Traffic congestion, corruption, professional athletes and spiralling costs – despite our rose-tinted view of the ancient Olympics, they were not so dissimilar to our modern Games … the Olympic tradition has never quite lived up to its own ideals
The Olympic Games of AD165 ended in a horribly spectacular fashion. Just a couple of miles from the main stadium, watched by a large crowd, an old man called Peregrinus Proteus – an ex-Christian convert, turned loud-mouthed pagan philosopher and religious guru – jumped on to a blazing pyre to his death. He had been threatening to do this ever since the previous Olympics, four years earlier. The self-immolation was modelled on the mythical death of Heracles (one of the legendary founders of the Games) and was meant as a gesture of protest at the corrupt wealth of the human world, as well as a lesson to the guru's followers in how to endure suffering.
Despite his brave words, as the days of the Olympic festival went by, Peregrinus kept putting off the final moment. It was not until the Games had officially finished, that he actually built the pyre and took the plunge. But there was still a big audience left to witness his death, because traffic congestion (too many people trying to leave the place at once), combined with a shortage of public transport, had prevented most people from leaving Olympia. Then as now, presumably, only the VIPs were whisked away.
The story of Peregrinus is told in detail by an eye-witness, the ancient satirist and essayist Lucian – who not only describes the old man's last moments and the scuffles that broke out around the pyre between his supporters and detractors, but also throws in the point about the ancient Olympic traffic problems. Lucian himself has no time for Peregrinus: "a drivelling old fool", bent on "notoriety", he sneered. But the story is not, as some have taken it, a sign of the decadence of the Olympics under Roman rule (by AD165 Greece had been part of the Roman empire for over 300 years). Quite the contrary. It was surely because the Games were still such a major attraction that Peregrinus chose the occasion for his histrionic suicide; and it was because of their considerable cultural significance that the incident was so prominently written up.
When we now think back to the ancient ancestors of the modern Olympics, we usually prefer to bypass the Roman period, and concentrate instead on the glory days of classical Greece. It's easy to ignore the fact that the ancient Games were "Roman" for almost as long as they were "Greek" – in the sense that they were celebrated under Roman rule and sponsorship from the middle of the second century BC until they were abolished by Christian emperors at the end of the fourth century AD. In fact, a pedantic chorus of protest has recently been raised at the appearance of explicitly Roman rather than Greek gods (Mars not Ares, Minerva not Athene, and so on) on the British coins minted to commemorate the 2012 Olympics. And this is not so very different from the chorus of protest raised in 2000, when the Sydney Olympic Committee put an instantly recognisable Roman Colosseum on their Olympic medals (and on that occasion the angry voices were not quelled by the claim that it was meant to be a "generalised" image of an arena, rather than the Colosseum itself). Forget the story of Peregrinus: in most modern accounts, the true ancestor of "our" Games lies in the rose-tinted age of classical Greece, between the sixth and fourth centuries BC, or maybe even further back (according to legend the ancient Games were founded in 776BC, though not much has been found to justify that date).
For us, talk of these "original" Olympics usually conjures up a picture of plucky amateur athletes, men only, of course, fiercely patriotic, nobly competing in a very limited range of sports: running races, chariot races, wrestling and boxing, discus and javelin throwing. There were no team games then, let alone such oddities as synchronised swimming. Everything was done individually, for the pure glory of winning – and for no material reward. You didn't even get a medal if you came first in an Olympic competition, just a wreath of olive leaves, and if you were lucky a statue of yourself near the stadium, or in your home town. The very luckiest might also be celebrated in one of the "Victory Odes", specially composed by the Greek poet Pindar, or one of his followers, that are still read and puzzled over 2,500 years later (and I mean puzzled over: they are written in some of the most difficult and obscure Greek to have come down to us, and the prospect of being asked to translate one of Pindar's Olympian Odes scares even the brightest student of classics).
What is more, the whole contest was performed in honour of the gods. Olympia was a religious sanctuary of Zeus and Hera, as much as it was a sports ground, and the Games united the Greek world under a single religious cultural banner. Though the warring city states of Greece were usually doing just that – warring – every four years the "Olympic truce" was declared to suspend conflict for the period around the competition, to allow anyone from everywhere in the Greek world to come and take part. It was a moment when sport and fair play trumped self-interested military conflicts and disputes.
