The games are as flawed today as they were in ancient Greece

By Carolyn Y. Johnson, Globe Correspondent, August 3, 2004

Fans may yearn for the days when Athens’ ancient Temple of Athena Nike didn’t remind them of a shoe company. But anyone who believes the Olympics have strayed too far from their original vision of untainted athletic glory should check their history books.

Violence, cheating, political scheming, professional athletes: Ancient Olympia had them all.

The archeological record from the original games — held, like this month’s competition, in Greece — show the Olympics were not always a paragon of sportsmanship and international peace.

“They had problems like we had problems,” said archeologist David Gilman Romano of the University of Pennsylvania, speaking by cell phone from high on Mount Lykaion — at one of several ancient sanctuaries of Zeus scattered across the country. “There were some of the aspects of the modern games that we are so concerned with, subjects having to do with nationalism, rivalries, medal counts, terrorism.”

Romano is in the beginning stages of an excavation of Mount Lykaion, home of an Olympic-like athletic and religious festival held every four years during the third century BC. While the actual Olympics ran for more than a millennium and underwent many changes as the Romans succeeded the Greeks, Mount Lykaion’s games on a hilltop 17 miles away lasted just three centuries, so its artifacts are more suggestive of the original Olympics.

“This is like a time capsule of what Olympia may have been like in the Greek period,’ Romano said.

Most modern knowledge of the ancient games comes from an ancient travelogue by a Roman named Pausanias. “He wrote the blue guide to Greece in the fifth century,” Romano said. Romano and others are trying to find physical evidence of what the texts describe — such as human sacrifices at Mount Lykaion.

The Lykaion games included many of the same events as the other Panhellenic games — wrestling, boxing, horse racing, footraces, and a pentathlon, which included discus and javelin — all performed in the nude.

Nudity aside, the modern Olympics don’t look that different from the remains of antiquity, either before or after the Roman period. Although the games now include a diverse field of competitors instead of just free, Greek-speaking males, ancient images of athletes resonate with the modern-day photographic record of the games.

Other similarities are more subtle. Present-day complaints that professional athletes are changing a contest meant for amateurs would have been just as valid in ancient times — even though the concepts “professional” and “amateur” did not exist.

“If ‘professional’ means to devote your whole life to something rather than have another vocation, then the ancient Olympic [athletes] became professional,” said Allen Guttman, an Amherst College professor who writes books on the history of sport. Although winners received a simple laurel wreath at the games, they often returned home to a lifetime of free meals, cash prizes, and gifts, he said.

In addition, many boys as young as 5 were trained for specific events, such as the pentathlon, and — long before prepubescent gymnasts were banned by a minimum-age rule — writers were expressing concern that such early training could stunt athletes’ growth.

Fears that terrorism or national conflicts could disrupt the peace that is the foundation of the games aren’t entirely new either.

The ancient Olympics were always held in the same place, so they didn’t invite the political pressures — and bribery scandals — faced by the modern International Olympic Committee, which must decide where to locate each Olympics. But in 364 BC, a rivalry between two city-states over who controlled the games, erupted into actual armed conflict inside the stadium.

There are also historical parallels to Hitler’s use of the Olympics in 1936 as a stage for Nazi propaganda: Greek politicians jockeyed for the best athletes, used excellence within the games to make a political statement, and minted coins to celebrate their victories.

Of course, many aspects of the modern games are completely different. The marathon did not exist in the ancient games. The diverse field of competitors now includes women and men of all races. The ancients ran in honor of Zeus and the competition was primarily a religious festival, not an athletic contest.

The popular torch relay that launches the games wasn’t created until 1936, when Olympic organizer Carl Diem hoped to foster German nationalism. “The idea in his mind was to symbolize Germany as the heir of ancient Greece” — an idea that fit well with Nazi race theories.

Perhaps one of the most dramatic changes between antiquity and the present, Guttman said, is that the very nature of competition and sport has been transformed by standardization.

In ancient times, the winner of the Olympic games — there was no silver or bronze — was the best in the Greek world, but only in that moment. Nothing was timed or measured; speed was not compared to earlier games. In modern times, athletes compare themselves to the performances of history and the future, with world records.

“It’s a shift in the way people think about the world,” Guttman said. “It goes back to the 17th century and Isaac Newton and the creation of modern physics.”

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. © Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company


“The games are as flawed today as they were in ancient Greece,” Boston Globe, August 3, 2004.