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The Olympic Games: The First Thousand Years

The Olympic Games;

The First Thousand Years

by M.I. Finley and

H.W. Pleket

(Viking; $12.50)

Olympia is not as pretty as the pictures in this book. But if we read its text with care, we learn to see between the lines of Pindar's odes. The history of this athletic festival epitomizes man's capacity for self-delusion. The so-called Sacred Games were neither holy nor, in our sense," played" Time, the Greek word for honor, the goal of heroes on the field of battle or of sport, has also from the earnest connotated acquisition of wealth. It becomes clearer in English, which has dichotomized the Latin analogue for time—pretium—into both "praise" and "price". We have often misconstrued the Greeks. The fact many moderns posit sport as the antithesis of war is yet another fallacy without substantiation from the past. somewhat idiosyncratic terms of their "Olympic Truce" simply gave safe conduct through the enemy lines to pilgrims and contestants headed for the great event. But the hostilities went on. In 400 BC Leonidas' 300 Spartans died at Thermopylae while their countrymen vied at Olympia. Civilization has advanced since then and—commendably — Olympiads of 1916, 1940 and 1944 were cancelled due to worldwide conflagration. And yet, Spartan-like, America was represented at the Games while she was still competing in Vietnam, In 1968, while some brave Russian athletes were exerting themselves in Mexico, others were asserting themselves in Czechoslovakia. Actually, this was the classical way. The Greek vocabulary made no significant distinctions between sport and war.. The word athlos (whence athletics) can denote a confrontation on a battle field or on a playing field. Agon, the term for athletic event, can also mean a death struggle (Euripides) or simply a clash of armies (Thucydides), Moreover, they had proverbs which encouraged men to do or die defending country in a war or at Olympia. The authors quote a fascinating anecdote regarding a competitor in the most brutal pugilistic contest, the pankration. As one Arrachion was being choked to death, his trainer urged him not to give the signal of defeat: "O what a noble funeral, if you have undefeated on your epitaph." An obvious (per) version of a famous military slogan. Moreover, thus inspired, Arrachion did not surrender and, although he lost his life, he won the match.

Some still cherish the fiction that in antiquity wars were suspended when the Games were on. In fact, the Finley and Pleket have assembled their wealth of information from innumerable sources. As they put it, "a curious miscellany of evidence, among which number archeological finds, figured monuments, Pindaric odes and fine Athenian pottery.'" Indeed, the breadth of their research alone justifies the publishing of yet another history of Olympia they have taken up a challenge and produced the best book of its kind. Their illustrations are imaginatively chosen and impeccably produced. Not only are they to the point, they are to points not always dwelt upon, e.g. the important role of pederasty in the whole athletic (and educational) system of the Greeks (see plate 32b, for example). With learning couched in lucid prose, they touch upon all aspects of the Games: the festival itself, techniques the athletes used, the social and political significance of what transpired at Olympia, etc. They are never pedantic and yet never superficial. Some may wish they had included references and bibliography as Finiey did in his splendid World of Odysseus. But we must accept the authors' statement that they are here omitted for a purpose.

They begin with chronology, setting everything in its proper historical and political context, limning the three distinct phases of Olympia s rise and fall. The first 430 years, the era of evolving city states might be referred to as "'the Greekest", racially if not exactly geographically. Great champions came from towns in Sicily and Southern Italy hut, as the rules required, they all were absolutely Greek. Then came Alexander who, in conquering the East, took captive minds as well as lands. Hellenistic culture, one might say, gave license to be Greek if not by ethnos than by ethos. The authors aptly compare "Hellas'" to both medieval Christendom and modern Islam —all three being spirits not mere places. The third and final phase—in every sense—was when the Romans conquered everyone and spread the word that they were now the Master Race. It is a curious paradox, however, that Rome which was to be the European conduit for Greek culture nonetheless rejected one of its most central aspects. For the Romans saw no point in taking part in competitions. This can only partly be explained by the conservative Roman abhorrence of nudity. .After all. Homer's athletes are clothed and, according to Thucydides, Olympic runners wore a loincloth for the first half century the Games were held. Simply stated, Romans had no penchant for participation. Perhaps their attitude was closer to the truth of human nature when they tacitly admitted that the spectacle was better than the sport itself Let lowly gladiators and the radical dissenters fight the lions We'll just watch the blood.

