The Ancient Olympics and present day corruption!
By Ismail Veli……
The Olympic games is the oldest sporting event in the world. sadly recent history has shown that cheating via drugs, and corruption at the highest level has discredited the whole organisation. Not that it will diminish people’s interest in this spectacular event. I myself am so sad while watching such events not knowing whether the athletes play fair or not. FIFA the top Football organisation has recently been in the media for even worse. I’m probably in a minority but frankly I have lost much interest in many sports. There was a time when I could name every boxing champion at most weights going back 100 years, including the actual title fights. My disillusionment in sport started about 10-15 years ago. I’m sure there was some cheating in the old days, but the level of corruption has reached such a high level that I’m simply not interested any more. So why am I writing on the subject? Perhaps it’s just a moan off my chest before I resign myself to the inevitable fact that sport is such an important part of our lives, that it’s really worth fighting to clean up the corrupt institutions that claim to represent the wonderful tournaments like the Olympics, World football cups and endless other sporting events. Not being qualified however it’s hard for me to analyse the problems of the modern Olympic committee or the doping scandals surrounding the corruption stories. I wonder what the ancient Greeks who started the Olympics would have made of today’s state of affairs? Not much I imagine. I thought it may be interesting to go back and do a little research into this phenomenal sport which was so important in ancient Greece that even warring states had to call a truce for the duration of the games. No doubt the rules and brutality of ancient sports were on a scale we are not accustomed to.
The Olympics were started by the ancient Greeks in the year 776 B.C. (2792 years ago) and lasted for 1150 years. The Olympics were such an important event that the warring states would declare a truce for at least one month while the games were in progress. The ancient Greeks even worked out their calendar on the start of the Olympics. For example if one reads ancient Greek texts they will notice that the year was always referred to as the Olympiad. For example if an event was described as the 150th year of the Olympiad it effectively meant it was the year 156 B.C. as the calendar year was calculated on a 4 yearly basis. The end came during the reign of the Roman Emperor Theodosius in 393 A.D. in the year of the 293rd Olympiad.
Like modern athletes a strict diet and food that improved an athletes health, energy and strength was important. There are records that some athletes would eat lizard meat prepared in a way that would enhance an athletes performance. Bread, fruit, vegetables, fish and meat were an important part of their diet. Long sleep and rest were also considered important to maintain a healthy balanced life. Figs were considered to be healthy. perhaps one surprising part of their diet was that large quantities of wine (probably diluted) were consumed. Goats milk and honey were also an important part of their diet.
The games were held in a valley beside the river Alpheus, in Southern Greece. The sports competitors had to arrive at least a month before the games started. The competitors came from all parts of the Greek world and they simply lived in tents until it was all over, poets, peasants, merchants, and even sculptors would be present. The sculptors would compete with each other to create statues of the winners.
The ceremony would start with sacrifices and an oath in front of the statue of Zeus that they would compete fairly without any cheating. The judges would give similar oaths that they would judge the games fairly without prejudice. The next day the games would begin with four horse chariot races, which involved mostly the rich people. As the Sicilian Merchants were among the richest in the Greek world they often had the best horses and charioteers so they were often winners of this most dangerous and exciting of events. The course was nine miles and deaths were a common occurrence. The winners were instant heroes. Pindar the great poet described that in one race there were 40 participants but only one survived the crashes and many clearly died or were seriously wounded in the process.. Horse races were also very popular and the jockeys rode bareback, with no stirrups.
The pentathlon was a five event all round talented athletic competition which made the winners heroes. This would consist of a 210 yards race (the full length of the stadium), discus throwing, javelin throwing,, wrestling and the long jump. Discus throwing and javelin throwing had to be accompanied by the playing of the flute. The actual distances or speed of such athletes is not really known to modern historians as stop watches did not exist. In their long jumps the athletes had dumb-bells made of stone or metal which they swung forward as they jumped to increase their distance.
