Thu, Jul 29, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Nude men, crude conditions and no medals in Olympia


The contestants, all men, were nude and their bodies gleamed with olive oil. Married women were not allowed to attend but unmarried ones might come with their fathers to scout the local talent.

Finishing second meant losing and was a source not of glory but of shame. The winners received no medals of gold or any other metal, just a crown of olive leaves and the adulation of the public.

The ancient Olympics, in short, were a far cry from their modern incarnation.

Athenians are fond of saying how fitting it is that the Games have returned to the place of their birth. And it is true that the modern Olympics were first staged in Athens, in 1896.

But lest anyone be confused, the ancient Games were held not in Athens but in Olympia, a city about 115 miles east of Athens on the Peloponnesus -- a New Jersey-sized peninsula, and an area with which Athens, in the ancient days, was sometimes at war.

The Games are said to have been established in 776 BC, though classical scholars say the exact date is uncertain. They served as a religious festival in honor of Zeus, the king of the Greek gods; they were held every four years and the event was carried on for about 1,000 years.

At their height, they attracted athletes and spectators from around the Greek world, from the Black Sea to North Africa and Southern Spain. A sacred truce was observed to allow competitors and visitors to travel from their homes to Olympia in safety. It was a journey, whether made by boat or ox-drawn wagon, that could take as long as several weeks, according to the scholar and translator Robin Waterfield, the author of a book called Athens: A History, which includes a detailed account of the ancient Games.

Greek religion did not consist of a set of rules by which to judge oneself or one's neighbor. "There was no Bible, no creed, no anything," Waterfield said. "Greek religion was largely performative."

The mandated performances included sacrifices to the Gods -- and the Olympics were no exception. The main sacrifice was a hecatomb, the sacrifice of 100 oxen.

Greeks customarily dined on grains, bread, vegetables and, perhaps, dried fish. They ate meat only after a sacrifice. So the hecatomb represented for athletes, judges and perhaps spectators, as well, the opportunity to enjoy quite a feast.

The Games began in their early days with only a race or two. Over the millennium of their existence, Waterfield says, some other events came and went, failing to attract the popularity needed to endure.

But the core events grew from a couple to a handful, and the festival lasted five days. On the final day, the victors soaked up the applause of the crowd and were crowned with olive wreaths.

The track and field athletes were naked during competition.

"There were no issues of modesty: part of the point was to display a fine, well-muscled body, gleaming with olive oil," Waterfield writes in his book.

In his book, The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games, author Tony Perrottet describes a bloody affair for the athletes and a grubby one for the fans.

"Not for nothing does our word chaos derive from the ancient Greek; with its lack of sanitation or facilities, the Olympic festival was the Woodstock of antiquity."

Winners were so venerated that, although victory earned them no money, when they returned to their homes they sometimes became wealthy for life.

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