Olympic Self-Sacrifice

By Cartledge, Paul | History Today, October 2000 | Go to article overview
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Olympic Self-Sacrifice

Cartledge, Paul, History Today

With the Sydney Olympics up and running, Paul Cartledge explores the radical cultural differences between our present-day interpretation of the Games and their significance in the ancient world.

The modern Olympics seem so much part and parcel of our modern world -- all those accusations of drug-taking and financial chicanery -- that it is hard to remember they are only just over a hundred years old. Their founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, wished to foster both athletic excellence and international harmony, and as a conventionally educated French aristocrat he looked back to the ancient Greek Olympic Games for inspiration, believing fondly that that was exactly what they too had done, and why they had been founded. In fact, de Coubertin was wildly wrong: not only about the peaceful diplomatic mission of the ancient Games, but also, and more crucially, about their essential nature. The original Olympics, as we shall see, were desperately alien to what we understand by competitive sports today.

First, however, a brief recapitulation of what the ancient Games actually consisted of by the time they were definitively reorganised in the aftermath of the Persian Wars (490-479 BC). They were held then, as always, before and since, at Olympia, in the north-west Peloponnese, a relatively insignificant and inaccessible location. They were under the presidency of the local city-state of Elis, again not one of the major players in the ancient Greek league. So far as the sports component went, there were by then nine main events, all for male competitors only: the stadion or one-lap sprint (about 200 metres); diaulos or 400 metres; dolichos or `long' distance (24 laps); pentathlon; boxing; four-horse chariot race; pankration; horse race; and race-in-armour. But the sports component was only one part, and not the most important, of the five-day festival, held at the second full moon after the summer solstice. The festival began with a swearing-in and oath-taking. It was punctuated by religious rituals and communal singing of victory hymns. And it ended with a religious procession to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, where the victors were crowned, followed by the sacrifice of many animals, feasting and celebrations.

It was indeed the Greeks who invented the idea of competitive games or sports. Their word agon, meaning `competition', gives us our word `agony', which is a fair indication of the spirit of ancient Greek competitiveness. But they did so within a specifically religious context. We sometimes say today, metaphorically, that for some, sport is a religion. But for the ancient Greeks the sport of the Olympic Games was quite literally a religious exercise -- a display of religious devotion and worship. The Olympic Games, the grand-daddy of all the many hundreds of regular and irregular athletic festivals held throughout the Greek world, were in origin part of the worship of Zeus Olympios (Zeus, the mighty overlord of Mt Olympos), far away to the north in Thessaly.

Parallels in this respect can be drawn with the development of the theatre. It was the ancient Greeks, and more especially the Athenians, who invented what is recognisably our idea of theatre, but they did so within the context of religious festivals in honour of the wine-god Dionysos. `Theatre' at, for example, our Edinburgh `Festival', bears little obvious trace of its origins in the festivals of Dionysos at Athens (apart perhaps from the consumption of alcohol).

To show how heavily the Games impacted on the Greeks' everyday consciousness, mentality and behaviour, I shall consider four allegedly historical examples, three of them taken from the not (to us) so obviously religious fields of war and politics away from the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia. It does not matter whether the incidents happened exactly as reported. The point is that the Greeks unquestioningly assumed they could have done, since they fitted in with their established, conventional outlook.

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