And even at Olympia, the authors note, "blood was what the spectators came for, and blood is what they got." This by way of explanation for an evergrowing preference of Greeks for "heavier" events, i,e., the punchouts. And they cite the famous praise of Pindar for a wrestler who "'wanted to hurt" his opponents. This in modern sport is eulogized as "the killer instinct."  Plutarch (in the Qitaestiones Convivales) states that in the early "pre-historic"festivals, Olympia did in fact havecompetitions to the death. For religiouspurposes, of course.

Finley and Pleket remind us that the Greeks had absolutely no sense of "'sportsmanship". To them winning was the only value. .And this ethic is fundamental to every aspect of their lives, as was first argued—with enormous admiration —by the cultural historian Jakob Burckhardt. .And yet today we look with rather jaundiced eye at Homer's heroes squabbling at Troy about who was "the best of all the Greeks" (Achaion). .Also alien to our modern sensibilities is the ancients' approval of all vicotires fair or foul. There is precedent as early as the Illiad and later evidence of bumping, tripping, cheating at Olympia. (Some fouls were genuinely difficult to call. How could a judge identify a runner who not only lacked a number but lacked clothing too?). Finley and Pleket wryly describe another kind of malfeasance at the Games: "the practice—one might even say the rule—was that bribery proved after the event did not deprive the winner of his title and his wreath . . . " And they add, "we are reduced to the trite, rather boring conclusion that human frailty was not absent at Olympia."

Though they appreciate the magnitude of the temptation. Finley and Pleket nevertheless leave it to the reader to make the obvious modern analogies. One chapter recounts how aware the athletes were of the importance of publicity. Although Olympia's reward is still a simple wreath ('till they got home), most then proceeded to seek fortunes in the other lucrative athletic meetings which proliferated as the years went by. Everyone needed some kind of promo), so the lesser lights would concoct such dubious claims to eminence as '"former Olympian" or slightly better "Olympic finalist." Not since the Illiad, however, has an athlete coined aseffective a slogan as Muhammed Ali'slapidary “I’m the greatest." But thepurpose of all was similar: to hypethemselves, to build the' gate, to make apile.

No one who reads this book, though its tone is by no means cynical, will have any illusions about the Good Old Days. They will rather share Byron's observation that "all days when old are good." Moreover, there was no concept of amateurism in the ancient world. As the authors indicate, to Aristotle the very word athlete connoted professionalism  And they conclude:

the modern distinction—whether or no one was paid for the activity- did not enter the picture for the simple reason that iill athletes expected and accepted material rewards for victory, regardless of class or of personal fortune. If is a modern falsification of the ancient record to link the rise of professionai athletics with the decline in the aristocratic monopolu.

Indeed, in our own day it has also been the "aristocracy' which has insisted upon amateurism—as a way of keeping sport pure (i.e., none of your working class). In fact, since its formation at the beginning of the century, the International Olympic Committee has been headed by a baron, a count and — currently — Lord Killanin. Clearly, to the noble man receiving money taints an athlete, who is supposed to spill his guts out simply for the love of sport.

But 'sport' is English both in concept and vocabulary (its distant origin in the Latin deportare has been altered past all recognition). What Huzinga describes in Homo Ludens is sport; what Howard Cosell "tells like it is"' is anything but ludic. And yet the late H.A. Harris, one of the most distinguished British scholars of Greek athletics has written: 'to play football for money changes the whole character of football. For when sport is treated in this way . . . its philosophy and higher ideals can no longer be maintained," There is no need to argue against this patent absurdity though Mr. Avery Brundage made it a perverse obsession. Suffice it to quote the founder of the Modern Games himself. Baron De Coubertin admitted that there never was and probably never could be l’iamateurisme absolu."

