My Big Fat Greek Olympics
At what point did things begin to go wrong with the Olympics? The bombing at the Atlanta Games in 1996? Allowing professional basketball players to compete in 1992? The cold-war boycotts of the Los Angeles and Moscow Games in the 1980s? The horrors of Munich in 1972? Was it 1936, when Avery Brundage cozied up with Hitler in Berlin? Or when Jim Thorpe was stripped of his medals after the Stockholm Games of 1912?
Can’t anybody here just play? When politics and terrorism haven’t occupied center stage, seldom has it been the athletes. Now the International Olympics Committee, with its omnipresent sponsors and its credulous media partners, remind us, at every turn, that this bloated XXVIIIth Olympiad of the modern era is about them. And don’t you love the use of Roman numerals — for Greek games, no less — to connote gravitas? This year we can look forward to Super Bowl XXXIX and Jack Benny’s XXXIXth birthday. Once beloved of the gods, the Olympics have now lost all human scale.
In the first century of the Christian Era, when the Olympics were in their ninth century and already perceived to be in decline, Epictetus was more stoical in his judgment. “There are enough irksome and troublesome things in life; aren't things just as bad at the Olympic festival? Aren't you scorched there by the fierce heat? Aren't you crushed in the crowd? Isn't it difficult to bathe? Aren't you bothered by the tumult and shouting and other nuisances? But it seems to me that you are well able to bear and indeed gladly endure all this, when you think of the gripping spectacles that you will see.”
There’s no denying that each Olympiad provides great athletes and stirring feats. Athens 2004 will be no exception, even if a few medal-favorites are shelved for steroids use or the Greek Olympic Baseball team is composed largely of superannuated Americans. Despite my evident crankiness, I confess that as one of a historical bent I was sort of looking forward to Lollapalooza XXVIII as a return to roots … even though Athens isn’t Olympia, where the games are documented to have commenced in 776 BC. The Olympic Games may be older than that, yet still not be the oldest of Greek religious festivals marked by competition; the Pythian Games, known for their musical and literary contests, are almost certainly older, although sport may not have been an element until the sixth century BC.
When the Olympic Games were revived in 1896 — no Olympiad had been staged in 15 centuries — the agreed-upon site was Athens because the remnants of Olympian glory had been twenty feet underground until German teams began excavating the site in 1875. Now, with the return of the games to Athens, it may be worth reviewing how they began, why they were abandoned in the year 393, why they were started up again and, in “modernizing” the ancient festival, what has been gained and what lost?
History, as Jacob Burckhardt observed, is the one field of study in which one cannot begin at the beginning. Yet no matter how distant a starting point we choose for the Olympic Games — 776 BC and the Olympian Sanctuary or the halcyon days of Zeus and Kronos — the story is continuously about religion, fertility, combat, and loot. Today we may think of the ancient Olympian ideal and practice as “sport for sport’s sake” — with a garland of olive or laurel as adequate compensation for an amateur’s victory. And accordingly, we will rue the modern entrance of professionalism, paid endorsements, and cheating. Grantland Rice wrote “When the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name/He marks — not that you won or lost — but how you played the game.” He was dreaming about Olympian ideals applied to modern athletics, but he couldn’t have been more mistaken about the former.
From the very beginning, Greek athletes were not interested in honor without profit, for they knew that risk without reward was not rational. Second and last place merited equal scorn upon their return home (as Pindar wrote, “the loser's hateful return, the jeering voices, the furtive back alleys”), while victory could mean a statue in the village square, hundreds of amphorae of olive oil, an ode in their name, and a lifetime free from want. (One Olympic champion, Oebotas of Achaia, underwhelmed by the honors offered by his hometown, cast a curse on the city. Despite sending contestants to the next 74 Olympic Games—296 years—not one of them won. Not even Boston and Chicago have had to suffer so.)
Like a Don Larsen or Paul Henderson, an athlete could parlay the achievement of a moment into a lifetime of fame. The Greeks were a practical people, and just as they gave no gift without expectation of ultimate if not immediate tangible return, they engaged in sport, as they did in battle, for plunder. These ostensible amateurs were professionals under the skin. Even the labor-management structure entered the Olympics early on, as the prizes for supremacy in chariot races went not to the salaried drivers but to the vehicle’s owners.
