The Olympics are never free from controversy and criticism: infrastructure problems and doping allegations in Rio 2016; political boycotts of Los Angeles in 1984 and Moscow in 1980; apartheid South Africa being banned from participation from 1964 to 1992; and, of course, the Nazi-fication of the 1936 Berlin games. One consistent critique of the Olympics is that they are now stocked to the brim with professional athletes, and that they have been ruined by commercialism. People who hurl these types of criticisms almost always follow by bemoaning the “facts” that professionalism and commercialism have “ruined” the pure spirit of the ancient Greek Olympics.
The idea that the “original” Olympics in ancient Greece (which ran from 776 BC to AD 393) were only open to amateurs, void of cheating and corruption, free from commercialism, and a time of peace across Greece is just a myth. That myth didn’t exist in Greek mythology, though. The myth of an amateur Olympics, for instance, is entirely a product of the late 19th century, when the idea of organized, regularly-scheduled games with international participation was conceived. And the other myths seem to have grown from there.
Amateurs in the Ancient Olympics?
Traditionally dated as beginning in 776 BC, the Olympics were a combined religious, artistic and sporting event. Dedicated to honoring Zeus, the games were held in temples and sporting stadia at the Greek holy sanctuary of Olympia. The competitors were almost all professionals. In fact, the word “athlete” comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “one who competes for a prize.” Technically speaking, competitors were not awarded financial prizes at the Olympics, but they were heavily compensated by their home states when they won. For instance, Athens awarded its victorious athletes with: large sums of money; free meals in the town hall for life; as well as lots of other perks, including free theater tickets.
Origins of “Amateur Olympics”
There were various types of sporting contests in Europe that have been called “Olympics” since the early 1600s, but the movement for a genuine international event really intensified in the second half of the 19th century. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French aristocrat and educational reformer, more or less solidified these various Olympics and founded the International Olympic Committee in 1894. This new IOC set up the first modern games in 1896. Baron de Coubertin’s had been strongly influenced by the sporting spirit shown at the major elite English boarding schools, and he incorporated physical fitness into his educational philosophy. He was also influenced by the organizers of the various “olympic” games that took place in England in the 1850s and 1860s, as well as Greek games in the 1870s.
Baron de Coubertin and other creators of the modern games were interested in using their Olympic Games as part of a general movement to improve public health and to promote exercise and sports programs in schools. This is the main reason behind their stress on amateur participation — to give an opportunity for amateurs to participate at a high level, and to provide a model and example for young people and educators. There is no evidence that they were mainly concerned with setting up a games where the competitors wouldn’t lose to obviously better professionals.
Cheating and Corruption in the Ancient Games
Ancient sporting contests in Greece were so lucrative, and they held out the possibility of such fortune and fame for winner that the temptation for cheating and corruption was simply too great for many competitors. Cheating and corruption was so common that many laws and regulations were passed in Olympia and at the sites of other games. Athletes who were caught cheating, or judges who took bribes, were publically humiliated (sometimes through whipping and other physical punishments) and often had to pay severe fines.
A bronze statue to Zeus was erected at the entrance to the sporting site at Olympia, and the inscription read, “Victory is to be achieved by speed of feet and strength of body, not with cash.” Competitors and judges had to swear before this statue that they had not been bribed. This did not stop some participants from trying (and paying) to get that extra edge. In 388 BC, a boxer from Thessaly paid his opponents to take dives when they faced him in competition. He was caught, and severely punished.
Ancient Olympic Commercialism
Obviously the ancient Olympics didn’t have the level of branding and sponsorship we see nowadays, but the ancient versions of commercialism and sponsorship were essentially the same (if to a much lesser degree). The whole Olympic venue was crowded with merchants selling food, drinks, and souvenirs. These merchants were fairly heavily regulated and controlled by Olympic organizers. Winning competitors were widely celebrated, especially back in their home states, and their images appeared on specially-minted coins and they were immortalized in statues. No one ever questioned the commercial side to the Games in ancient times.
The Olympics as a Time of Peace
Another myth making the Olympic rounds, and one that seems to fit in well with the image of amateur purity, is the idea that wars were forbidden (or put on hold) during the Games. This myth has been used to criticize Olympics in recent decades when politics, boycotts, and wars have plagued the smooth- or controversy-free running of the Games.
There was a sort of understanding that a traditional truce was held during the ancient Olympics. But when politics and war reached a certain level of ferocity, even the Olympics couldn’t prevent or postpone hostilities. Games organizers at Olympia banned the Spartans from the 424 BC Games because they were belligerents in the Peloponnesian War and wouldn’t lay down their arms for the duration of the Games. In fact, Olympia itself was attacked by a neighboring state during the 364 BC Olympics and had to defend itself using archers on the roofs of the very temples and stadia where the Games were being held. Hardly a time of universal peace.
So there you have it, the classic ancient Olympics: paid competitors, corruption and bribes, rampant commercialism, and political strife and war. Sound familiar? Enjoy the Games, Buzzkillers!