From Team Sparta to Team GB

The ancient Greek Olympic Games, just like the modern equivalent, were part and parcel of class politics, writes Chris Gray

Nations and peoples usually choose some important date as their base year for the purpose of reckoning historical time, so the choice of 776 BCE as the year of the ‘first Olympiad’, or period of four years from one set of Olympic Games to the next, suggests that the ancient Greeks saw the games as an important national institution.

Greece is geographically a series of mountain chains which eventually vanish beneath the waters of the Mediterranean, not before forming many islands scattered over the Aegean Sea. Its segments are therefore these islands plus a whole number of separate valleys (for the most part), which, when it came to state formation, led to the emergence of independent communities, each centred on their own valley and frequently at war with their neighbours. Yet these communities shared a common culture, worshipping basically the same gods and having shared political traditions.

This common culture was inevitably expressed in various ways: Homer’s poems are one prime example, and the Olympic Games are another. Indeed there is a link between the two: part of the Iliad is taken up with funeral games in honour of Achilles’ friend, Patroklos, and games and sporting contests feature prominently in the Odyssey.

It is hardly surprising that games were chosen as a means of bringing the Greeks together. In order to appreciate the potential usefulness of sport in this context we need only reflect that the one thing that can be said to unite the Anglo-Irish nobility, the so-called ‘ascendancy’, and the native Irish peasants is a love of horses - and more up-to-date examples could, of course, be used to illustrate the point. (As an aside, the horse it was that caused one of the few English borrowings from the Irish language: the word ‘jockey’ derives from the Irish eachai - horseman).

Not surprisingly the origins of the Olympic festival are religious. The sacred grove of Olympia lies under the wooded Hill of Kronos, close to the spot where the river Kladeos flows into the Alpheios (this must be the source of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Alph, the sacred river” in his ‘Ballad of Kublai Khan’ fragment). The place seems originally to have been sacred to Pelops, the hero who gave his name to the Peloponnesus - the ‘Island of Pelops’. It lay in the territory of the small community of Pisa - nothing to do with the well-known Italian town of the same name. However, the festival’s growing popularity must have cause the men of nearby Elis to seize control of the site, which they apparently succeeded in doing in 572 BCE. They had temporarily held control for a while before that, until Pheidon, tyrant of Argos, intervened.

Argos was the inveterate enemy of Sparta, and Sparta had sided with the men of Elis in their desire to dominate Olympia. Pheidon accordingly marched an army across the Peloponnese and handed the site back to the Pisatans. He then presided over a celebration of the festival. The Spartans could not stop this because they were busy attempting to enlarge their territory by conquering their western neighbours, the Messenians. Having finally succeeded in putting an end to Messenian independence, the Spartans, who were the chief military power in the Peloponnese, reversed the position and handed the site back to the men of Elis. The historian, JB Bury, writes that:

The mythical institution of the games was ascribed to Pelops or to Heracles [another hero with local associations], and, when the Eleans usurped the presidency, the story gradually took shape that the celebration had been revived by the Spartan Lycurgus and the Elean Iphitus in the year 776 BC, and this year was reckoned as the first Olympiad. From that year until the visit of Pheidon, the Eleans professed to have presided over the feast, and their account of the matter won its way into general belief.

So the games were part and parcel of Greek politics almost from their inception. Political interference occasionally resurfaced - eg, in 420 the Argives succeeded in preventing Spartan participation in that year’s games (see NGL Hammond A history of Greece Oxford 1959, p382). Nonetheless the games themselves could not be celebrated if any Greek states were involved in mutual hostilities, so ambassadors were sent out specifically to announce a truce commencing one month before the games were held, so as to enable competitors and spectators to reach Olympia on time.

The games were held over a period of five days spread around the full moon. The first event, historically speaking, was apparently a foot-race (a short sprint). It seems the running track was wide enough to take 20 runners abreast. Gradually other events were added, enough to fill a four-day programme. These included boxing and wrestling, followed by chariot racing and horse races. At some point it was decided to institute what became known as the pentathlon - an athlon is a contest - consisting of five events: running, wrestling, throwing the javelin, throwing the discus and a long jump. In 520 BCE a foot-race for runners wearing armour was introduced (the runners also carried shields). This is reported as having been very popular. For a time there was also a mule-chariot race, but this was discontinued in 444 BCE.

