Monday, February 4, 2002

Ancient Games, Ancient Scandals

Olympic skullduggery is nothing new, a Penn archaeologist says. The original contests even led to war between Greek city-states.


When it came out that Salt Lake City's bid to get the Winter Olympics was tainted by million-dollar payoffs, commentators called it the worst scandal in the long history of the competition. Hardly.

In A.D. 67, the Roman emperor Nero bribed officials to disqualify all possible competitors so that he could compete against himself and win six events - including those he invented in music and drama. The steroid problem is new, but bribery, scandal, vanity and greed tarnish the historical and archaeological record almost all the way back to the first Games in 776 B.C., said David Gilman Romano, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

"We're not corrupting an ancient ideal, because their Games were as corrupt as ours or worse," said Romano, an expert on the Games who has studied ancient athletics since he ran cross-country in college more than 20 years ago.

The ancient Olympics were surprisingly long-lived. The modern version, revived in 1896 by French nationalist Pierre de Coubertin to promote healthy competition among youths, has so far lasted just over a century. The original Games went on for nearly 1,200 years, played always in the same location: Olympia, on the western side of the Peloponnesus.

. The first recorded Games featured just one event, a 600-foot run. Other contests were gradually added, for a total of 23. Among them were various jumping and throwing competitions, several horse and chariot races, boxing, wrestling, and a nasty event called the pankration - a combination of boxing, wrestling, and general free-for-all that ended only when the loser gave up or was killed.

Held every four years, the ancient Olympics - with competition between city-states, since nations in the modern sense had yet to form - became immensely popular, drawing athletes and spectators from all over the Greek world, which extended as far east as the Black Sea and as far west as Spain.

And while the Salt Lake City payoff scandal may seem tragic, in 668 B.C. the ancients actually went to war over who would run the Games. Everyone was considered Greek, but two of the city-states, Pisa and Elis, wanted control enough to fight over it. The same city-states fought a war during the Games, with skirmishes reportedly breaking out in the middle of the wrestling competition in 364 B.C.

Historians have ferreted out an impressive amount of detail about the ancient Olympics, and excavation at Olympia over the past century has turned up much more, Romano said. Archaeologists have found bronze items that were probably given as prizes, as well as engravings, coins, sculptures, paintings and pottery related to the Games.

The Games were staged for religious reasons - to honor Zeus, king of the Greek gods - and their name comes from the home of the gods, Mount Olympus.

"That's one major difference," Romano said. "Their Games were totally religious, and ours are totally secular."

Romano has spent dozens of summers in Greece, excavating sites at Corinth and Nemea. Over the years, he's taken a special interest in artifacts that say something about ancient athletics. (Along with his doctorate in classical archaeology, he has a master's degree in physical education.)

The ancient athletes likely wouldn't understand the modern distinction between amateurs and professionals. They all got money in some form - that was the reason to enter. The standard trophy was an olive wreath, but athletes competed for huge perks, including as much as 500 drachmas, enough to make them the equivalent of millionaires. Some got free seats in the theater and free meals at city hall for life - a pension plan of sorts and a very public reward.

Records suggest that unmarried girls, probably in their teens, competed in a separate festival in honor of the goddess Hera. Little is known about this competition except for the athletes' appearance, which was described in the second century A.D. by a Greek traveler named Pausanias (and confirmed by some surviving depictions in clay and bronze). The runners, he wrote, wore their hair loose down their backs. A tunic, hanging almost to the girl's knees, covered only the left shoulder and breast. (The men wore nothing, not even shoes, in any of the races, although the charioteers had tunics.)

Married women were not allowed to watch the male athletes compete, Romano said, although unmarried women and girls could. It is unknown whether men were allowed to watch the unmarried girls run.

"Now we have most of the city in digitalized form," he said. "We're revising the Web site. Everything will be `clickable.' . . . We'll add a bibliography on ancient sources to it." As he spoke, graduate students Nicholas Stapp and Guy Munsch were scanning additional data into the Web site on two computers. "I never dreamed I would be doing this 10 years ago," Romano said. "We can use this technology to predict what will be found in a particular part of town, and direct the actual excavation leader to dig a trench in a certain spot - and find a Roman road," he said.

