[ The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 17, 2000

The Spirit of the Games
By Mohinder Singh

SOMETIMES a question is asked. Will modern Olympics ever be able to capture the spirit of the ancient Greek Games? The answer is no — that’s probably just as well.

Colourful performers dance during celebrations marking the arrival of the Olympic flame in SydneyModern Olympics, as they get bigger and bigger, are beset with their own problems of management and money. Whereas the first modern Olympics in 1896 had 360 participating athletes (all male) from 13 nations, the Sydney one will have 10,300 athletes from 200 nations. Stadium Australia, built as the main venue of the Games, cost $ 700 million and seats 1,10,000. Hordes of visitors would be descending on the city for the event.

Despite all the elaborate arrangements, Sydney’s residents are apprehending horrific traffic jams and no end to pedestrian congestion.

The ancient Greeks possibly suffered greater logistical chaos and physical discomfort. Only their passion for the Olympic Games never flagged. These remained immensely popular for nearly 1000 years, till the Christian emperor Theodosius 1 put a ban on pagan festivals in the fourth century A.D. Later the Romans showed a greater fondness for gladiatorial combats than field sports.


Some 40,000 people made the quadrennial journey at the height of Mediterranean summer from as far away as Spain to Olympia, the remote religious sanctuary in Greece. The sacred precinct of Zeus, the holiest of the gods, was turned on all sides into a vast camping ground, with people crowding in temporary shelters. The poorer attendees huddled under porches and awnings.

Colourful performers dance during celebrations marking the arrival of the Olympic flame in SydneyFor five days, crowds sat on a bare hillside, blistered by the sun. Unscrupulous vendors made a killing by selling sausages of suspect quality and cheap wine. In fact many sports fans used to collaspe from dehydration, till an aqueduct was erected during the second century A.D. The lack of sanitation meant that diarrhoea and fever raged through the crowd. Olympia was particularly plagued by insects. No wonder, before the Games, priests sacrificed at a special shrine to Zeus Apomyios — Zeus, Averter of Flies — in the vain attempt of keep the bugs away.

The Greeks made competitive athletics a central part of their daily life — after the temple, the gymnasium was the most important building in any city. And the Olympics were the most prestigious of all the games, dedicated to Zeus.

Members of the Chinese dance company known as Cloud Gate rehearse for the Sydney 2000 Olympic GamesAt Olympia, there was round-the-clock activity during the Olympics. Crowds were regaled by orators, theatrical troupes, jugglers, palm readers, fire-eaters, and prostitutes. Famous philosophers came to debate; painters and sculptors arrived looking for patrons. Even diplomats were active — they took advantage of the sacred truce, which banned all fighting between the fractious cities for the duration of the Games — in negotiating peace treaties and having the text engraved on tablets and hung in temples as offerings to gods.

In fact, religion permeated every moment of the festival, and a visit to Olympia was as profound for pagans as a Mecca pilgrimage for Muslims. Between athletic events, there were numerous rituals, including the sacrifice of 100 bulls.

Each contest was a sacred offering to Zeus, and the gods were thought to take a lively interest in the results. Under the gaze of both priests and judges, the oiled, stark-naked athletes competed in 18 time-honoured events: prominent ones being running, wrestling, boxing, javelin, discus. A spectacular chariot race gave a start to the games.

Incidentally, contrary to poplar impression, there was no marathon race in ancient Olympics. The race was first run in 1904 London Games. It is still the odd distance of 26 miles, 385 yards — the distance from the Windsor Palace Gate (where the King flagged it) to the stadium at Shepherd’s Bush.

Australia gears up for the show of the millenniumCharges of cheating and corruption were not uncommon. Those caught cheating were heavily fined. Judges used the fines from such infractions to erect statues of Zeus, bearing inscriptions like "you win at Olympia with the speed of your feet and the strength of your body, not with money".

Women were forbidden both on the field and as spectators. They had their own competitions at Olympia which were dedicated to the goddess Hera. Again, among men, only those were permitted to take the field whose native tongue was Greek. And no slaves were allowed to compete.

Unlike the ethic of amateurism seized by Baron de Coubertin for modern Olympics, most Greek athletes were unabashed professionals (the word athlete in Greek means prize seeker). They lived on stipends from civic bodies and private patrons. And they moved from one sporting event to another picking up cash prizes. Only at Olympia, winners were crowned with olive wreaths; no money was handed out. But then the Olympic victors (winners alone; there were no second or third prizes) had "smooth-sailing" for the rest of their lives. They were regarded as demi-gods. And were commonly awarded by their cities lifetime pensions, villas, free food, and tax immunity.

On the other hand, defeated athletes were openly mocked and publicly humiliated. They often sulked away, hiding from their tormentors and enemies.

What marks the original Olympics is their cultural significance and religious fervour. Today it is hard to fully imagine the sense of cultural coherence that buoyed those Games.

Participants having fun with dolphinsThe modern version, revived in 1896, possibly ends up promoting more conflict than unity. "I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between nations," wrote George Orwell. "International sport is frankly ‘mimic warfare’ — a war minus the shooting."

Coubertin was well aware of the dangers of the Olympic Movement degenerating into unhealthy national rivalry. And he took extraordinary steps to keep politics out. IOC members represent their national Olympic Associations, not their countries or governments. Games are awarded to specific cities, not to countries. And the medals go to winning athletes and teams, not to nations. And yet it didn’t take long for the Games to become politicised. Berlin Olympics was plainly a Nazi show. 1972 Munich Olympics, with the massacre of Israeli team, became another turning point in the conduct of the Games. Ultrastrict security has become the norm. South African Apartheid and its boycott gave the Games a headache for years.

The Cold War produced a major American-brokered boycott of 1980 Moscow Olympics, countered by USSR and its allies boycotting 1984 Los Angeles Games. Mercifully the era of national boycotts seems to be wearing out.

The medal tally continues to be viewed in national terms. And fraternization between youths of various countries gathered at the Olympics isn’t possibly as much as is imagined or hoped for. Contingents, at least of important sporting countries, often tend to keep cooped up in their sections of the Olympic Village. Close contacts with members of rival teams are usually discouraged, lest some sports secret or strategy spill out.