As with most stereotypes, there are some grains of truth here: there were no medals and no women at the ancient Olympics; the contests were keenly fought, man against man, ostensibly for nothing more than glory for oneself and for one's city; and the whole thing was done under the watchful eye of the ancient gods. But taken altogether, as a picture of what the ancient Games were really like, this tissue of clichés is deeply misleading. In fact, it owes more to the preoccupations of the founders of the modern Olympic movement – through whose sometimes frankly warped vision we now look back to the original Games – than it does to the ancient Greeks themselves. Men such as Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who successfully relaunched the modern Olympics in 1896, systematically projected their own obsessions – from their disapproval of alcohol to their rather woolly ideas of world peace and harmony – on to the early centuries of the ancient Games and their participants.
One particular obsession of those in charge of the modern Olympics – until as late as the 1980s – has been the cult of the amateur. Coubertin, and later Avery Brundage, the tyrannical president of the International Olympic Committee between 1952 and 1972 ("Slavery Bondage", as he was nicknamed), sometimes cruelly policed the frontier between the amateur contestants – who were warmly welcomed as modern Olympians – and the professional interlopers, who were most definitely not. One of the most mean-spirited incidents in modern Olympic history is the story of the brilliant American athlete Jim Thorpe, who won both the pentathlon and the decathlon at the Stockholm Olympics of 1912. He was an ordinary working man, part native-American, and a famously down-to-earth character: on being presented with a commemorative bust of himself by King Gustav of Sweden, he is supposed to have replied "Thanks, king." But there was a bitter sequel. It later came to light that he had received some trivial payments ($25 a week) for playing a bit of minor league baseball in the US; he was reclassified as a professional, stripped of his medals and asked to return the bust. A change of heart did not come until 1983, when his family was sent some replica medals. For Thorpe it was too little, too late. He died in 1953, in utter poverty.
For Coubertin and his like, the Olympic Games of classical Greece made their total ban on professional athletes legitimate. The great competitors of the fifth century BC, they would have insisted, were noble amateurs, not vulgar money-grubbers selling their athletic prowess for cash. Well, yes and no. The competitors at the classical Olympics were certainly not "professionals" in the sense that we (or Coubertin or Brundage) would understand the term. But that is largely because our own familiar divide between "amateurs" and "professionals" did not operate in classical Greece. To put it another way, if we approach the ancient Games armed with modern categories of sporting competition, we do not find many "grubby professionals", but we don't find much "noble amateurism" either.
For a start, the winning athletes may not have received cash prizes at Olympia for their performances, but many of them did very nicely when they got back home. It wasn't just a question of honorific statues. The various Greek cities offered all kinds of rewards to their athletics stars, from free meals for life at the state's expense to cash handouts and tax exemptions. And just under the surface of the surviving evidence, there are hints of something rather closer to a professional athletics circuit than the founding fathers of the modern Games would have liked. According to the ancient lists of Olympic victors, between 588 and 488BC, 11 winners in the short sprint race ("stadion") – that is, about a third of the total number – came from the not particularly large, or distinguished, town of Croton, one of the Greek settlements in southern Italy. Maybe the people of Croton just got lucky, or maybe they lived in some fanatical athletics boot-camp. But much more likely they were buying in top talent from other cities, who then wore the colours of Croton. Great Britain has, of course, got form in this area. Long before the recent convenient change of allegiance of long-jumper Shara Proctor and the other so-called "plastic Brits", we had had welcomed the South African runner Zola Budd – who competed for us in the 1984 Olympics, disastrously as it turned out.
But no less damaging to the idea of the ancient world's pure amateurism is the fact that some of the most prestigious wreaths of victory went not to the athletes themselves but to men whom we would call "sponsors". The grandest event of the Games was the chariot race, but the official winner was not the man who actually did the dangerous work, standing in the chariot and controlling the horses, but the king, princeling or plutocrat who had funded him and paid for the training, at no doubt vast expense – not unlike the Queen's winners in modern horse-racing. In fact, this was the only Olympic event at which a woman could claim victory – as one Spartan princess did in the fourth century BC. So far as we know, she did not get a victory ode (though she did get a statue at Olympia). But some of Pindar's best-known Olympian poems were written to celebrate not athletes at all, but these rich grandees who had for the most part shown no sporting prowess whatsoever, just a deep pocket.
