8/20/08 - the greek olympics

In today's excerpt - the Greek Olympics. For five hectic days and nights, every four years from 776 BC until the Christian emperors banned pagan festivals in AD 394 -- a mind-boggling twelve hundred years -- the sensationally popular Olympic games were held in Greece. Each Olympiad was an expression of Hellenic unity, an all-consuming pageant, as spiritually profound for these ancients as a pilgrimage to Varanasi for Hindus or the Muslim hajj:

"[The athletes] appeared one by one -- parading like peacocks, entirely unclothed and unadorned, yet dripping from head to toe in perfumed oils that flowed in rivulets from their curled black hair. Competing nude was a time-honored tradition of ancient Greek athletics ... only barbarians were ashamed to display their bodies. ...

"Of the eighteen core events in the Olympics program, some are familiar to us today -- running, wrestling, boxing, javelin, discus. Others seem more outlandish. The Games began with the chariot race -- a deliriously violent affair where up to forty vehicles crowded the track and crashes were guaranteed. ... And one of the favorite audience events was the pankration - a savage all-out brawl, where only eye-gouging was banned. The more brutish participants would snap opponents' fingers, or tear out their intestines; the judges (one coach noted) 'approve of strangling.' The gaps in the program seem just as odd to modern eyes -- there were no team sports, no ball sports, no swimming events, no marathon, and nothing resembling an Olympic torch. ... Money permeated every aspect of ancient athletics. The contestants were all professionals. ... Corruption charges would regularly disgrace contenders. ... Champions ... would be treated like demigods around Greece, and guaranteed ... an existence of luxury and ease, for the rest of their lives. ...

"Splendid religious rituals were observed; in fact, the ceremonies, including the butchering of one hundred oxen for a grand public feast, took up as much time as the sports. There was sight-seeing to be done: the sanctuary of Olympia was an open-air museum, and visitors rushed between events from temple to temple, to view famous masterpieces like the forty-foot-high statue of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. ...

"And then there were earthly pursuits: The squalid tent-city [at the Olympic site] was the scene of a round-the-clock bacchanal where students would squander their inheritances in lavish symposia (drinking parties) and prostitutes could make a year's wages in five days. There were beauty contests, Homer-reading competitions, eating races. ... Young boys in makeup performed erotic dances. Competing for attention were palm-readers and astrologers."


Tony Perrottet


The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games


The Random House Publishing Group


Copyright 2004 by Tony Perrottet


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