were a mix of sacred, profane
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.