The other main myth about the ancient Olympics that Coubertin and his colleagues promoted was their contribution to world peace and understanding (or at least, back in the classical period, Greek peace and understanding). This centred on the so-called "Olympic truce", which has increasingly been turned into the model for our own ideal of a gathering of all nations, friend or foe, under the Olympic banner (an ideal challenged several times over the last few decades, and under strain again this year with the question of what to do about Syria). Ancient Greek politics may not have been quite as messy or confused as the modern version of Messrs Samaras and Tsipras, but the conflicts of antiquity tended to be waged more in the style of the Arab spring than of the smoke-filled rooms of Brussels and Strasbourg. In fact, the ancient Games were by no means consistently marked by an atmosphere of national or international harmony.
There are, it is true, some ancient references to a cessation of hostilities to ensure that competitors and their trainers could reach the Games safely, and in one of the temples at Olympia you could still see, in the second century AD, a supposedly very early document – almost certainly a later forgery – that referred to the origins of this "truce". But how it was enforced, and by whom, is anyone's guess. It was a nice symbol, but athletes travelling across enemy territory to get to Olympia wouldn't, I imagine, have got very far by appealing to the "truce" if they were confronted by a squadron of hostile soldiers. On one occasion, in the fourth century BC, there was actually a full-scale battle in Olympia itself during the Games. A force from the nearby town of Elis (which traditionally ran the ancient Olympics, and no doubt profited from them) invaded the site, right in the middle of the pentathlon, to get control back from the rival town of Pisa, which had temporarily taken them over. And the truce certainly didn't prevent people exploiting the Games for violent power struggles back in their own cities. In the 630s BC, there was a coup in Athens against one of the leading families while they were away competing in the Olympics (though it was brutally quashed when the competitors returned home).
In general, the real-life experience of competing in – or, for that matter, just watching – the ancient Olympics was a far cry from anything that Coubertin had in mind. The modern Olympics are (officially at least) committed to the ideal of fair play. However much rivalry there is about national positions in the medal table, participation is still supposed to be more important than winning. That is nothing like the ancient Games, where winning was everything, where there were no prizes for runners up (no equivalent of silver and bronze medals, that is), and no such thing as honourable losers. Contestants fought viciously, and cheated. When one Athenian contestant in the fourth century BC was caught red-handed attempting to bribe his rivals in the pentathlon, a fine was imposed. The Athenian authorities thought this so unreasonable that they threatened to boycott the Games in future – though they were forced to give in when the Delphic oracle refused to give them any more oracles until they coughed up the money. The point was that for the ancients the only thing that mattered was coming first, using any method you could get away with. Pindar even hints (writing of another set of Games held at Delphi) that the losers sloped off home in secret, for fear of the taunts and abuse they were likely to receive from their disappointed supporters or contemptuous rivals.
So, if the ancient Olympics were a rough and sometimes brutal experience for the competitors (deaths in the boxing and wrestling contests were not uncommon), they were a decidedly uncomfortable one for the spectators too. The Games seem to have attracted crowds of visitors, but there were hardly any decent facilities for them: it was blisteringly hot, with little shade; there was no accommodation for the ordinary visitor (beyond a no doubt squalid and overcrowded campsite); and the sanitation must have been rudimentary, at best, given the inadequate water supply to the site, which could not even guarantee enough clean drinking water to go round.
