breaking and genital punching. Only first-place winners were crowned with symbolic laurel wreaths, but the rewards hardly ended there. Today’s concept of amateur status would’ve been foreign in ancient Greece. These champions were the Michael Jordans of their day, showered with fame and prizes, including huge annual stipends and prized commodities like the best olive oil, free meals and theater seats, hometown parades, statues and sex partners. The shamed losers, according to the poet Pindar, would «slink through the back alleys to their mothers.» Excavations of athletic facilities show differences with modern stadiums, too. Instead of today’s oval tracks, the straight track, or stade, at Olympia is 198.28 meters. Runners raced its length and rounded a post at the far end. In some events, they might do this 15 times. The first Olympic champion was a cook named Koroibos who ran in 776 BC. Perhaps the greatest runner was Leonidas of Rhodes, who won all three footrace events in four consecutive Olympics beginning in 164 BC. The balbis, or starting line, in Greek tracks usually was made of stone blocks set in the ground; runners would wedge their toes into parallel grooves carved in the stone, leaning forward. In Nemea, about 110 kilometers (70 miles) from Athens, reconstructions by University of California-Berkeley archaeologist Steven G. Miller suggest races were controlled by a judge standing in a manhole behind – and below – the poised runners. He pulled tight on ropes that kept a hinged gate upright. When the trumpet blared, the judge dropped the ropes, the gates fell and the runners took off. In later centuries, the whole system – called a hysplex – became more automated by pulleys and a spring. Also in Nemea, Miller has excavated the locker room where athletes slathered themselves with oil, and the vaulted tunnel that leads to the track. Its walls are still bear their graffiti, some of it reflecting the homoerotic nature of the ancient games. Miller cites an example in which one athlete praised the physique of another, writing, «AKROTATOS KALOS,» or «Akrotatos is beautiful.» That the ancient Games were a very human spectacle of blood, sweat, sex, money and stench doesn’t diminish their historical and cultural importance, experts say. Nor should it tarnish the athletes’ achievements. That becomes clear if you were to stand at the end of a hot, long ancient track – fully clothed, presumably – and pretend that your name is Leonidas, ready to run. «It really is a thrill,» Miller says, «to be a part of ancient Greece, if only for a few minutes as you come out of the locker room, through the tunnel, to put your toes in the ancient starting grooves.»

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.