Inscriptions and historical texts indicate that emperors or rulers occasionally competed, although as a rule they would have had someone else ride their horses or chariots and simply taken the credit when they won.

The ancient Olympics eventually became a popular festival with contests in music and the arts as well as sports. "It's human nature to have contests and compete," Romano explained. Perhaps the Olympics helped the ancients blow off steam as well. "When they weren't competing with athletics," he said, "they were fighting each other tooth and nail."

The long tradition ended around A.D. 393, at the height of its popularity. Christianity was vying with paganism for dominance of what had by then become the Roman Empire. Because the Games were seen as a pagan ritual, the Roman emperor Theodosius I, a Christian, banned them.

Events of the Ancient Olympics
Hippias of Elis in the fifth century B.C. put together what has become known
as the Olympic Register - a list of all the Olympic victors known at that time,
from which historians have determined the 23 events* and when they were

       Event                                  First Held
-------------------                           ----------
1.  Stadion (footrace, 192 meters)              776 B.C.
2.  Diaulos (footrace, 384 meters)              724 B.C.
3.  Dolichos (long-distance race, 192 meters)   720 B.C.
4.  Pentathlon (wrestling, stadion,             708 B.C.
    long jump, discus, javelin)
5.  Wrestling                                   708 B.C.
6.  Boxing                                      688 B.C.
7.  Four-horse chariot race                     680 B.C.
8.  Pankration (wrestling, boxing,              648 B.C.
    general free-for all)
9.  Horse race                                  648 B.C.
10. Stadion for boys**                          628 B.C.
11. Wrestling for boys**                        628 B.C.
12. Pentathlon for boys**                       628 B.C.
13. Boxing for boys**                           616 B.C.
14. Race in armor                               525 B.C.
15. Mule-cart race                              500 B.C.
16. Horse race for mares                        496 B.C.
17. Two-horse chariot race                      408 B.C.
18. Competitions for heralds (sort of a         396 B.C.
    town crier)
19. Competitions for trumpeters                 396 B.C.
20. Four-colt chariot race                      384 B.C.
21. Two-colt chariot race                       268 B.C.
22. Colt race                                   256 B.C.
23. Pankration for boys**                       200 B.C.

*Hippias did not describe the competitions for unmarried girls,
about which little is known.

**Boys' events were probably for ages 17 or 18 and under.

Lecture on the Ancient Olympics: Archaeologist David Gilman Romano will give a talk titled "Facts and Fallacies of the Ancient Olympic Games" in Harrison Auditorium at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, 33d and Spruce Streets, at 6 P.M. Thursday. Admission is free. For more information: Some artifacts related to ancient athletics are on display in the museum's Ancient Greek World gallery. For more details about the ancient Games, go to

Illustrations: Some Events of the Ancient Olympic Games and Their Year of Introduction: Stadion (footrace, 192 meters) 776 B.C.; Two-horse chariot race 408 B.C.; Boxing 688 B.C.; Pentathlon (wrestling, stadion, long jump, discus, javelin) 708 B.C.; Pankration (boxing, wrestling, general free-for-all) 648 B.C.; Horse race 648 B.C.; Dolichos (long-distance race) 720 B.C.

Illustration: Bronze statuette from Sparta circa 500 B.C., shows the traditional attire for a female runner - a tunic worn over the left shoulder and breast. (The men competed naked.)

Illustration: Pottery such as this drinking cup (or kylix) from around 490 B.C. offer a vivid sense of ancient Greek sports. Olympic athletes back then competed for money; some prizes would make them wealthy.

Illustration: Excavations at Olympia suggest this plan of the Sanctuary of Zeus. Archaeologists believe that track and field events were held at the Stadion, chariot and horse races at the Hippodrome, and wrestling competitions at the Zeus Altar.

Photo: David Gilman Romano has been interested in ancient athletics since running cross- country in college.

Illustration: Map of Greece in 750 B.C. and coastlines under Greek influence.

© 2002 The Philadelphia Inquirer