Naked truth behind Games

Athens 2004

August 13, 2004|By Randy Harvey | Randy Harvey,SUN STAFF

Truths and myths about the Ancient Olympic Games, which, according to historians' best estimates, began in 776 B.C. in Olympia as a tribute to Zeus and ended in A.D. 393 after the Roman Empire declared them a pagan ritual:

1. Athletes competed naked.

True, although not in the first few Olympics. They wore loincloths. According to some, athletes completely disrobed after one runner's loincloth slipped to his ankles, causing him to trip.

According to others, Orsippus of Megara started the non-fashion trend when he won a race nude.

2. Women could not be spectators.

Myth. The legend is that women couldn't attend the Games because the athletes, all male, competed nude. In fact, it was only married women who couldn't attend, and an exception was made for the priestess of Demeter.

Single women and girls were allowed to attend. Prostitutes, the ancient version of baseball Annies, were encouraged to attend.

3. Women weren't allowed to participate in the Games.

True, technically. One who defied the rule was Kallipateira, who in 404 B.C., in order to see her son wrestle, entered the arena in a trainer's tunic. She was exposed, literally, when she leapt over a barrier to congratulate him after he won and the garment got caught and was torn from her body. Her life was spared because her father and brother had been Olympic champions.

But women could win olive wreaths, the equivalent of gold medals, as owners of horses in the horse racing and chariot events.

4. Athletes were amateurs.

Myth. There isn't even a word in Greek for amateur. All who competed were professionals, their training fully supported by their cities or private citizens. The official prize for winning was merely an olive wreath. There were no prizes for second or third.

But winners were lavished with cash and gifts upon returning to their homes. If they didn't feel adequately rewarded, they could become free agents and compete for some other city-state in the next Olympics.

5. Athletes would not use performance-enhancing substances.

Myth. They tried all sorts of potions, including, according to legend, one primarily composed of bull testes. Judges weren't as concerned with that as they were that competitors would try to enhance their performances with magic or that they would cast spells on opponents.

6. Athletes were otherwise paragons of virtue.

Myth. In 388 B.C., Eupolus of Thessaly bribed three boxing opponents to throw their bouts. From that point, heavy fines were levied for bribery, but some athletes continued to ignore the warning to win "with the speed of your feet and the strength of your body, not with money."

7. Judges were paragons of virtue.

True, for the most part. But even they fell prone to corruption in the last years of the Games, after they came under control of the Roman Empire. After accepting bribes from emperor Nero in A.D. 67, they awarded him first place in the chariot race even though he had fallen from his chariot and failed to finish.

8. The Games today are preceded by a torch relay to commemorate the ones that occurred before the Ancient Games.

Myth. The Ancient Games had no torch relay. Neither did they have a ceremony at Olympia in which the high priestesses lighted the flame for the torch relay with rays from the sun.

Both traditions were conceived before the 1936 Summer Olympics by Adolf Hitler, who worshipped the ancient Greeks as one of the original master races. He also financed the digs that uncovered the stadium at Olympia.

9. City-states, and later nations, observed an Olympic truce that prohibited them from wars during the Games.

True. Surprisingly, the frequent hostilities among Greek city-states would cease from one month before the Games until one month after the Games. When the Games were expanded to include other nations, the truce expanded from two months before the Games until two months after the Games. This was primarily to provide safe passage for athletes to and from the Games.

One notable exception occurred in 364 B.C., when the Elians attacked the Pisatans at the Games in a dispute over which of their cities was authorized to supervise the Games.

10. The marathon was the highlight of the Games.

Myth. Ancient Olympians never ran the marathon. The longest race contested was three miles. The first marathon in the Olympics was run in 1896, as a tribute to Pheidippides, who in 490 B.C. is alleged to have run the 26.2 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce a Greek victory in battle.

He declared, "Be joyful; we win," and then dropped dead from exhaustion.

Material for this article was compiled from "The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics" (Sport Classic Books), by David Wallechinsky; "The Naked Olympics" (Random House), by Tony Perrottet; and "The Life of Greece" (Simon and Schuster), by Will Durant.

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