This Greek Mythology

Daily Mail (London), July 26, 2004 | Go to article overview

This Greek Mythology


Byline: CHRISTOPHER MATTHEW

The Ancient Greek Olympics (C4); Real Life: Too Scared For School (ITV1); Ray Charles: What'd I Say (BBC2)

OLYMPIC fever is building apace. By the time we settle down to the lavish opening ceremony, we shall once again be gripped by 'the Olympic Spirit' and reassure ourselves that this is one of the few opportunities left in the modern world for nations to come together and compete in peace and goodwill.

In the words of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who revived the Games in 1896: 'The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning, but taking part.' I had always assumed that this is the same spirit that informed the original Olympic Games, which began in Greece in 776 BC and took place every four years for the next 12 centuries.

As Saturday night's documentary on the ancient Games demonstrated, this could not be further from the truth.

Though largely a domestic affair, no other event in the ancient world attracted so many people to a single destination. Tens of thousands travelled huge distances to Olympia, deep in the Peloponnese.

But it was much more than a giant athletics meeting. Olympia was sacred to Zeus, whose vast ivory and gold statue was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

The Games were an act of worship to Zeus. The opening ceremony was marked by the sacrifice of 100 oxen, followed by an enormous barbecue; the tails, legs and guts were put aside to be burnt on a sacred altar.

The athletes themselves sought something way beyond what de Coubertin envisaged. The Games offered competitors the chance to push themselves beyond mortal limits. It wasn't taking part that mattered: it was winning - and winning at all costs.

To win an Olympic event was as close as a mortal could come to divinity. To lose was to slink home in shame via the back streets.

Some of the events were exceedingly violent. Drivers were regularly killed in chariot races, and boxers beat each other to a pulp - sometimes for hours on end - until one of them gave up. One swallowed his own smashed teeth, lest his opponent spot any sign of weakness.

Wrestling was particularly dirty.

There were rules (no eye-gouging or biting), but these were largely ignored. Contestants snapped each other's fingers, ripped off their eyelids, skinned their foreheads to the bone, dislocated their joints, throttled them and even disembowelled them.

ANTHONY THOMAS'S film comprised the usual mixture of tried and tested elements.

Contributions by solemn academics in gloomy rooms were interspersed with shots of photogenic extras with enviable physiques going through their paces, and archive footage of modern Olympics (notably the 'Nazi Games' of 1936).

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