We might find today’s Games too professional or too corporate. The ancient Greeks would have felt right at home. By Neil Faulkner
As London gears up for the 2012 Olympics, critics have their knives out. Most locals have been unable to get tickets, rents have skyrocketed, and the sports venues are draped in corporate branding. In newspaper columns and in conversation, the country is bemoaning what has happened to the Olympics: The games have become a carnival of commercialism, celebrity culture, corporate and political jostling, and security wonkery.
These are hardly problems unique to the London games. Complaints like these resound every two years—complaints about the waste of so much money and energy on a national prestige project, the corruption within the Olympic administration, or the morality of the sponsorship deals of logo-festooned athletes. We all think we know what the games are supposed to be like instead: peaceful, international, nonpolitical, a meeting of the world’s greatest athletic amateurs in the name of pure sporting competition. So whatever happened to that original, classical spirit of the Olympics?
In fact, this Olympic spirit turns out not to be classical or original at all. It is partly an invention of the 1890s, when the modern games were founded, and partly a steady accretion of “traditions” in the years since. What it is not, by any means, is an echo of what the Olympics were like in Greece when at their peak around 2,400 years ago.
The ancient Greeks would have been bemused by much about the modern Olympics, but not by their exploitation in the interests of power and money. They experienced the same disconnect between ideals—religious piety, athletic competition, pan-Greek solidarity—and a more sordid reality. If rich Athenian playboy Alcibiades could dominate the chariot race by entering no fewer than seven teams and then throw a gargantuan victory party in order to advance his election prospects—and he did—then the ancient games, too, were not quite what they were meant to be.
Consider some of the facts of those ancient games. How about the ideal that competitors should be amateurs? In the ancient Olympics, all champions were, in fact, full-time professionals. Athletes were mass-produced by a state-subsidized industry of city training-grounds and salaried trainers. Even if Olympia awarded only wreaths cut from a sacred olive tree, hundreds of other local festivals offered generous money prizes. Even fifth prize in the lyre-singing contest at the Panathenaic Games was the equivalent of a year’s wages for an Athenian docker. Dewy-eyed fables about backcountry ploughboys winning an Olympic olive-crown were exactly that. Real-life champions were rich and famous.
Nor was ancient Olympia imbued with a noble spirit of sports for sports’ sake. Athletic competition, whether in horse racing or the all-out fighting match known as pankration, was ruthless and political.
There were no second prizes at Olympia, and the Greeks were fiercely competitive about victory. Central to their mindset were the concepts of agon (contest, struggle, conflict) and arete (excellence). Winners did not shake hands with losers, and the crowd shunned the defeated. The poet Pindar tells us they would “slink home down alleyways, gnawed by failure.” There was no honor in “doing your best” or “a race well run.”
Sports, after all, were, as the classical scholar Nigel Spivey puts it, just “war without the shooting.” The main events mimicked military activity, and the wider cult of male athleticism was inextricably linked with the health and fitness of the citizen youth who formed the city-state militia in this supremely militaristic society.
As for internationalism—or, in Greek terms, panhellenism—it counted for as little two and a half millennia ago as it does today. Ancient Greece was divided into a thousand separate city-states. Warfare between them was endemic. Ancient Athens—that dazzling beacon of civilization and culture—was at war three years out of every four.
Little wonder, then, that the Olympics were a pageant of parochial hatreds. The religious Sanctuary was packed with monuments broadcasting Greek victories over other Greeks. The banks of the stadium were zoned by blocs of rival supporters, each roaring support for their own man and jeering contempt at his opponents.
We imagine the Olympics to have been high-minded and healthy—all about purity of mind and body. Thinking thus, the ancient “Olympic Village” would have come as a shock. With up to 100,000 people camping in the open, it was a sprawling, squalid shantytown of temporary structures, fast-food stalls, drink stands, carts, tethered animals, heaps of refuse, open-air latrines, and heaving, jostling, sweating crowds of people.
Hardly anyone got any sleep, with parties often carrying on until dawn and rowdy groups of drunks stumbling back to their camps in the dark. Citizen-women did not attend the games, but the place was packed with “barbarian” prostitutes, ranging in price from top-of-the-range hetairai to cheap pornai. And that was just the women; ancient Greek men were bisexual. Many attended with their male lovers, while others hoped to make fresh conquests. Despite modern permissiveness, many of those attending the London 2012 Games would probably have been taken aback by the sex-fest of the ancient festival.
The Olympics do not come pickled in preservative from an earlier age. They mirror the changing society in which they are embedded. This was certainly true of the ancient games. Under Macedonian kings and Roman emperors, Olympia filled up with brash new monuments in honor of the imperial dynasties that by then controlled the fate of Greece.
Our own Olympic ideal was invented, quite deliberately, a little more than a century ago. Indeed, myth-making around the games was never so prolific as in the years of preparation before that modern revival. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French Catholic aristocrat who instigated the 1896 Athens Games, was inspired by recent German excavations at Olympia itself. “Germany,” he wrote, “has brought to light the remains of Olympia; why should France not succeed in reviving its ancient glory?” The modern Olympics were spawned by a strange mix of archaeology and competitive nationalism.
Coubertin conjured as many “traditions” from his fevered imagination as from antiquity—in particular, his insistence that the Games should be amateur, internationalist, and nonpolitical owed nothing to the Greeks. (Many more supposedly eternal Olympic traditions have been added since: For the Olympic torch, for example, we can thank the Nazis. In order to provide Leni Riefenstahl with impressive footage for her film “Olympia,” her cinematic celebration of the athletic perfection of the master-race, they conflated Athenian torch races and the sacred flame to come up with the torch relay—which was retained in the next games because it was “traditional.”)
Today, the ideals of Coubertin’s vision have broken down. Many Olympic events are now dominated by professional athletes. As for internationalism, Coubertin’s dream of athletic competition in a context of international friendship is often subsumed by fierce national rivalries.
Perhaps the most unlikely of his high ideals is the notion that the Games would not be political. In truth, from Berlin in 1936 to Beijing in 2008, world rulers have used the Olympics to broadcast messages about their regimes. Hosting the Games meant international acceptance for Hitler despite the persecution of the Jews, and for China’s government despite the Tiananmen Square massacre. Today, the London government is seizing upon the Games to present a “Britain is open for business” image to the world, while a string of official corporate sponsors, like BP and Dow Chemical, are using London 2012 as an elaborate PR exercise.
The Greeks would have expected as much. They understood politics to be as integral to life as wine, sex, and the passage of the seasons. Pericles, the great leader of Athenian democracy, said that involvement in politics was defining of citizenship; to be apolitical was to be unhellenic. The real question—as any Greek would know, bitterly divided as they were between oligarchs (conservatives) and democrats (radicals)—is what sort of politics are being broadcast.
The modest scale of the first modern Games reflected the conceptions of a classically educated French aristocrat of the belle époque. Fast forward to the 1960s, and the Olympics become a battleground of Cold War rivalry. Fast forward again to 2012, and they become a showcase of neoliberal corporatism. In the end, it seems, the Olympics have no true “spirit.” In each age, we create sporting festivals in our own image—sometimes good, sometimes bad, occasionally downright ugly.
Neil Faulkner is an archaeologist and historian. His book “A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient
Olympics” is forthcoming this week from Yale