Cogito: John Branch



At the Olympics: Then and Now

The modern Olympic Games are many things: a form of public entertainment reminiscent of the Roman circuses, an exercise in marketing, a display of TV craft and technology, a form of contest between nations, supposedly an invitation to tourism, and often an attempt at urban regeneration. (They’re sometimes financial boondoggles as well.). What they’re not is a good likeness of the ancient games on which they’re supposedly modeled.

Take the torch relay, for instance, and the carrying of a so-called sacred flame into the arena. That wasn’t even part of the modern games when Baron Pierre de Coubertin launched them in 1896. It was actually invented by Germany for the 1936 Berlin meet, often called the Nazi Olympics, and the ceremony was documented by Leni Riefenstahl for her film Olympia. (Understanding of the original Greek games owes much to German classicists; it’s ironic that the modern ones owe something to a different breed of Germans, to put it nicely.) The ancients had no need to carry anything sacred, flame or otherwise, to Olympia; the site itself was sacred. Pelops, an ancient mythical hero who won his bride in a chariot race, was venerated there. Far more important than that, though, the site and the games themselves were dedicated to the cult of Zeus—the athletic festival was in fact also a religious one—and his temple dominated the site.

The Greeks had more than one major sporting contest of this kind. In the first rank were the Sacred and Crown Gamesheld every four years at Olympia (the oldest and most honored of these gatherings) and at Delphialong with biennial games at Nemea and Isthmia. Other, more local games arose as well, for instance at Athens, as time passed and Hellenic culture spread around the eastern Mediterranean. But Olympia maintained its primacy, even after the Romans took over Greece; Nero, following a long line of aristocrats, tyrants, and kings, deigned to compete there in a chariot race. (He was awarded the prize, despite falling off and failing to complete the course.)

Women, perhaps not surprisingly, had no role in these contests and little if any place among the spectators. (They weren’t participants in the first modern games either.) Married women were expressly forbidden to enter; one who actually did attend Olympia in disguise would have been put to death, but she was the daughter and sister of Olympic champions.

The modern games have become such a big business that name designers often sign up to fashion the uniforms for major national teams. For the 2012 London Olympics, Ralph Lauren outfitted the American team, Stella McCartney the British, and Giorgio Armani the Italian. (Surely I’m not the only one who finds this hard to detect.) In the ancient Olympics, what did they wear? Except for the charioteers, who donned a robe, the athletes wore nothing.

The London 2012 leviathan features 36 categories of sporting events, though some could be condensed (see list at events); such is the lineup over time that it’s hard to remember what’s in and what’s out. The ancient Olympic games began with a single foot race and, once they reached their full form, remained stable for centuries at five categories: chariot racing and other equestrian contests, the pentathlon, simple foot races, wrestling and related events, and a concluding race in battle armor.

There’s no end of other differences between what the Greeks did and what we do. (Readers wanting to learn more can consult Nigel Spivey’s The Ancient Olympics.) In Greece, athletics were an integral part of training for warfare, achieving physical beauty, even attaining the moral good. Philosophers knew and discussed all these conceptsand were often found at gymnasiums themselves. (When’s the last time you met one at your gym?)

Our winners may appear on a Wheaties box, but theirs became the subject of poems and statues. And the comfort we take for granted today is a far cry from the conditions for spectators at Olympia; they were so unpleasant that a disobedient slave might be threatened with the punishment of being sent there to watch. But the most telling difference was that, during the Olympic Games, a truce among all the city-states of the region was usually observed. The peace was grossly violated at least once, though, when a territorial war broke out at the site during the festival.

There are similarities,however. Our modern habit of paying lip service to pure and peaceful competition among athletes is undermined by the obvious fact that everyone tallies medal counts for their countries. In this the Greeks felt much the same; rival city-states not only competed through their athletes, but also in the monuments they built at the site to their winners.

There’s one thing about our modern games that I admire, and it echoes one aspect of Olympia. Then, as now, athletes competed for a prize with no material value: the prestige of being named victor. That honor often brought the Greek athletes substantial benefits elsewhere, as it does for competitors today, so the point may be moot, but somehow it warms my heart. In this at least, Baron de Coubertin got something nicely right when he re-invented the games of old for the present day.

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One Response to “Cogito: John Branch”

  1. Rio 2016: Wrestling with the big bad Summer Olympics – Je Suis, Ergo Sum Says:

    […] a brief survey of the ancient games themselves, check “At the Olympics: Then and Now,” which I wrote in 2012 for the blog to which I used to contribute. Rereading it reminds me that […]


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