One incredible sport was the lifting of stones reputed to weigh 300 Ibs (136 kilos) in weight, which is an incredible 21 and a half stones. The amazing thing is that they were only allowed to lift this stones in one handed lifts. A famous weight lifter in the 6th century BC. by the name of Bybon son of Phola was reputed to lift an unbelievable 315 Ibs (143.5 Kilos) over his head with one hand. The stone is still on display at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia, and the stone has a hand grip carved out.
Wrestling was very popular and the winners had to throw their opponents three times above the knee to win. On the third day of the full moon 100 oxen were sacrificed on the alter of Zeus. Later in the day boxing, running and wrestling mostly by youths would commence. Though the exact age of the youths is not known there is a record of an eighteen year old being disqualified for being too old. He entered the men’s competition and won.
Not much is known about the rules on boxing, gloves were not worn, only leather thongs were wrapped around their knuckles for protection.. There was no weight or rounds. They simply fought until one got knocked out or admitted defeat. The sport was very brutal to say the least. Kicking, twisting limbs and even strangling was permitted. Biting and gouging eyes were strictly forbidden however. The winners were awarded olive crowns and the judges held banquets for rejoicing and feasting which included ”honey tokens”. These were simply small dough balls fried then soaked in honey. Today we call these Lokmades or Lokma.
Winners were often honored for life, and would be given free meals for life on their return to their city. We may think that transfers by sale is a modern practice but there are records of sportsmen being bought by other cities. A particular Astylos of Croton was bought by another city, namely Syracuse in Sicily.
Astylos was a successful sportsman during the 488, 484 and 480 B.C games, winning a total of 6 olive wreaths. Bought by Syracuse to represent the city in 480 B.C brought anger and resentment from his city folks of Croton who expelled him, smashed his statue and as a sign of disrespect turned his home into a prison. Even his own family disowned him. Sadly he died a broken and lonely man.
One aspect of the games was that athletes caught cheating would be humiliated in the worse manner possible. They were forced to pay to erect a statue to the God Zeus at Olympia. On its completion their cheating would be inscribed at the base of the statue for others to read as a reminder that cheats would be known by others.
The mother of all ancient scandals and corruption in the history of the Olympics probably took place when the Roman emperor Nero postponed the games in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D instead. The reason was so he could compete himself. By the finish he was awarded 1800 prizes, no its not a misprint he was awarded one thousand and eight hundred prizes. This included his ‘great victory’ in the chariot race, this was in spite of the fact he had fallen out of his chariot and did not even finish the course. The Roman praetorian guard finally got fed up with his misrule, antics and ridiculous behaviour and murdered him the following year.
There were some who broke the rules but in a different way. Married women for example were not allowed at the games. One woman dressed as a man attended in order to watch her son who was in the boxing events. When her son won a fight, in her excitement she jumped over a barrier thus revealing her sex. The penalty for breaking such sacred rules was to be flung from a high rock. Luckily for her, as her father and brothers were Olympic champions they let her off with just a stiff warning.
A few months ago I found an old Picture Post magazine dated August 14 1948 Volume 40. The Olympic games were held in London. It was wonderful to read and look at photos of the event of that year, which in addition gave much of the historical events I have shared in this article. Though my article concentrates on the ancient Olympics I thought many readers would enjoy the photos of the 1948 Olympics. It’s clear that reading and looking at that event, the Olympics have grown immensely but (just my opinion of course) I feel much of the nostalgia and magic seems to be missing from today’s much more politicized and money spinning that seems to surround this phenomenal institution.
My hope is that all the doping and backroom corruption will finally end and we can watch with enthusiasm these supreme athletes in the sound knowledge that no cheating has taken place. In order to round things up I have to emphasize that the vast majority of these young athletes DO NOT CHEAT and put an immense amount of effort and training into achieving the ultimate glory of a gold medal. So let’s pray that the few who do give sport a bad image are finally weeded out, so the dark shadow of suspicion allows the vast majority to go on to receive their medals minus the suspicions. Sports is essentially a much needed escape from the political and natural disasters that sadly plague humanity. Ultimately we all need an escape. Sporting tournaments should be one way to achieve just that.