uan Antonio Samaranch,
you're no Theodosius I. |
When faced with
the challenge of reforming the Olympic movement of his day, Theodosius did
not expel a few graft-grabbing representatives from a handful of poor or
insignificant city-states--small fish tossed into the kettle to save the
skins of the rich and more powerful.
did he issue "the most serious of warnings" or form a couple of committees
or order up any rigged "votes of confidence" in the Roman Senate.
Theodosius, Emperor of Rome in AD 394
(and therefore rightly entitled to be addressed as "Your Excellency"),
decided the only way to reform Olympics rife with corruption and bribery
was to shut them down altogether. And so, decrying them as a pagan
festival and a grotesque affront to Christianity, Theodosius ordered the
Olympic Games banned in 394.
not be resurrected for another 1,500 years, when a French baron named
Pierre de Coubertin, still reeling from his country's defeat in the
Franco-Prussian War, determined that an international sporting competition
would be a fine way to train France's young men for the next round with
Forget the "arena of noble
ideals" pablum the International Olympic Committee has been spoon-feeding
us for decades. Long before Salt Lake had a city, let alone an Olympic bid
committee filled with stumbling bumpkins who didn't know how to say no,
corruption has been a fundamental pillar of the Olympic Games. Bribery,
cheating, extravagant gift-giving and runaway self-interest have an
Olympic history as old and as rich as the competition itself--dating to
776 BC and the first recorded account of the ancient Greek Olympics.
The ancient Games even had their own
version of the IOC, the hellanodikes--a select clan of imperious
competition judges who dressed in regal purple robes, sat in special seats
at ground level inside the Olympic stadium and held absolute authority
over an athlete's right to compete. The hellanodikes enjoyed the sumptuous
feasts and entertainment that they in turn denied the athletes, forcing
the competitors to sleep on coarse animal hides on the hard ground and
adhere to a spartan diet of nuts, figs, barley bread and porridge--a
tradition that thrives today, with the IOC luxuriating in five-star hotels
and the competitors slumming in a glorified barracks known as "the
athletes in Greece competed only for honor and a measly olive wreath, but
that all changed once big business and politicians got involved. As the
Olympics then served as a surrogate battlefield for the always-warring
neighboring city-states, victory at the Olympics soon merited the same
awards as a triumphant soldier-hero returning home. Olympic champions
received cash awards equivalent to five years' wages for an average
worker, free food and lodging, lifetime pensions, even statues in their
Fractious city-states didn't
compete for the glory of hosting the Games, since they were held every
four years at the same place, at Olympia. Instead, their graft-greasing
energies were directed at the athletes, many of whom became history's
first free agents, moving from city-state to city-state, signing on with
the highest bidder.
One famous example
was Dicon, the great sprinter who won the Olympic dash for Caulonia of
Sicily, then repeated the feat four years later for Syracuse, then a part
of Sparta, which was at war with Athens. Dionysius the Elder, ruler of
Syracuse, had bought off Dicon, prompting outrage throughout the Olympic
host site. Lysias, the great orator of Athens, denounced Dionysius for his
treachery in front of the Olympic crowds and, very likely, Athenian
chariot mechanics conspired to sabotage Dionysius' fleet of champion
all of Dionysius' chariots came apart during the climactic race.
The greatest farce of the ancient Games
occurred after the Roman occupation of Greece, in AD 66, when the Emperor
Nero set aside his fiddle and announced he would compete in the
Games--accompanied by 50,000 bodyguards, roughly the same size as
Samaranch's security force during the Atlanta Games, give or take.
According to the Greek scholar Spiridion
Lambros, who co-authored the first official history of the ancient
Olympics in 1896, "All Greece, terrified, yielded to the ambitious
emperor's desire for success. . . . Everywhere the spectators applauded
for him, his rivals let themselves be overcome . . . and the umpires
hastened to lay at his feet crowns of which his head was not worthy."
During the prestigious chariot race,
Nero actually fell out of his chariot, causing the rest of the field to
stop and wait for the emperor to climb back in before allowing him to win
in a rout.
Samaranch has yet to reintroduce the chariot race as a full-medal Olympic
Concluded Lambros: "The
appearance of Nero in the Games shows clearly both what had been the
decline of the Greek spirit, and how miserably the Olympic Games had
Yet, the Games proceeded for
another 300 years, eventually degenerating into a crass debauched circus
that, if reports are to be believed, provided a blueprint for future IOC
visits to Nagano and Salt Lake City.
394, Theodosius, sufficiently disgusted, pulled the plug.
Sixteen centuries later, Samaranch
pulled the Olympic pins from the lapels of 10 IOC scapegoats--human
sacrifice was big in the ancient Games as well--and formed a few
committees and vowed to stay the course through the end of his "mandate"
in 2001, at which point he can handpick his successor with the intent of
ushering the IOC into a new millennium of Olympic abuses not yet even
But then, that's progress.
1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved
Search the archives of
the Los Angeles Times for similar stories about:
GAMES -- HISTORY, INTERNATIONAL
OLYMPIC COMMITTEE, POLITICAL
ANTONIO SAMARANCH. You will not be charged to look for stories, only
to retrieve one.