Games people played
Up close and personal, what the Olympic experience was like a couple of millennia ago
The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games
By Tony Perrottet
Random House, 214 pp., paperback,illustrated, $12.95
The Ancient Olympics: A History
By Nigel Spivey
Oxford University, 273 pp., illustrated, $28
The Olympics came home last week. Athens hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 upon the inspiration of the French baron Pierre de Coubertin. The quadrennial festivals have since become worldwide stages for not only athletic glories but also international rivalries. Consider, for example, the Nazi Games of 1936, the canceled competitions during the two world wars, the Munich hostage crisis of 1972, and the Cold War boycotts of 1980 and 1984. Fear of terrorism has dominated discussion of the 2004 Athens Games.
Of course, the Olympics have returned to their ancestral homeland. By 776 BC, footraces had been incorporated into ritual celebrations of pagan gods at Olympia, site of a sanctuary on the Peloponnesian peninsula 210 miles southwest of Athens. Within a few centuries, the Olympic Games became the preeminent recurring spectacle in the ancient world. Staged every four years for more than a millennium, the ancient Olympics ended in AD 393 only after the Christian emperor Theodosius I banned pagan festivals in the Byzantine Empire. Two new books, timed to coincide with the current games, illuminate our understanding of this fascinating forerunner to the modern Olympics.
Tony Perrottet's ''The Naked Olympics" best re-creates the physical experience of the ancient Olympics. As the title suggests, the athletes competed in the nude, slathered in olive oil. They trained in gymnasiums -- public sports grounds and locales for the socially sanctioned pastime of pederasty (sexual relations between men and teenage boys). One month before the festival, the athletes arrived in Elis, 40 miles northwest of Olympia, and submitted to a rigorous weeding-out process of trial matches. Only the best competed in the Olympics.
Perrottet, a freelance writer, delivers a fast-paced tour of the typical Olympic games. After a day of oath-taking and sacrifices, the competitions began with the four-horse chariot race. This crowd-pleasing predecessor to NASCAR involved about 40 chariots speeding 12 double laps on a 600-yard-long course with 180-degree turns, guaranteeing copious crashes. Next came the pentathlon (with ancient versions of the discus, javelin, and long jump) and the track events (a sprint, a two-lap race, and a 24-lap distance run).
The five-day festival climaxed with tournaments for the bloody ''contact" sports. Massive wrestlers grappled upright, gaining victory after tossing their opponent to the ground three times. Boxers, wearing thin leather wraps around their knuckles, could punch only their opponents' heads; they fought until they surrendered or were rendered unconscious. The marquee event was the pankration, a one-on-one brawl until surrender; the rules banned eye gouging but allowed ankle twisting, bone breaking, groin grabbing, and strangulation.
Perrottet also paints a vivid picture of the Olympic spectator experience. For most fans the Olympics was a messy, boisterous, impulsive affair. Tens of thousands -- mostly men, since married women could not attend -- slept in open fields and caroused with abandon, patronizing roving wine carts and ad hoc brothels. Not until the second century AD was there adequate sanitation or drinking water. Spectators collapsed from heatstroke, the air stank with human waste and animal carcasses, and epidemics ripped through the makeshift settlements. Yet every four years, the masses returned to Olympia. Perrottet shows why. Although the repetition of certain anecdotes mars the narrative, ''The Naked Games" depicts the Olympics in all its triumphs and agonies, its headiness and headaches.
Nigel Spivey's ''The Ancient Olympics" better explains what the Olympic games reveal about Classical Age politics and society. The Greek fetish for athletics corresponded with the rise of independent city-states. Elis and Pisa battled over the sanctuary at Olympia, with the Eleans emerging as victors. The Olympic games survived despite frequent warfare, even during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), an internal Greek conflict spearheaded by Athens and Sparta. During every games, a ''sacred truce" reigned. Military rivalries were channeled into sport. Later, when the city-states fell under the domination of Macedon and then Rome, the Olympics continued to provide a framework for Greek identity.
For the ancient Greeks, athletics constituted a civic duty. Socrates and Plato justified sport as a form of military training, a defense of the polity. Gymnasiums were arenas for not only physical exertion but also philosophical debate and pederastic courtship. Enthusiasms for politics and male beauty were intertwined; ''the beautiful body was the outward form of the good, virtuous individual." No wonder that Olympic athletes competed naked -- their tight, symmetrical bodies bared their characters before the Panhellenic world.
Spivey, a Cambridge classics professor, further suggests the meaning of Olympic triumph. Although Olympic officials awarded only a crown of olive branches, victors could expect exalted status and material perks upon return to their city-states. (Ancient Olympic history abounds with anecdotes of bribed officials and thrown matches.) As odes of the poet Pindar suggest, the individual achievements of athletes reflected glory back onto their home community.
Despite some analytical passages that might challenge the nonspecialist, ''The Ancient Olympics" is a thoughtful and approachable history. Spivey ends by reminding us that just as sixth-century Greeks used myths to explain the origins of Olympia, Baron de Coubertin mythologized the ancient games as ''an all-powerful ray of sunlight . . . returned to illumine the threshold of the twentieth century with a gleam of joyous hope." The 20th century instead demonstrated that sports and politics are inseparable. But with the 2004 games back home, one hopes that the Olympic myth of international peace survives another four years.