Lessons from the Ancient Olympics

In the austerity budgets of the last several years, Olympic sports have suffered just as much as other sectors of Greek society. Last week there was some rare good news for the country’s Olympic athletes. The government agreed to a modest increase in the funding of the sporting associations which train them. But this comes in the wake of a decline of more than 50 percent in the funding of such associations since the start of the crisis. Many are now asking: Is Greece spending enough on its Olympians? As the debate between the sporting associations and the government intensifies, the stock answers to this question are being rehearsed. The leaders of the Hellenic Olympic Committee and its affiliated associations insist that funding must be restored in order to secure the “obvious” benefits of Olympic victory. Others argue just as earnestly that such benefits are “illusory,” and that in this time of crisis, scarce public funds should not be “wasted” on elite athletes. They argue that it must be spent instead on essential public services and the doctors, teachers and scientists which Greece desperately needs.

Is it possible to advance this heated debate? What is needed is analysis of the benefits which Olympic victories bring. By studying why the ancient Greeks idolized their Olympic victors, we might get fresh insights into how we as modern Greeks benefit from the Games.

The ancient Greeks would have shaken their heads in disbelief at our support of Olympians. They did not spend scarce public funding on getting athletes to the Games. Individuals were ready to compete at the highest level because their families had paid out of their own pockets for the private classes of an athletics teacher. Olympians paid their own way to Olympia and their own expenses during the Games, as well as the compulsory month of training before they took place.

In spite of this, the ancient Greeks valued Olympic success even more highly than we do. Each polis or city-state gave its Olympic victors, for life, free meals in its town hall and free front-row tickets for its own local games. These were the highest honors which the ancient Greeks could give. They were otherwise only rewarded to victorious generals and other public benefactors of the highest order. That they were given to victorious Olympians puts beyond doubt that the ancient Greeks believed that such victors benefited their city-states significantly.

The managers of Greece’s Olympic athletes may not be good at explaining the nature of this benefit. But the ancient Greeks were. A good example is a speech about the victory of an Athenian in the chariot contest at the Olympics of 416 BC. In it, the son of Alcibiades explained that his father had entered seven teams, more than any other before him, because he had understood the political advantage which victory would bring his polis. He knew that “the city-states of victors” became renowned. Alcibiades believed that each Olympian was a representative of his polis. Their victories were “in the name of their city before all of Greece.”

What made an Olympic victory so politically valuable for a polis was publicity. The Games were the most popular festival in the ancient Greek world. They attracted thousands of people. The stadium at Olympia seated no less than 45,000. The result was that whatever took place at the Games became known to almost the entire Greek world, as ambassadors, athletes and spectators returned home and reported what they had seen.

The ancient Greeks exploited this opportunity. At the Games, city-states set up dedications of arms which advertised their military victories over each other. Some of these war memorials were even placed in the Olympic stadium. There was, then, the potential for all of Greece to learn of the victory which a polis had gained by the success of one of its Olympians. Such a victory gave states of otherwise no importance rare international prominence and those which were regional powers uncontested proof of the worth which they claimed in relation to their neighbors and competitors.

That the Greek city-states viewed Olympic success as important for their international standing is apparent in their adverse reactions when they believed one of their Olympians was deprived of his victory unjustly. In 322 BC, for example, Callippus of Athens, who had been proclaimed the winner of the Olympic pentathlon, was judged to have bribed his opponents. He was fined and stripped of his victory. Athens sent its foremost political leader to Olympia to try to have the judgment appealed. But Hyperides failed in this bid and so his city boycotted the Games for the next 20 years.

The only other way which a polis had to raise its international ranking was to defeat a rival polis in battle. The outcome of such a contest was uncertain and could cost the lives of many citizens. Thus a Greek city-state judged a citizen who had been victorious at the Olympics worthy of the highest public honors, as he had, at his own expense, raised its standing and done so without the need of his fellow citizens to take the field.

We still view Olympians as our representatives and are part of a system of competing states. Thus a lesson for us from the Ancient Olympics is that international sporting success improves a country’s international standing. The Ancient Olympics do provide some justification for the spending of public funds on Olympic athletes.

But we must not push these parallels too far. We are not ancient Greeks. International competition is no longer confined to sport and war. New bodies, such as the G20, OECD and the UN, increasingly rank states in terms of education, prosperity, physical health and level of democratization. In this new order, we will hold our own only when we invest just as heavily in our scientists, doctors and teachers.


* Dr David M. Pritchard is senior lecturer at the University of Queensland and author of “Sport, Democracy and War in Classical Athens” (Cambridge University Press).

The Australian Archaeological Institute in Athens has invited David Pritchard to speak on Wednesday, March 6, at 7 p.m. The title of his presentation is “Festivals, Democracy and War: The Spending Priorities of Democratic Athens.”

The presentation will be at the Institute Hostel (4th Floor, 2 Promachou, Makriyianni, Athens, tel 210.924.3256, e-mail [email protected], www.aaia.chass.usyd.edu.au).

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