Friday, September 29, 2000
Exposed: Great Olympic Myths
As the battles for gold and glory draw to a close, Sydney will feel proud to have hosted in spectacular style the first modern Olympic Games of the new millennium, an event that Olympic officials state proudly has its roots in the Ancient Greek Olympics.
Yet the original games, viewed by many as representing a "Golden Age" for athletics, are shrouded in myth. Historians believe that in fact, the only real link between old and new is that the modern games are bedevilled by similar problems to those of antiquity. They have in common only "the name, a four-year cycle and a few events", according to the historian Professor Donald Kyle, from the University of Texas at Arlington.
The ancient Games started officially in 776BC and ran for more than a thousand years. They briefly included mule-cart racing but there was no decathlon, no marathon, no ball sports, no watersports, no weightlifting, no team sports or oval track, and no triple jump or high jump. The javelin was thrown using a thong wrapped around its shaft, while competitors in the long jump, who may have been allowed a short run-up, held and swung weights to increase their jumps. Runners started from a standing position, and those who false-started were whipped.
"Probably the biggest differences have to do with the fact that in antiquity the Olympic Games were a component of a major religious festival in honour of Zeus," says Professor David Gilman Romano from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Initially only Greek men were allowed to compete, and married women were barred even from attending. Those caught sneaking into the stadium were taken to Typaeum, "a precipitous mountain with lofty cliffs" according to Pausanias, a 2nd-century traveller, and thrown off it.
There was no room for sponsorship logos, that curse of the modern era. Athletes competed naked - and after the mother of the athlete Pisirodos was caught disguising herself as his coach to enter the Games, trainers were also made to shed their clothes.
The moral values of the modern Games also bear little resemblance to those of the old. Coming first was all that mattered to the ancients and there were no prizes for second or third. Dr Judith Swaddling from the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum, the author of The Ancient Olympic Games, says that the early Greeks would be surprised by the Paralympics and by our desire to give everyone an equal chance.
In the original Games there was only one weight class for wrestling, boxing and the pankration (a combination of the two), and events were dominated by the bulkiest athletes. The level of violence would shock modern competitors: pankration entrants could punch, kick, break their opponents' fingers and even whack them in the genitals.
Perhaps the most cherished belief concerning the ancient Olympics - that athletes competed purely for honour, eschewing financial gain - is also a myth. The word "athlete" is derived from Greek words meaning "the one who competes for a prize".
Victors at the ancient Olympics could expect rich rewards from their home cities. In the 6th century BC, Solon of Athens offered bonuses equal to perhaps Pounds 200,000 today. According to Professor Romano, Athenian champions received front seats at the theatre and free meals in the city hall for life.
"An Olympic win was a passport to fame, riches and occasionally even appearance money at other festivals," says Dr Swaddling. Then, as now, great athletes had huge fan clubs, much to the annoyance of intellectuals.
Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Xenophanes and the playwright Euripides - himself a champion athlete - all lamented declining virtues at the ancient Games. "Are athletes to be worshipped like kings because they have large incomes?" bemoaned Galen, the Greek physician.
But while the concept of amateurism was alien, money was not the only motivating force. "There was also the allure of immortality, fame and adulation. Athletes were treated almost like gods," says Dr Swaddling. The Greek calendar was based on the names of winners in the sprint, the oldest event.
Athletes in pursuit of wealth and glory hired coaches, trained for years and followed special diets. Milo of Croton, a legendary wrestler and winner of 32 titles at the four major Panhellenic festivals, was a great believer in meat and reputedly once ate an entire bull in a day.
Cheating, although quite rare, was not unknown. Callipus of Athens bribed competitors in the pentathlon, and the boxer Eupolos of Thessaly gave backhanders to opponents. At the Games of AD67, the Roman Emperor Nero paid huge bribes, won a contest for tragedians, another for singing (he was the only competitor), then competed in a chariot race held in his honour. He fell off and failed to finish but was still proclaimed the winner.
