We think of the Olympics as a venerable tradition illustrative of the central place of sport in human life since antiquity. But, to the layman’s eye there are at least four vital differences between the ancient Greek Olympic Games, held every four years from the eighth century BC to the fourth century AD, and their modern incarnation, which have been held every four years since 1896, with two breaks for the World Wars.
One, the ancient Greek competitions were male-only affairs; the modern games are not. Two, sport was only an aspect of the ancient games, which also featured sacrifices to deities and other ritual ceremonies, feasting, poetry recitation, music, and speech-making; the festival was a celebration of the sacred. In contrast, the modern games are markedly secular although they retain a ceremonial aspect with flag-holding, parades, and torch-bearing. Indeed, everybody involved insists that sport should be played for sport’s sake and not mixed up with politics, although this stance usually involves a good deal of wishful thinking. Three, the ancient games featured only competitions between individuals; the modern ones involve both individual and group competition. And four, the young men of the ancient Olympics usually competed in the nude, anointed with olive oil; the festival itself was seen as a celebration of the human body. Although nudity is enthusiastically championed by modern entertainment and mass media channels, who know that it attracts eyeballs, thankfully we have not yet seen any demands that today’s Olympic athletes should discard their lightweight clothing for the sake of ancient tradition.
Naturally, then, the less scholarly books in the vast literature on the Olympics seek to emphasize the more exotic aspects of the ancient games. A typical example is Tony Perrottet’s The Naked Olympics (Random House, 2004), a charming book which describes the world of the games through the eyes of an imaginary Greek athlete, Hippothales, who wanders around the site of the festival. Perrottet describes not only the athletic competitions but also the world of commerce, religiosity and pilgrimage in which they were set; the portrait he builds leads him to describe the games as “the Woodstock of antiquity”.
Two books which are written in a more purist style by writers well-versed in ancient Greek are the American scholar David Young’s A Brief History of the Olympic Games (Wiley-Blackwell, 2004) and the British classicist Nigel Spivey’s The Ancient Olympics: A History (Oxford University Press, 2004). Spivey stresses the strangeness of the ancient games, at least to modern sensibility, and argues that they “should not be idealized with too much faded grandeur”. The games were “brutal, fierce, and deadly”—indeed, the word “athletics” is derived from a Greek verb meaning “to contend or suffer for a prize”. Spivey has been an athletics coach, making his book a nice combination of sport and scholarship. Readers might also want to seek out M.I. Finley’s comprehensive The Olympic Games: The First Thousand Years (Viking, 1976) and Stephen Miller’s Ancient Greek Athletics (Yale University Press, 2004).
The ancient Olympics were held during a period called “the Olympic truce”, a time of political ceasefire between antagonistic kingdoms, broadcast by heralds travelling through the Greek world. In effect, war was substituted by sporting competition. Although the modern games have sought to keep sport separate from politics, there have been many occasions on which politics and sport have collided painfully.
One such disastrous instance was the Berlin Olympics of 1936, which was awarded to Germany as a symbol of its return to the world community after its defeat in World War I, but which ended up serving as a massive propaganda exercise for Hitler’s Nazi state and Aryan triumphalism. Ironically, Jesse Owens, a black American athlete, was the biggest star of the games. The captivating story of the 1936 games is reconstructed by Christopher Hilton in his Hitler’s Olympics (Sutton, 2006) and by David Clay Large in Nazi Games (Norton, 2007).
Other books about the Olympic games have captured shifts within the nature of sport itself: amateurism giving way to professionalism, and sport being used to project national ideologies and commercial pitches. The 1960 games in Rome were the first games to be commercially televised, the first that featured doping scandals and product endorsements by athletes. The story of these landmark games, held during the high noon of the Cold War, is told by journalist David Maraniss in his recent book Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World (Simon and Schuster, 2008). The presence of the world media at the games has also made them an attractive target for political agitation, and, in rarer cases, terrorism. In the 1972 games held in Munich, 11 Israeli athletes were kidnapped by the terrorist group Black September, leading to a carnage now known as the Munich massacre. The story of this crisis and its long-term repercussions is told by Aaron Klein in Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel’s Deadly Response (Random House, 2005).
Finally, China. Many of the sports which now feature in the Olympics are of Western origin, and were only introduced in China early in the 20th century. Under Communism, sport became a political project as much as steel, cultural revolution or youth indoctrination. This is a subject covered by Xu Guoqi in his book Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008 (Harvard University Press, 2008).
And having begun with books, we might end with a film recommendation. The Olympics are a natural site of attraction for enthusiasts of the moving image, but very few filmic works are as magnificent and moving as the Japanese film-maker Kon Ichikawa’s epic Tokyo Olympiad. This 170-minute visual study of the 1964 Tokyo Games, available as a DVD from Criterion, is considered a milestone in documentary film-making, and is one of two must-see movies about the Olympics, alongside Leni Riefenstahl’s two-part film about the 1936 Berlin Games, Olympia.
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