By William Urban
Much has been made over the decades about the Olympics being above politics. The nineteenth century foundation of this noble ideal rested on misconceptions about Ancient Greece that reflected hopes for a better world without the complications of national and class strife. Competition was to be pure and clean — amateur— as was believed to have been the case in the Ancient World.
We know today how incorrect these views were. While some Greek athletes may have competed for the pure joy of sports — much as ordinary citizens were believed to have taken a mid-day break for exercise and a meal — most expected to be rewarded handsomely for winning. The prizes were not merely a laurel wreath and some fine vases (as can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum in New York), but money, employment and a seat of honor at very civic event for the rest of the athlete’s life.
Citizens didn’t even all take a mid-day break. It doesn’t take much reflection about a farmer’s daily round of work to realize that only a British university scholar could come up with such an idea. Nobles had time to kill and nobles could afford the horses necessary to compete in the premier Olympic event — the four horse chariot race — but not the average citizen. The Greeks were poor because their land was poor, not because they sat around drinking wine and attending the theater.
A German scholar reinforced the concept of ancient purity by decreeing that the ancients had snowy white statues that went to the heart of artistic creation; subsequently, generations cleaned off every hint of color and patina. We know now that Greek statues and temples looked more like Chinatown recreations, a riot of bright colors.
Nor were the Olympics free of politics. There was an effort to keep them so, but not always successfully. And while the Greeks insisted that competitors be free, the most polite attendees were Spartans, who held more slaves and held them in more brutal conditions than anyone else; if an elderly man appeared in the stands, it was usually a Spartan who stood up first to offer him a seat.
Women, of course, could not attend, much less compete. One mother was discovered when she appeared in men’s clothing and attempted, awkwardly, to vault over a barrier. Since men wore skirts, not pants… Well, you can figure it out yourself.
Foreigners were not permitted to compete. There was always a problem when a Macedonian appeared, since they were part Greek, but no one was sure which part any individual represented. The compromise was to allow the kings to take part, but not ordinary Macedonians. As for Persians, they were “barbarians,” even though they were arguably more civilized than many who spoke Greek and worshipped the god of the Greek pantheon.
The Olympics were a religious festival. The central shrine was the temple of Zeus — one of the Seven Wonders of the World. That was the reason that the Christian emperor Theodosius eventually decreed the games over for good.
And that was part of the games’ revival in the nineteenth century. The idealists who believed in one world without the barriers of nation and class would also be without any religious identification. It is not that they were overtly anti-Christian, but they thought it necessary to overcome the conventions that had grown up around nineteenth century conventional Christianity.
The Greek ideals, the founders believed, offered a new view of the world and life. Greeks were in tune with deeper values — a simpler life, deeper communion with nature, a freer attitude toward sex (especially homosexuality), and in conversations about philosophy and science — and less interested in making money, devising new machines and building great cities.
Since these values are wildly held today, the modern Olympic movement offers some real insights into our own condition and expectation. On the one hand there is hope that international competition can be something like William James’ proposal that sports serve as an alternative to war, on the other hand, awareness that only a rich industrial nation can afford to host the event.
Monmouth Review-Atlas (August 14, 2008), 4.