Like the other major festivals — the Pythian, Isthmian, and Nemean, each held every four years in cycle with the others — the Olympics were connected with vegetation rites, the return of the seasons, and the magic of primitive cultures for whom the daily death and rise of the sun symbolized the certainty of human afterlife. Funerary games were played in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia as well as in Homeric Greece, not merely to honor the dead (notably, Patroclus in the Iliad) but to ease their path into the next life. Play was the province of youth (in Sparta “youth” and “player” were the same word) and symbolic play just might serve to make the recently deceased forever young.
By adding games to the recurring religious festivals, the Greeks may be said to have regularized sport and, by adding training and the pursuit of excellence, to have invented athletics. Primitive play — like art, purposeless even if purposeful — precedes culture. When an element of risk and even wager is added, play extends to become sport; indeed another meaning for “sport” is the random intrusion of a chance element. When regularity and a quest for achievement come in, sport in turn becomes athletics, as the spirit of play is hardened by the reality of work. Pindar describes the athlete as one “who delights in the toil and the cost.”
Play is about escape, emulation, and sublimation. We are always doing something serious when we play. In sport, martial instincts (aggressiveness, wiliness, repression of fear) are sublimated; physical attributes useful in war (foot speed, strength, archer’s accuracy) are emulated; and the humdrum demands of daily life are eluded. But it is in the spiritual quality of maximal physical exertion that athletes approach the ecstatic transport, or joy, that marked the earliest religious rites — the Bacchic, orgiastic celebrations and incantations, deep in the woods, that in the new Christian era came to define the threat of paganism. Athletes who are “in the zone” may be said to have entered a state of ecstatic transport, too, ceasing to act rationally as they single-mindedly pursue their goal.
And here we arrive at why the Olympic Games of 394 AD were canceled by Theodosius I, the Byzantine emperor beset by Arian and Manichaean heresies among his fellow Christians, and countless polytheist mystery cults marked by what Christians termed vice. The Olympics, sanctioned by Rome since 2 A.D., still embodied their origins as a pagan religious festival, conducted by naked men in an echo of even older traditions of phallic display that signaled aggressive intent and instilled fear among enemy combatants.
Fifteen centuries later no one was concerned any longer about inadvertently raking Pagan embers into flame. Pierre de Coubertin and his Greek allies couched the new Olympian ideal in terms of international respect, peace, and harmony. Solid and sometimes spectacular contests at Athens in 1896, Paris in 1900, St. Louis in 1904, London in 1908, and Stockholm in 1912 gave real promise, even though the quadrennial meets were not without their squabbles. But when the 1916 Olympiad was canceled due to World War I, a major part of the Olympic tradition crumbled: the festival-inspired truce of the ancient games was no longer possible.
Athletics in their most spirited form have always inspired us, inflated us, encouraged us to aim higher in our own lives. In aspiration we test limits and, more often than not, fail. Yet aspiration may be said to be the human condition, our glory and our curse.
These truths link the ancient games with the modern. But sport does something for us in the modern world that was unnecessary in the ancient one, when whole cultures, let alone major events, went unrecorded. As Daniel Boorstin observed in his 1961 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, sport provides “one of our few remaining contacts with uncontrived reality: with people really struggling to win, and not merely to have their victory reported in the papers. The world of ... sports is a last refuge of the authentic, uncorrupted spontaneous event.” In a world of ever more convoluted artifice, from pollsters and pundits to reality TV and terror alerts, sport seems to offer us “an oasis of the uncontrived.”
Now more than ever, we need sport to provide us with an authentic experience of life as it was and fundamentally still is. We need sport to give us a glimpse of the life beyond our bodily confines. We need sport to connect us with joy, a delight of mind and body, not merely with visceral fun. The ancient Games did this, in both its intentional and accidental vestiges of primitive, direct experience. In today’s distended Olympics one may still hear the clash of ghostly champions, but it grows ever more faint and calls for faith.