Let us proceed to other modern falsifications, other retrospective moral retouchings. Like the egalitarian myth, the notion that competition fosters brotherhood. To begin with, though the termination would be strange to them, the Greeks were flagrant racists (an Oxford historian recently suggested we use the phrase "culture prejudice"). An athlete wishing to compete in the Games had to undergo a very strict screening to determine his ancestry. He had to be a legitimate son of Greek parents (Lest we make invidious historical comparisons, Pleket and Finley assure us the Greeks had no "Grandfather clause"). But the rules were so stringent that .Alexander II of Macedon had to present a detailed genealogy to gain admission. Largely thanks to Alexander III, Macedonians had no further problems. Nor did athletes from the lands he conquered. But the ban on slaves remained. To call this "prejudice" is of course anachronistic, yet the fact remained that at Olympia the best man could not always win. Because he couldn't even enter. An anecdote may illustrate. If  the Greeks had possessed a word for"jock", it could best have been applied tothe famous strongman, glutton,wrestler glorious Milo of Crotona.(Cicero cites Milo as the quintessentialstupid muscleman). The imperial writerAelian describes a confrontationbetween Milo and a shepherd namedTitormos. Milo taunted him and gruffly, asked the shepherd if he thought himselfto have much strength. Not much,Tilormos said. But then he quietlypicked up a massive boulder, carried itand threw it down. Milo tried withoutsuccess to simply lift the stone. Whatembarrassment. And yet he left consoledthat he could never be "officiallydefeated by Titormos. For theshepherd was a slave. Not fully human,if you get the point. Nor was thisattitude completely absent from sophisticated Germany in 1936. DerSiege in der Fuhrer's mind would be the firstreal human (i.e.. Aryan) across the line. Jesse Owens didn't quite agree, but. 

Some would have us think the ancient games devoid of chauvinism, nationalism and all sorts of "modern" degradations. But the hollowness of arguments like these are brought to light continually by the authors. In their chapter "Games, Politics and Patronage," they tell how Astylus of Croton, having won two crowns in 488 BC. proceeded to repeat his triumphs in the next two games, but then as Astylus fl Syracuse. Victory meant glory for the winner's city-state and hence a richer town like Syracuse could generously afford to offer citizenship to a man of Astylus' worth. A hundred US parallels could be adduced, but let us keep our argument confined to sacred games.

What are Olympics nowadays? De Coubertin envisioned them—or so one says he said—as moral reawakening. The noble Brundage argued that the Games were "the nucleus of international cooperation and good will." One might here add that Brundage practiced what he preached, cooperating fully to assure that Hitler's Games would not be cancelled in spite of a movement brewing to withdraw the US Team. ("Certain Jews must now understand that they cannot use these games as a weapon in their boycott of the Nazis"). The Greeks were far less hypocritical than we—as can be seen in the fact that they had a mutual vocabulary for both sport and war. Why must we moderns fool ourselves? "The Olympics is nothing but war in trackshoes" wrote novelist Hugh Atkinson. And it is no exaggeration. I wish I still possessed the clippings from East German newspapers of September 1972, in which they seriously argued that their athletes' triumph in the Munich Games was testimony to their superior political system. 

It may at least have been a testimony to their medical system. As we learn from Finley and Pleket, ancient medicine was always closely allied with athletics; Protagoras is said to have influenced training diets; Galen treated athletes, though he didn't much appreciate his patients. And today the close association is renewed. At this very moment in laboratories all around the world, medical scientists are hard at work in the service of sport. Many researchers are devoting their time and energy to develop drugs that will escape detection at the now-obligatory Olympic dope tests. And elsewhere labs are trying to develop methods to detect new drugs. (Perhaps they should give medals for this competition). At the Mexico Games they were already able to determine if an athlete used amphetamines. But there was nothing to discern whether a strongman had taken anabolic steroids to add unnaturally to his bulk and strength. Now there ('.•; a steroid test; science sprints ahead in both directions.