The boxing and wrestling were somewhat brutal. In boxing it was permitted to continue hitting an opponent if he was lying on the ground. Wrestling was also pretty ferocious, although certain practices, such as biting and gouging out an opponent’s eyes, were outlawed. There is a graphic representation of two wrestlers, one of whom is trying to gouge out the other’s eye, on an ancient Greek drinking cup; a games official has seen the action and raises his wand to strike the offender good and hard (see J Boardman Athenian red figure vases: the archaic period London 1975, p160, illustration No263). Cheating was also very much frowned upon: anyone caught at it had to pay for a bronze statue of Zeus to be made.

Greek males were accustomed to exercising naked, and they participated unclothed in the events. (The majority of vase-figure representations show them naked.) This possibly explains why only men, boys and unmarried girls were allowed to attend the games. Richer married women had some consolation, however, as they could own racehorses and enter them for the chariot race. There was a separate festival for unmarried women, the Heraia, held in honour of Hera, wife of Zeus, which seems to have been devoted to foot races. It would not be surprising if these contests were dominated by Spartan women. Spartan girls went through an education very similar to that of their menfolk, and were decidedly more assertive than other women in ancient Greece, wearing slit skirts which showed off their thighs.

The only official prize for the winners at the games was a wreath of wild olive, but the real prize was the prestige that winning brought to one’s native city. The possibility arose of contracting a rich marriage, plus meals at civic expense, the best seats in the theatre, etc.

The victor might also (if he lived at the right time and place) become the subject of a celebratory ode written by the poet, Pindaros - better known in the English-speaking world as Pindar (c522-442 BCE). This Boeotian poet also wrote odes for a number of victorious competitors in the Isthmian Games (held at Corinth), the Pythian Games (held at Delphi in the third year of every Olympiad) and the Nemean Games, which were established on a pan-Hellenic basis in 573 BCE. The Pythian festival also included musical competitions.

The odes were usually sung in a hall or temple, or in front of the house of the victor, or during a festival procession which finished up there.

The poet himself is generally thought of as claiming descent from a family of Theban aristocrats, the Aigeidai. This is consistent with his politics: he was an oligarch - of the moderate variety, but an admirer of the Dorian aristocratic states such as Sparta. The victors, and the noble families of the Greek states, must have been well pleased with his efforts, even if they strike many of us nowadays as prolix and boring. He does manage occasionally to include some gnomic utterance of note, such as his observation at the beginning of the First Olympian Ode (in honour of Hieron of Syracuse): Ariston men hydor (‘Water is best’). Very suitably, this Greek quotation can be seen displayed above the entrance to the Pump Room in the city of Bath.

Also on occasion he enlivens his effusions with some observations drawn from Greek mythology - as, for example, the description of the Isles of the Blessed, the abode of dead Greek heroes, in the Second Olympian Ode, or his telling of the story of Jason and the Argonauts in the Fourth Pythian Ode.

These poems, many of which were written at the height of the national struggle against Persia, show the function of the games as pan-Hellenic festivals and as affording opportunities for members of the ruling elite in the Greek city-states to meet, socialise and compete against each other. This national emphasis is what chiefly distinguishes the ancient Greek games from the modern revival: foreigners (‘barbarians’, whose languages sound like a series of unintelligible syllables amounting to ‘ba-ba-ba’) were not allowed to attend and compete. In this respect the nearest modern equivalents are the Scottish Highland Games held at Braemar and the festivals in Afghanistan in which the game of Bush-kashi, the ancestor of polo, is played. There may well be other parallels.

All of this is rather different from London 2012. What unites the two varieties of competition is the view that they are essentially contests between different political entities, as opposed to a struggle for mere individual excellence. ‘Team Sparta’ has been succeeded by ‘Team GB’.