Sun, scandal and skin: Why the ancient Olympics look awfully familiar
A wise man - probably a Biblical prophet, possibly the guy who brought us the "American Pie" trilogy - once noted that there is nothing new under the sun.
In the case of the Athens Olympics, that is only half-true: Unlike its ancient predecessors, the modern Games will feature Internet updates, maudlin NBC profiles and something called rhythmic gymnastics. Not to mention bottled water at 16 Euros a pop.
Otherwise, not much has changed.
Dodgy logistics. Sporadic scandal. Naked idolatry. From crooked judges to overpriced grub, the classical Games had plenty in common with our modern festival of peace, brotherhood and THG - including the aforementioned Aegean sun. Which remains blistering.
Speaking of blisters: Antiquity's athletes competed sans clothes, in part to celebrate the human form, in part because Lycra had yet to be invented. Add in an ancient fondness for slathering their extremities in olive oil, a natural browning agent, and, well, ouch.
"I'm surprised that the Olympics are in the middle of August," author and Olympic historian Tony Perrottet says. "It's likely to be 110 degrees. People used to collapse from heatstroke at the ancient Games. Until 150 A.D., there was no reliable water supply."
Then again, Aristotle and Co. didn't have to worry about blackouts. Still, if today's Games are a lurching, teetering affair - forever buckling under their own bloat - then yesteryear's Olympics were a lurching, teetering affair without the benefit of central air. Ask Perrottet, whose book "The Naked Olympics" presents an unvarnished look at antiquity's premier sports spectacle.
"We have a sentimental view of the ancient Games," he says. "People running around in tunics, playing lyres, sort of ethereal. In reality, they were crass and messy."
Were they ever ...
The Olympics could kill you
The Olympic marathon will be run in the footsteps of history: Some 2,500 years ago, a herald named Phidippides legged out the same 26.2-mile route between Marathon and Athens to announce a Greek victory over invading Persians. Exhausted, he promptly dropped dead.
This is no coincidence.
While Greece will spend billions to protect the current Games from chemical attacks and dirty bombs, old school sports fans had to worry about sunstroke and, er, dirty everything. No lie. According to legend, a master once threatened his disobedient slave with a visit to the Olympics.
Apparently, whipping was seen as too lenient.
Just getting to ancient Olympia was no mean feat. Modern fans face three-hour international layovers and fungus-laden airport showers; ancient spectators braved a treacherous hike through crumbling mountain paths that could cover 200-plus miles.
(Fortunately, the Olympic truce protected anyone making the trip. When some of King Philip of Macedonia's mercenaries robbed an Athenian fan on his way to the Games, the king reimbursed the victim and paid a fine to Olympic officials. If only Pizza Hut Express - $6.99 for a 4-inch pie? - would be so considerate).
The Games were more of the same. Stadium seating didn't exist - the ancient Greek word stadion means "to stand" - and a religious edict barred spectators from wearing hats. Couple that with summer heat and scant shade, and the sweltering result was less Elysian paradise than NFL training camp.
Long before Dasani became a Games sponsor, the philosopher Thales dubbed water nature's most precious gift. He then perished from dehydration in the Olympic festival meadow. Still, the first Aquarian may have gotten off easy, if only because dead men can't smell.
For five squalid days, fans tossed rotten garbage into wells and turned dry riverbeds into open-air Porta-Potties. Nobody bathed. Fevers bounced around like racquetballs; death by explosive diarrhea was a real possibility.
"There was no sanitation whatsoever," Perrottet says. "The stench would just roll across the stadium."
Before each Olympics, pagan priests sang hosannas to Zeus Apomyios, "the Averter of Flies." They then sacrificed live animals, attracting swarms of said insects.
Just because the ancient Greeks invented logic doesn't mean they practiced it.
Perhaps you've heard: The Athens Games have been plagued by construction snags, most notably involving a $250 million main stadium roof that serves no real purpose save looking neat on television.
Shockingly, old school organizers endured similar headaches - namely, fixing up facilities that slid into wanton disrepair between Games and doing it without the benefit of a) oodles of taxpayer loot and b) a nearby Home Depot.
Before MCI Center played host to both the Washington Wizards and the circus - which makes a bigger mess on the floor, who can say? - the stadium at Olympia was sports' first multipurpose facility, used as an offseason cow paddock. Ditto for the nearby Hippodrome. Even a 40-foot ivory statue of Zeus, one of the original Seven Wonders of the World, was overrun by rodents in the second century A.D.
"But the great advantage in ancient times," Perrottet protests, "was that they always had the Games in the same place."
Maybe so, but Olympic officials still paid through Zeus' rodent-infested nose. Perrottet provides an Olympic DIY shopping list, circa 246 B.C.:
* Repairs to the stadium entrance: $566.
* Digging and rolling the practice running track: $814.
* Construction of 36 turning posts for the racetrack: $528.
* On-site lab to test for banned stimulants and THG: $2.4 million.
OK, so maybe we made the last one up. In reality, Greek bigwigs were busy squandering their inheritances on prostitutes and liquor. More on that shortly. And, yes, it rings a bell.