At Munich there was talk about the Finnish runners' "blood-doping," an absolutely undetectable process which increases the body's capacity to hold and deliver oxygen, and hence a boon for longer races. In his victory speech, Lasse Viren, who had won both five and ten thousand meter races, thanked the usual friends, family, coaches, and most pointedly, his doctor. Then when all was said and run, some Russians told some other athletes they had come prepared to Munich with a stimulant that couldn't be detected by the current methods. Why all this complicated hypocrisy in the Games? It is commonly accepted that professional ballplayers take drugs. Professional European cyclists once threatened to strike if they were given dope tests! Why not let the doctors pro and con devote their time to better things?

Modern sport is neither more nor less noble than its classical predecessor. But retrospect gilds; one even forgets that the Modern Games were not really revived for the loftiest of reasons. Here I would question Finley and Pleket's appraisal of Pierre de Coubertin, the moving force behind the latter day Olympics, The authors quote his pronouncements on "the noble and chivalrous character of athletics … the religion of sport." They ascribe motives to the Baron which do not coincide with what 1 feel was his unadulterated nationalism. They claim De Coubertin was not militaristic. But his doesn't wash. For only as this stance becamemore fashionable (i.e., after World War I), do we find consistent pacifist paragraphs in all his speeches. But I amwith those who interpret De Coubertin'sinspiration as France's drasticunpreparedness for the Franco-PrussianWar. Athletics in the school curriculumis the best possible way to train soldiers.The Greeks knew this; they argued socontinually. In this sense, De Coubertinwas indeed a classicist I quote from anessay he delivered in April 1912, entitled,"Le spoit et In guerre"

Sports have enhanced all the qualities that are useful for war: fearlessness, (insouciance) good humor, readiness for the unexpected, awareness of how to make an effort that does not waste needless energy. Today's young sportsman clearly feels himself far better prepared than his elder, to "march off to the front."

And it was the Baron himself who that very year introduced to the Olympic program the Modern Pentathlon, which recreated the five greatest tests of a cavalry officer under battle conditions. Details can be found in most encyclopedias under "Military Sports'." May I add that such anachronistic contests as the Standing Broadjump (which has classical precedent), have long been dropped from the Olympic program. Not only does the Modern Pentathlon remain, but our own American army has a well-provided year-round training center down in Texas. You see, detente notwithstanding, the Eastern bloc considers this a very vital competition--Nobody ever said that all sport has to be pure. Yet somehow that is demanded of Games present and ascribed to Games past. Troops were forbidden to enter the sacred Olympic precinct; but they were there in 420 B.C. when a Spartan attack was feared (because they had been banned from competing). We tend to overlook this as we overlook the bribery and cheating and the other "human frailties," that are chronicled by Finley and Pleket. By the 1984 Olympics, if you mention that eleven athletes in the Munich games were massacred, you may have trouble gaining credence. Such things do not happen. Proof of this will be the opening ceremony in Montreal this summer, where there will be no mention whatsoever of what happened one Olympiad ago. For the Olympics have uncanny power to transform their thousand unnatural shocks into perfect figures on a Grecian urn.

Let me tell you why I think it's so: I happened to be present at the Munich Games. I know the Germans wanted to disband them when the massacre occurred. I also know that Mr. Brundage saved the day again as he had long ago preserved the games for Hitler. In his funeral oration he emphasized that morals would not bow to murder. And he told the crowd the games would not stop.

The stadium roared its approval. Some of the athletes sitting in the field seemed stunned. They could not comprehend that an Olympiad is not as vital to those taking part as to others who cannot survive without the spectacle. The Greeks said so explicitly millennia ago. But they, unlike ourselves, had no illusions.

So please don't bring your conscience if you're coming to this summer's… Confrontations. No, they won't be Games. They never were.