Posted on Sun, Jul. 25, 2004

Ancient Olympics were a mix of sacred, profane

Associated Press

It was like the Super Bowl, Woodstock, Mardi Gras, a holy pilgrimage and the Chippendale dancers all rolled into one.

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 from 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 on Aug. 13, 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 outsize egos.

``The ancient Greeks were not as idealistic as we represent them to be,'' said David Gilman Romano of the University of Pennsylvania Museum and director of a new excavation at Mount Lykaion, 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 40-foot statue of Zeus -- one of the Seven Wonders of the 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.

Olympic corruption peaked under Roman influence; in AD 67, the Emperor Nero bribed the judges to include poetry reading as an event. They also declared him the chariot champion, overlooking 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.

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 symbolically crowned with laurel wreaths, but the rewards hardly ended there. Today's concept of amateur status would have 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.''

Seventy miles from Athens at Nemea, reconstructions by University of California-Berkeley archaeologist Stephen 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.

2004 and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.