Separate and unequal
Sports are the great socioeconomic leveler - see Mike Tyson's tiger collection - and the ancient Games were no exception. Shorn of clothes and social rank, lofty aristocrats and lowly farmers could compete as equals; a cook named Coroibos recorded the first Olympic victory in 776 B.C.
Yet then as now, equality did not extend to the fans.
Most spectators were male since married women were forbidden to attend. Single gals were welcome, however, often at the behest of matchmaking fathers. Many betrothals were arranged at Olympia, without the modern convenience of the Jumbotron proposal.
Even so, lines for the women's side of the dry riverbed remained intolerable.
Modernity's great nosebleed-skybox divide was reflected in separate and wildly unequal guest accommodations. Olympia's single inn, the Leonidaion, was reserved for ambassadors. A handful of other visitors - Plato among them - bunked in ramshackle wooden barracks.
Everyone else camped al fresco. Fans tossed bedding on the turf, erecting makeshift tents among Olympia's marble temples - think the Capitol Mall on the Fourth of July. Officials with whips kept the rabble in line. After the Games, a shortage of wagon drivers left visitors stranded for days.
The past is prologue: Just try getting a flight out of Athens on Aug. 30.
By contrast, rich spectators pitched the equivalent of today's corporate hospitality tents. Arriving in caravans - chefs and servants in tow - they set up silky haciendas, complete with floor mosaics and wash basins. Like Hollywood stars with trailers, they made a sport of excess, sometimes inciting the proles.
In 388 B.C., reviled tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse hired professional actors to stand outside his golden tent, reading his poetry. Oops. Angry fans booed his verse and looted his digs. The lesson? Keep a low profile in the luxury box.
Maybe Dan Snyder has the right idea.
Party like it's 99 (B.C.)
Athletics aside, the Olympics are first and foremost a party. In that sense, the ancient Greeks resembled their modern heirs - at least the ones on fraternity row.
Students blew their tuition on rollicking academic parties, dubbed "symposia," that swapped mental expansion for obliteration. Rich fans staged victory banquets costing up to 10,000 drachmas, equal to a skilled worker's wages for 30 years.
As for said workers? They were too blotto to care. Cart vendors stayed open well past the third quarter, selling wine containing 16 percent alcohol and sausages made from ground-up dog meat.
Hard on the innards? Not according to Mnesitheus, a doctor who deemed binge drinking healthy. The original Dr. Feelgood also offered this hangover cure: Avoid sleep until you've thrown up. Presumably after scarfing dog sausage.
Championing moderation, the playwright Eubulus cautioned drinkers to hold the line at three cups of wine because "the fourth leads to hubris, the fifth to shouting, the sixth to revel, the seventh to black eyes, the eighth to legal action, the ninth to bile and the tenth to madness."
Eubulus made no mention of cup No. 11, possibly because Bob Huggins wouldn't upchuck in his car for another 2,000 years.
Beyond boozing, fans enjoyed poets and artists, storytellers and fire-eaters. No pin-trading, but silly souvenirs were plentiful: tiny metal chariots, aphrodisiacs made from horse sweat, even Spartan attack dogs.
Same as now, anything could be had - for the wrong price.
"You would be gouged by the local farmers, selling products of dubious quality," Perrottet says. "You were basically at the mercy of these rapacious locals. The Greeks always have been great entrepreneurs."
The ancients loved sports. Maybe more than we do. They brought athletic equipment on military campaigns, held footraces at funerals. When a small band of Spartans held off an invading Persian army at the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., thousands of men skipped the battle.
Conscientious objectors? Nah. The fight conflicted with an Olympic wrestling match.
Also like us, our forefathers were jock-sniffing, ab-worshiping narcissists; give them Web cams, and they never would have left the house. Vase paintings show pudgy boys being mocked by their ripped peers. The philosopher Philostratus proclaimed "a sunken chest should not be seen, let alone exercised."
Legend has it he then kicked sand into Aristotle's scrawny, underdeveloped pecs.
Add it up and the demand for champions was so great the ancients tolerated all sorts of boorish behavior. Famed strongman Milo of Croton strutted around in a Ray Lewis-shaming lion skin getup; he taunted opponents by wrapping a cord around his noggin, then holding his breath until his bulging veins snapped the cord.
Maurice Greene, take notes.
Though Olympians had to be freeborn males of Greek descent, they were allowed to change their hometown citizenship for the Games. Some switched for money, becoming the original free agents: Following the Olympics of 380 B.C., Sotades of Crete competed as an Ephesian. Disgruntled Cretans promptly banished him, turned his house into a prison and tore down a memorial to his past victories.
What does this have to do with Roger Clemens? Probably nothing.
Marion Jones isn't the first Olympian to work with a sketchy guru like Charlie Francis. In the third-century A.D. manual "Handbook for Sports Coach," good ol' Philostratus offers dubious advice on overeating, alcohol abuse and sex, prescribing special workouts for athletes prone to "habitual nightly emissions."
