By Bruce MacBain, author of Roman Games
When Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the modern Olympics in 1896 he intended to honor what he considered the ancient Greek ideals of amateurism and sport for sport’s sake. But it didn’t take this wicked old world long to start compromising both of these goals. Today, with every repetition of the Games, we beat our breasts and bemoan what the Olympics have become: an unseemly tallying up of medals in a kind of virtual war for national prestige. How we have fallen from the ideals of those noble Greeks—right? Wrong.
De Coubertin wrote: “The important thing is less to win than to take part.” This, however, was not—repeat not—a Greek sentiment. The Greeks would have wholeheartedly endorsed the sentiments of “Bear” Bryant and Vince Lombardi on the subject of winning: it was everything. And not only for the individual athlete but very much for his city state as well.
The ancient Olympics began in 776 BC and almost the first thing we hear about them is that the neighboring city states of Elis and Pisa fought a bloody battle over possession of the venue—the sanctuary of Olympian Zeus in the western Peloponnese. Elis won, but its ownership of the Games, a growing source of prestige and profit, never went unchallenged for long. In renewed fighting in 470 BC Elis obliterated its rival Pisa. Again, in 364, the Eleans, battling a force of Arcadians, shed blood in the very sanctuary of Zeus, while outside the pentathlon was in progress. For a modern parallel to this shocking event, one can only think of the slaughter of Israeli athletes by Black September at Munich in 1972.
Perhaps Elis was a special case, but no Greek doubted that a victory in the various contests brought glory to the winner’s city. In the victory odes of Pindar and other poets it is first and foremost the victor’s city that is praised for having bred him. In a well-known passage in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, the rich and flamboyant Alcibiades, when accused of extravagance for entering seven teams in the chariot race at the Games of 416, pointed out that his winning of first, second and fourth places served to convince Athens’ enemies that the city was “even greater than it really is because of the splendid show I made as its representative.”
In the same way, the Tyrants of Syracuse, among the richest rulers in the Greek world, advertised their power at the Olympics throughout the fifth and fourth centuries. (The magnificent bronze sculpture, The Charioteer of Delphi, was a product of their PR campaign.) Retaliation came at the Games of 388 when the orator Lysias provoked a near riot by urging the crowd to tear down the Syracusans’ luxurious pavilion in the Olympic village.
So much for nationalism, but surely the personal enrichment of star athletes is an innovation of our crass modern age? Wrong again. Of course, Greek athletes didn’t sign promotional contracts for shoes—competitors didn’t wear clothes, let alone shoes. But a Greek athlete stood to win a great deal more than a mere olive wreath. As early as circa 590 BC we find the Athenian lawgiver Solon offering a purse of 500 drachmas to every Athenian victor. Later it became the custom in Athens, and perhaps elsewhere, to reward victors with a lifetime of free dinners at the public expense. Other perks included front row seats at the theater. Plainly, in the eyes of Greek politicians, Olympic crowns were well worth the cost.
When we beat ourselves up over the influence of politics in the modern Games we do a disservice both to ourselves and to the ancient Greeks. The word “politics” comes, of course, from the Greek polis, city state, and it is no exaggeration to say that politics deeply imbued every aspect of Greek life. In spite of de Coubertin’s lofty ideals, we only follow in their footsteps.