Demythologizing the Early Olympics

Agnosticism/Atheism Blog

From Austin Cline

The Olympics are typically seen as the pinnacle of athletic competition – something that should be maintained as pure and unsullied by professional athletes. Thus, people are often scandalized when news of corruption or cheating is revealed. In reality, though, that’s the way they always were.

The Ledger reports:

“The ancient Greeks were not as idealistic as we represent them to be,” says 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 first recorded incident of actual cheating occurred in 388 B.C. when the boxer Eupolus of Thessaly bribed three opponents to take a dive. ... Olympic corruption peaked under Roman influence; in A.D. 67, 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.

The experience of competing against – or cheering alongside – battlefield rivals brought out the best and worst in human nature, especially when immortality was at stake. “Sport was sort of like war,” says University of Texas-Arlington classical history scholar Donald G. Kyle. “Participation wasn’t enough. They wanted to win so badly, and they feared losing so much. What we’re willing to do to win says an awful lot about our societies.”

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.” ... The first Olympic champion was a cook named Koroibos who ran in 776 B.C. Perhaps the greatest runner was Leonidas of Rhodes who won all three footrace events in four consecutive Olympics beginning in 164 B.C.

As we watch modern athletes compete in the current Olympics or in some other sporting event, we should remember that for all of our problems today we really aren’t any better or worse than our ancient forbearers. When it comes right down to it, they were just as human as we are and they were afflicted with many of the same problems, one way or another.

Demythologizing the Early Olympics,, August 4, 2004.