(Remember: Scores and Mons Venus wouldn't open for another 1,900 or so years).
Fad diets flourished among antiquity's jocks, even without GNC. Sprint champ Charmis of Sparta only ate dried figs. Carb-cutting Xenophon told athletes to dump bread, while Hippocrates called cheese a "wicked food." After Dromeus of Stymphalos won two 480 B.C. footraces with an all-meat diet, Atkins was all the rage.
Old school athletes had good reason to mind their training tables: Sports paid. Handsomely. Champions traveled from city to city, collecting prize money and support from civic groups and patrons.
While the Olympics themselves awarded nothing more than an olive wreath, winners were set for life. Following a lavish banquet, they returned home as Mary Lou Retton-style heroes. Prime amphitheater seats, generous pensions and civic appointments were among the perks of victory.
"You were a made man," Perrottet says. "One guy became a senator in Athens, sort of prefiguring Jesse Ventura."
As such, the ancients would have scoffed at today's amateur ideal. In fact, their closest word for the concept - idiotes - needs no translation and is believed to have been coined by the first Greek sports agent.
When Kerri Strug landed a medal-clinching vault on a bum ankle at the Atlanta Olympics, she was lauded for her courage. The ancient Greeks would not have been impressed. Keeping with Pindar's proclamation that "deeds that involve no risk bring no honor," antiquity's jocks risked more than sprains and strains in Games that were bloodier than a extra-rare filet mignon:
* With up to 40 contestants flying around a narrow track in flimsy, four-horse chariots, the Olympic chariot race was part "Ben Hur," part demolition derby. Like NASCAR fans, spectators came for the crashes. In one race, a single participant crossed the finish line, winning by default; in another, Sophocles describes an accident victim as "marred past the recognition of his best friend."
* Distance runners tripped, shoved and pulled each other by the hair, while false starts in the sprints were punished by whipping.
* Boxers brawled until knockout or surrender and were limited to head shots; charmingly, they wore leather hand wraps that protected the knuckles, not the face. One aristocratic Roman boxer was shut out from his inheritance because his brothers
didn't recognize his mangled mug.
* If a bout lasted too long, boxers separated and exchanged uncontested blows. Demoxenos of Syracuse took full advantage, using outstretched fingers to puncture his opponent's rib cage before ripping out his intestines. Alas, judges disqualified him - not for killing his foe but for illegally landing four blows at once, one with each digit.
* Wrestling was the most civilized of the Olympic contact events, with no kicking, punching or gouging of the "tender parts" allowed. That said, an ancient drill commands grapplers to "Hold! Engage! Put your right arm around his back! Grab him by the [testicles]!"
* Death before dishonor was the only rule in pankration, a brutal hybrid of wrestling and kickboxing. In 564 B.C., a fighter named Arrhichion was being choked to death and about to tap out when his trainer shouted, "What a beautiful epitaph: He never gave up at Olympia!" Inspired, Arrhichion rolled over and broke his opponent's ankle, breathing his last as his foe surrendered.
"The glory of winning was so much higher in the ancient world," Perrottet says. "It was as close as you could get to deification."
Sure enough, Arrhichion was crowned a champion. Unfortunately, he was too dead to fully enjoy the wreath ceremony.
Breaking the rules
At the start of the ancient Games, athletes and trainers recited oaths in front of 10 judges, disavowing dirty tricks. Of course, Kelli White insisted she was innocent, too. The firstOlympic scandal erupted in 388 B.C., when Eupolus of Thessaly bribed three opposing boxers to take dives; half a century later, an Athenian named Kallippos paid off his competitors in the pentathlon.
In both cases, Games officials levied fines, using the money to raise 12 bronze statues of Zeus. Decked out with moral inscriptions, the glowering sculptures were a sight to behold - and only slightly more effective than the USADA.
Olympic judges were allowed to enter the chariot race, a whopping conflict of interest. Ignoring sacred promises, athletes chugged performance-enhancing elixirs and shelled out top dollar for foe-hampering "curse tablets."
One tablet condemns a wrestler named Eutychion to be "deaf, dumb, mindless and harmless"; for good measure, it also asks that the grappler be "unable to fight against anyone."
Hey, when it comes to senseless vegetables, you can never be too careful.
"Curses would be put on horses and riders in the chariot races," Perrottet says. "I never found any incidents of doping, but there was a concern about magic potions."
The low point came in 67 A.D., when the Roman emperor Nero slipped the judges massive payouts, then won the chariot race despite falling out of his ride and failing to finish the course. Adding insult to injury, he put poetry reading on the program - presaging the synchronized swimming and trampoline gymnastics to come.
For the love of the Games
Despite it all - the sun, the scandal, the skin - the Olympics were held every four years from 776 B.C. to 394 A.D. How to explain their enduring appeal? The philosopher Epictetus put it best.
"Of course you put up with it all," he wrote. "Because it is an unforgettable spectacle."
Besides, tickets to the old school Games were free. And as anyone who has sat through rhythmic gymnastics can tell you, that goes a long way.
Originally published in The Washington Times, 2004