If a citizen of ancient Greece visited a modern-day training
facility for Olympic athletes, he would likely feel at home. High-
protein diets. Personal trainers. Strength training. Seclusion. Like
today's competitors, the Greeks followed training regimens -
whatever would improve their performance. The difference was that
they ran, jumped, threw, or wrestled for the glory of their gods -
and to attain the Greek ideal of a beautiful body housing a
But today's athlete would be startled to learn that not only did
the Greeks compete without Adidas endorsements and fancy athletic
shoes, they competed without any clothes at all. (But more about
Such comparisons are just one element that stands out in a
smartly timed exhibition "Games for the Gods" at the Boston Museum
of Fine Arts (MFA).
Many a museumgoer has hurried past displays of ancient Greek
vases and statuary in the world's great art institutions with only
the vaguest idea of what these represent.
The vases serve as snapshots of life in Greek times, says
Christine Kondoleon, a curator of the MFA's exhibition.
These artifacts - which include vividly painted jars, plates, and
basins, small metal statuary, and large marble sculpture - point to
a society in which athleticism was more than celebrated - it was
part of a larger religious ritual that involved the attainment of
"arete," or virtue.
The modern Olympics is descended from the most prestigious of the
many athletic contests held regularly throughout Greece. These
festivals served as proving grounds for Greek-speaking freeborn
young men from wealthy families.
Starting about age 12, boys were taught philosophy, music, and
athletics at complexes that often included the palaistre (wrestling
school) and the gymnasium (derived from the word gymnos, or
"naked"). Each boy was paired with an adult male mentor.
In the setting of the gymnasia, where women were excluded, these
young men were initiated into their duties and privileges as
citizens. The gymnasium provided a context for the nudity that was
customary and compulsory. Without clothing, each man was equal in
the gods' sight, according to Ms. Kondoleon.
Older men served as coaches and referees. These figures appear in
Greek art as fully clothed and wearing beards. The youths, by
contrast, are depicted as slim and beardless; these boys trained and
competed in the nude.
Along with all this male bonding came a closeness between student
and mentor that could cross over into pederasty. From what scholars
have been able to determine, the Greeks encouraged young men to seek
the wisdom and experience of their elders in matters intellectual,
physical, and spiritual. It's clear, however, that the Athenians, at
least, wanted to prevent after-hours, unsupervised contact between
older men and young boys at the gymnasium. They set opening and
closing times to be followed by the trainers.
At the same time, the Greeks greatly admired athletes who were
able to abstain from any sort of sexual activity, believing that
such behavior preserved their vigor.
While other cultures - most notably the Romans' - copied many
aspects of the Greek games, they conspicuously dropped the Greek
emphasis on nudity and relations with boys.
Among Greek contestants, the only exception to competing naked
appears to be the charioteers. (This would seem prudent. Few of us
would like to imagine being dragged behind a horse without even our
Humiliation was not unheard of in athletic contests, in which
only victory mattered - there was no second or third place. It was
believed that the winner was favored by the gods, and so brought
honor and glory to his village. Other competitors who failed to
measure up returned home in disgrace.
An athlete who cheated, if discovered, paid a fine that was used
to make a bronze statue on which his offense was inscribed. …