TULANE (US) — This summer’s Olympic Games in London, with a parade of more than 10,000 athletes from around the world, bear only a slight resemblance to the ancient games in Greece.
That’s according to Margaret E. Butler, an assistant professor of classical studies at Tulane University, who says the ancient games had nine main events, compared to 32 sports in the 2012 games.
Always held in the summer, the ancient games began with religious offerings to the gods. Athletes from Hellenic city-states could participate, but groups that the Greeks considered “barbarians” were barred from competing.
At one Olympic festival, Spartans were banned for political reasons.
When the games first were organized in the 8th century BC, Greeks celebrated the aesthetic of “kalos-kagathos”—the good and beautiful man with a sound mind and sound body, says Butler. As elites, athletes were afforded superior nutrition and leisure time to train.
“A gentleman in ancient Greece had to recite Homer as well as perfect his physique,” Butler says.
In a time long before drug testing, athletes vowed in front of the temple of Zeus never to cheat. Through their excellence in sports, the athletes honored the gods, and in turn, some Greeks believed that the gods would reward a winning athlete’s entire community.
Instead of today’s gold, silver, and bronze medals—and lucrative advertising deals—ancient Olympians received laurel- or olive-leaf wreaths, and some were fed at public expense for the rest of their lives.
“Winning wasn’t just about you, the athlete,” Butler says. “It also had to be about his community.”
One thing remains the same: the host city then, as now, would profit from the pilgrims who came to the Olympic games.
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