The Olympics were, and remain, rehearsals for state combatby Jonathon Keats / June 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Book: The Ancient Olympics Author: Nigel Spivey Price: OUP, ?17.99
Fourteen days before the 11th Olympiad began, a Greek high priestess, attended by 14 virgins, focused the noonday sun to ignite a pyre, from which a torch was lit, and relayed by 3,075 runners from Olympia to Berlin. The year was 1936. Adolf Hitler was in power, and before conquering the modern world, he was attempting to rout history. That he should do so by way of the Olympics is appropriate: despots from Alexander the Great to Augustus Caesar sought to situate their legacy there, and Olympia itself, site of javelin-throwing and chariot-racing, was a surrogate battleground. Does it matter that the torch ceremony was a Nazi fabrication meant to inspire the Aryan race?
In anticipation of the forthcoming Olympics in Athens, two new books seek to show how dramatically the ancient games differed from the modern. The ancient games, unlike our own, were the culmination of military training. They were also, through the sacrifice of 100 oxen, intended as a tribute to Zeus. But the more fundamental distinction each book seeks to make – that the ancient Olympics contrast with ours because the games are no longer about conquest, or imbued with religion – is pure sport romance. On the contrary, the ancient games serve to highlight the pitfalls of our modern mythology.
In The Ancient Olympics, Cambridge classicist Nigel Spivey persuasively argues that, for the Greeks and Romans, “there was an acceptance, at both the popular and philosophical levels, of a prime imaginative and imitative purpose in play; an understanding, essentially, that all games were war games.” This may sound odd: the sacred truce – forbidding warfare during the five days of the Olympics – was openly broken only once in the 1,200-year history of the games. But the Olympics might equally be seen as a massive premeditated pan-Hellenic skirmish, a quadrennial fight for the sake of fighting. From that perspective, the truce wasn’t about giving peace a chance, but giving cause and occasion for perennial bloodshed.
Indeed, each Olympiad was extremely bloody. Ancient witnesses testify that one pankration contest was won by a corpse, while a wrestler, about to surrender, was stabbed to death by his own coach. Boxing matches were fought without weight category, by men whose fists were wrapped tight in unpadded oxhide thongs. Body blows were forbidden; only punches to the head were…