Neil Faulkner comments on the London 2012 Olympics in the light of the wisdom (or lack of it) of the ancients.

The modern Olympics purport to be a reconstruction of the ancient. In fact, the modern Olympics are exactly that: modern. Since they were founded in 1896, they have reflected the changing contemporary society in which they are embedded.

The relationship between ancient and modern is the usual one of pick and re-mix. Much of the ancient tradition is simply discarded as useless or impossible in a modern context – like running naked, slaughtering a hundred oxen, or not letting women into the stadium. On the other hand, certain events, like the pentathlon, are lifted straight out of the ancient programme.

The bits picked out are then mixed with other bits that have nothing to do with the ancient world at all. The resulting concoction is a fine example of ‘invented tradition’. Awarding medals, crediting second and third positions, and playing national anthems, for example, are all modern. Ancient Olympians were crowned with wild olive, got nothing if they came second, and regarded victory as an offering to god, not to nation.

Among the abiding myths is that of amateurism. In the early days of the modern Olympics, this was an obsession and caused a series of rows. Attempts to define ‘amateurism’ in order to judge who qualified to participate resembled the more arcane discussions of medieval theologians. Arguments were often triggered by success in the medal ratings.

In fact, all top-level sport is professional, and always has been. Most ancient Olympians were aristocrats because only ‘the leisured classes’ had the necessary time and resources to devote to training and competition.

Champions invariably became very rich men. They may have left Olympia with only an olive crown, but they could expect ample reward for their efforts at home, and they could earn generous prizes thereafter by appearing at any of some hundreds of local sports festivals.

City-state rivalry ensured heavy investment in athletic training facilities and sponsorship. The results could be spectacular.

Ancient Kroton is perhaps history’s only example of a ‘sportocracy’ – a state ruled by sports fanatics – and in this case the entire city seems to have been turned into a factory-farm turning out athletic hulks, such that this one Greek city (among 1,000 or so at the time) won the men’s short sprint 12 times out of 27 between 588 and 484 BC.

It is the same today. A recent equivalent of Kroton was East Germany. This small state, carrying the flag for Cold War Stalinism, sometimes managed a higher medals count than the mighty US during the 1970s.

Today, of course, there are new kids on the block. Try selling ‘the amateur ideal’ to the bureaucratic dictators of Beijing. (Or, for that matter, corporate sponsors like London 2012 ‘Sustainability Partner’ British Petroleum.)

From Yale University Press site.

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.