By the 6th century, rules were codified to prevent cheating by wrestlers. Those caught cheating were punished by being forced to pay towards the construction of bronze statues of Zeus, which by the 4th century lined the route to the Olympic stadium.
According to Professor Kyle, another problem was athletes swapping allegiance from one city to another. Officials from Syracuse bribed the father of the boxing champion Antipater of Miletus so that his son would represent their city. Sotades of Crete took a bribe from the Ephesians, and Astylos of Croton, a winner at the Olympic Games of 488 and 484BC, was bribed to represent Syracuse in the Games of 480. His former fans were so angry, they tore down his statue and turned his house into a prison.
Then, as now, money was crucial. Chariot races were dominated by the wealthy, drivers were hired like modern jockeys and winning owners received the glory. Even "corporate sponsorship" was in evidence. Several Greek cities and regions funded chariots to publicise their skills at horse breeding.
The ancient Olympics were also linked inextricably with politics. Aspiring leaders sponsored chariots to curry favour with the crowds, and politicians would give speeches between races.
Modern disputes over who should stage the Olympics have an echo in the distant past. The ancient Games, which took place at the Sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia, were the cause of violent disputes between Pisa, a small town near Olympia, and Elis, a town 30 miles to the north, which battled for control of the site and the prestige of staging the Games.
Despite all these problems the Games continued until AD395, when the Christian Emperor Theodosius I banned them during a purge of pagan festivals.
It was another 1,500 years before the modern Olympics were founded, but they are already shrouded in nearly as much mythology as the ancient Games. While Athens claims to have been the site of the first modern Games, held in 1896, there were at least a dozen "Olympics" held before that date.
In 1612 the "Cotswold Games" were held just outside Chipping Campden, and included such sports as shin-kicking. In October 1850 William Penny Brookes, a doctor in Much Wenlock, Shropshire, inaugurated the "Wenlock Olympics" which were soon attracting athletes from Birmingham and London for track races. "The concept of the Much Wenlock games was modelled on the Greek Olympics," said Dr Swaddling, "so in that sense they were the first modern Olympics."
In October 1890, after hearing about excavations at the site of the ancient Olympics, the young Baron Pierre de Coubertin travelled to Much Wenlock, where Brookes expounded his vision of an international Olympics over dinner in the Gaskell Arms. "I have no doubt whatsoever that he was inspired by Brookes," says Professor David Young, the author of The Modern Olympics: A Struggle for Revival.
The baron wanted to use the Games to lift the mood of depression in France after the defeat of Napoleon. He organised a conference on amateur sports in Paris in 1894, then cleverly changed the name to the "Congress to Revive the Olympic Games" just as delegates arrived. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was soon formed.
Initially the baron credited Brookes with the idea, but soon began taking the glory himself. Coubertin is now credited with inventing the concept of the modern Olympics, when he was just the most successful of several men who suggested the idea.
Myth also surrounds the five-ring Olympic symbol, another modern icon that many believe dates from antiquity. In fact Coubertin designed the interlocking circles, to symbolise the first five modern Olympics, for a 1914 World Olympic Congress - yet the rings are now said to represent the "five continents", with North and South America as a single land mass.
The film-maker Leni Riefenstahl, a favourite of Hitler, immortalised the rings by carving them into a rock at Delphi in Greece while filming Olympia, her tribute to the infamous 1936 "Nazi" Olympics in Berlin. Years later two American authors mistook the rings for an ancient inscription, published their error and started a legend. Even an official guide to the 1980 Olympics mistakenly claimed that the circles were 3,000 years old.
And what of the Olympic torch? According to Dr Swaddling, the torch relay was introduced to "glamorise proceedings" at Hitler's 1936 Olympics. The first Olympic torches bore the logo of Krupp, the German munitions giant.
Of all myths that now surround the Olympic Games, this legacy of the Nazi era is surely one that IOC officials would rather forget.
Simon Reeve is the author of One Day in September: the story of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, Faber & Faber, Pounds 9.99.