Were the ancient Olympics any better than the modern?
I am one of those inverted patriots who takes considerable comfort in Team GB doing as usual (ie badly) at the Olympics. For me it’s a badge of honour that our precocious 14 year old and his partner managed to come last in the finals of the synchronised diving.
Diving in principle maybe OK -- though it’s dangerous enough even without any illegal substances (our 14-year-old’s partner has apparently had two operations already for retinal problems brought on by the diving). But what on earth is the point of synchronised diving?
And, of course, I smirk, when we discover that the fire-work foot-prints on the opening day were done by some version of CGI, or that the cute nine-year old was miming to a ‘less pretty’ girl’s voice (so much for communism’s commitment to feminism – if only), or that a good proportion of the eager spectators have been bus-ed in.
But were the ancient games much better? Were the ancient Greeks up-standing and honest sportsmen, honouring the gods rather than their own ambition?
Even before the Roman empire and the emperor Nero came along (to win all the prizes), the Olympic Games were a hornet’s nest of corruption.
The range of events at the ancient Olympics was much narrower that our own (running, boxing, chariot racing, all-in wresting and pentathlon), but these ‘amateurs’ over-trained as much as any modern athlete. And they all turned up at Olympia a month in advance for intense work-outs. Some were as much ‘professionals’ as Andy Murray or Paula Radcliffe. The most famous was a man called Milo from the city of Croton – who won six times in wrestling contests at the ancient Olympics. There were whole families of athletes too, such as Diagoras, who won the boxing contest, and launched a dynasty of victors including his sons and his grandsons.
They also cheated, mostly through bribery. In 388 BCE one boxer bribed three rivals to let him win, They all had to pay what became the usual penalty – namely to put up a statue to Zeus, as a mark of their shame (or of their good try). Why cheat? Because celebrity, even if not cash, was a great reward. Win your event – and you would return home to have part of your city wall demolished to welcome you (no mere entry through the gates).
And, yes, it was all about politics. No barbarians were allowed. One fifth-century king of Macedonia turned up – and was at first turned away before he was finally allowed to compete. And on one occasion, as I’ve hinted before, in 364 BC, during the athletic celebrations, there was hand to hand fighting for control of the site of Olympia itself. The so-called Olympic Truce (meant to declare peace throughout the Greek world) would hardly have managed to stop the Russian conflict with Georgia – or vice versa.
Even without the miming nine-year old -- plus ca change.