The Olympics 2004: Golden Era of the Ancient Greeks (before Spoilus Sportus Barged in on the Party)

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We think, in the 21st Century AD, that we know all about making heroes of our sportsmen. We think we have nothing to learn about putting them on pedestals. Look at the worship of David Beckham in the Far East, or of Sachin Tendulkar in India, or, until nine days ago, of Konstadinos Kederis in Greece. But compared with the folk of ancient Greece, we know nothing.

In the business of making a fuss of sporting idols, the ancient Greeks were Arsenal and we are Dagenham & Redbridge. To them, a hero was a human- being blessed with extraordinary powers who could, if you treated him nicely, be of some use to you in the afterlife. Not even Beckham's biggest fan spares much thought for the afterlife. The England captain might have a range of clothing named after him but in ancient Greece it would have been a range of mountains. And whereas my colleague James Lawton can craft 1,000 words of sumptuous prose in praise of a great Olympian, he's a novice next to Pindar (518-438BC), and one of his more extravagant victory odes.

"They slunk through the back alleys," wrote Pindar of some losing wrestlers in 450BC, "separately and furtively, painfully stung by their loss. But he who has won has a fresh beauty and is all the more graceful for his high hopes as he flies on the wings of his manly deeds with his mind far above the pursuit of money."

No modern sportswriter, even after a good lunch, would get that carried away.

It seems a shame that, with the modern Olympics returning to Athens, little has been made of the ancient antecedents of the greatest show on earth. Another colleague, Paul Newman, alluded to them in a fascinating dispatch on Thursday. He told us that the first official Olympics were staged in 776BC and continued until 393AD, when they were abolished by the Roman emperor Spoilus Sportus. Hence, of course, the modern term "spoilsport".

Oh alright, there's no pulling the toga over your eyes. The emperor in question was a pious Christian called Theodosius, and he banned the Olympics - then, as now, held every four years - because he considered them essentially pagan. It is a nice little irony that, since the Games were re-established in 1896, several distinguished Olympians have been scarcely less devout in their Christianity than old Theodosius. Jonathan Edwards is one who springs - or rather hops, skips and jumps - to mind. …