The Magazine

Olympic Games

Athletics, ancient and modern.

Jun 7, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 37 • By BRUCE THORNTON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The "Panhellenic" nature of the ancient games--the idea that differences among city-states would be forgotten and war suspended in recognition of a common Greek heritage--also influences modern conceptions of the Olympics as international and apolitical, a venue for transcending toxic nationalism and ethnocentrism and promoting world government. Of course, this myth is true of neither the ancient nor the modern games. Both then and now, gathering peoples from different cities and countries and pitting their athletes against each other provide as much opportunity for asserting superiority and fomenting divisiveness as opportunity for multicultural fraternizing and mutual tolerance.

Commemorative offerings at festival sanctuaries, for example, were often used for crowing about military victories over rival city-states. The international crowds that frequented the games made them convenient venues for such nationalist propaganda. During the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian pretty-boy Alcibiades defended his ostentatious participation in the chariot races--he entered seven teams--by asserting that his "magnificent embassy at Olympia" would intimidate Athens' enemies. The Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries had a similar aim, which is why they poured so much of their scant resources into producing Olympic victors.

Political rivalries between city-states frequently tainted the games, just as geopolitics does in our times. In 420 B.C. the Spartans were excluded from the Olympics for refusing to pay a fine for breaking the Olympic Truce, and a Spartan who went ahead and won a chariot race was publicly flogged. There were some tense days as everyone waited for the Spartans to attack, but they showed restraint, waiting until the next year to invade Elis, the city-state that managed the games. In 364 B.C. the Olympic site saw a full-blown armed battle between the Arcadians, who had seized control of the site from Elis, and the Eleans, who struck back during the pentathlon.

But the master of the political use of the games was Philip II of Macedon, who brilliantly manipulated the various leagues and city-states in control of the festivals in order to increase his power and influence in Greece. By ruling the festival sites, he turned the games into the instruments of Macedonian hegemony, and after his defeat of the Greek coalition at Chaironeia in 338 B.C., he built at Olympia the Philippeion, a circular temple strategically located so that every visitor and athlete would see it and be reminded of who now was really in charge of Greece. The American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the Russians' revenge boycott of the 1984 games in Los Angeles are small political beer in comparison.

STILL, there was something special going on in Greek athletics that we need to be reminded of. It is no accident that the same culture that invented athletics also invented tragedy and democracy.

None of the ancient competitive events involved team sports. Only individuals competed against other individuals, the athlete depending solely on his own ability and drive to win the crown that would be denied to all the rest--which is, one recalls, the universal condition of the leading characters in the tragic plays that filled the Greek stage. Greek tragedy always presents the isolated protagonist who must bear alone the burden of trying to achieve and then living with the unforeseen consequences of that success and the high cost of his aspirations.

In both instances we see a harsh, unforgiving world that resists and thwarts human desire, that requires immense efforts in order for men to achieve excellence in the teeth of those limits, and that distributes sparingly the scanty rewards for that achievement. Both tragedy and sports create losers, and both demand that we acknowledge losing as a nonnegotiable reality against which we must necessarily strive in our attempts to win.

THE FREQUENT BRUTALITY of ancient sports reinforced this vision of life's hard limits. Important functionaries of the games were the rabdoi: judges armed with willow switches who punished fouls and false starts with a flogging. Even more indicative of the Greek acceptance of life's brutal limits were events like boxing and the pankration, a fierce combination of wrestling and boxing, with strangulation, finger-breaking, and eye-gouging (ostensibly forbidden) thrown in. Boxers fought with hard leather strips wrapped around their fists and pounded each other's heads until somebody gave up. Blood flowed freely, and fighters died, none more spectacularly than a certain Kreugas, who had his guts torn out by his sharp-nailed opponent.