But this is where the Romans come in. The likes of Coubertin lamented the Roman influence on the Games; they deplored the growth of a professional (and lower) class of competitor, as well as the malign influence of the Roman emperors themselves (who were occasionally known to take part in events and were supposed to have had the competition rigged so that they could win). For the spectators, though, it was the sponsorship of the Roman period – some of it devoted to "improving" the facilities for visitors – that made the Olympic Games a much more comfortable and congenial attraction to visit. True, as Lucian attests in his story of Peregrinus, the Romans did not solve the problems of traffic congestion, but they installed vastly improved bathing facilities, and one rich sponsor laid on, for the first time, a reasonable supply of drinking water. Herodes Atticus, a Roman senator who was Athenian by birth, built a whole new conduit to carry water from the nearby hills, leading into a large fountain in the middle of the site. Predictably, perhaps, some curmudgeons thought this was spoiling the Olympic spirit. According to Lucian, Peregrinus in some of the speeches he made on a previous visit to the Games, denounced Herodes Atticus. In a typically ancient misogynist vein, he accused Herodes of turning the visitors into women, when it would be better for them to face thirst (and the possible diseases that came with it) like men. For most visitors, though, an efficient Roman fountain must have been a blessed relief.
For much of the period of Roman rule, Roman grandees and their friends bankrolled the Olympic enterprise (which seems to have eaten money in the ancient world, too, even without any ridiculously expensive opening ceremonies or security operations). Nero, who has had a bad press for, among other things, shifting the date of the Games so that he could conveniently compete himself, subsidised new facilities for athletes, and King Herod (the infamous one) is known to have come to the financial rescue of the Olympics in 12BC. In some ways the character of the Games continued with little change. Roman princes safely entered the chariot-racing competitions, just as the princes of the Greek world had half a millennium earlier. Great athletes may well have outstripped the achievements of their predecessors. In AD69, for example, a man called Polites from modern Turkey won the prize for two sprint races and the long distance – a considerable achievement given the different musculature required. Apparently it was the first time it had been done in almost a millennium of Olympic competitions. And there was the same disdain for losers. One poem of the Roman period pillories a hopeless contestant in the race in which everyone ran dressed in armour. He was so slow that he was still going when night fell, and got locked in the stadium overnight – the joke was that caretaker had mistaken him for a statue.
But in other respects the Romans worked towards an Olympics that is much more like our own than the earlier "true Greek" version. Whatever his other faults, Nero tried to introduce some "cultural" contests into the Games. The Olympics had always been (unlike other Greek athletic festivals) resolutely brawny, with no music or poetry competitions. Nero didn't succeed in injecting much culture for very long (it soon reverted to just athletics) but, knowingly or not, the 19th-century inventors of the modern Olympics took over his cultural aims. It's easy to forget that in the first half of the 20th century, Olympic medals were offered for town planning, painting, sculpture, painting and so on (they have long since entered the ranks of "dead" Olympic sports, along with tug of war and running deer shooting). Coubertin himself, under a pseudonym, won the 1912 gold medal for poetry with his "Ode to Sport". It was truly dreadful: "Sport thou art Boldness! / Sport thou art Honour! / Sport thou art Fertility!" …
The most lasting contribution of the Romans, though, was to make the Olympics, as we now think of them, truly international. That was, in a way, a byproduct of the Roman empire and the (more or less compulsory) internationalism that came with it. But if the classical Greek Olympics had been rigidly restricted to Greeks only, Roman power opened up the competition to most of the then known world. It is a nice symbol of this that the last named victor at Olympia in 385AD, the prizewinner in the boxing contest, was a Persian from Armenia called Varazdates.
But there is a sting in the tail of this Greek vs Roman story of the Olympic Games. For it was not only the hopelessly confused Baron de Coubertin who lionised the Greek achievement in the Olympic Games; nor was he the first to do so. At the same time as the Romans were ploughing money into the Olympics and making it effectively an international Roman celebration, authors of the Roman period were already inventing the romantic image of the great old Greek days of Olympic competition. Writing in the second century AD, Pausanias – a Greek born under the Roman empire – devoted two volumes of his 10-volume guide to the noteworthy sites of Greece to the monuments of Olympia. He sees the place almost entirely through classical Greek spectacles. He is the source of most of our stories about the notable Olympic achievements and heroes of centuries earlier. He doesn't even mention Herodes Atticus' splendid and useful Roman fountain, which he must have seen as he walked round the sanctuary. Even Peregrinus, when he was speechifying near Olympia in 165AD, about to throw himself on the pyre, was comparing himself to the great tragic heroes of "classical Greece", centuries earlier. The Games have been a nostalgic show for longer than we can imagine. It has probably always seemed that they were better in the past.