Things You Probably Don’t Know About the Olympics
Though most people know that the Olympics are based on an ancient Greek athletic tradition, there’s a lot about our modern Olympics that we conveniently overlook.
Having been postponed on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Olympics started this week in Tokyo, Japan. For die-hard fans this year will be a little different: no spectators in the crowd, no tourist trips for the athletes, and medals served on a (hopefully at least silver) platter. Though most people know that the Olympics are based on an ancient Greek athletic tradition, there’s a lot about our modern Olympics that we conveniently overlook.
Though we don’t know exactly how or why the games began (best guesses include a ceasefire during the mythic Trojan war) they are tied to Olympia and the sanctuary of Zeus that was located there, near the west coast of the Peloponnesian peninsula in southern Greece. The first named winner was apparently Koroibos, a cook from the city of Elis, who won a 600 feet foot race in 776 BCE. Some traditions maintain that the footrace was the only event at the games until 724 BCE, when other events—long jump, discus, javelin, boxing, wrestling, and chariot racing—entered the mix.
Like most ancient rituals, the Olympics were a religious event, and this dictated their timing: they were held every four years between August 6 and September 19. The influence of the games was so pronounced that some historians measured time in four-year increments, known as Olympiads. The second century CE writer Phlegon of Tralles (best known for On Marvels his collection of tales of revenants and vampires) wrote a whole book called Olympiads. That said, the Olympics was hardly the celebration of international diversity that it is today. The ancient Olympics were open only to freeborn Greeks and citizens; this meant no women, no foreigners, and no enslaved inhabitants of Greece. Women were allowed to enter the chariot race by proxy, but they weren’t allowed to actually compete: they were more like the billionaire backers of formula one racing.
As is quite well-known, ancient athletes competed in the buff. But this is only partially true: while exposing one’s penis was acceptable you were expected to cover the head of your penis with what, to ancient Greeks, was the most attractive part: the foreskin. As a result, circumcised men were not permitted to enter events. Some aspiring competitors sported unconvincing prosthetic foreskins or underwent risky medical procedures to try and manufacture new ones. As a piece of clothing, the foreskin could be styled. Beginning around 500 BCE, uncut Olympians, began to wear their prepuce using a kynodesme (quite literally a “dog leash”). The device worked by tying a piece of leather around the foreskin and securing the penis around the waist or tucking it under the penis itself. The point, as you can imagine, was to streamline the athlete’s body and prevent things flying around. It also had the side benefit of helping to elongate the foreskin. Think of it as the ancient equivalent of swimmers shaving their body hair. The only other accessory was body oil, which was likely to have been applied for aesthetic purposes as it helped Olympians appear more godlike.
This doesn’t mean that ancient competitions were always so clean. The Romans were Hellenophiles and sports fans and, after conquering the Peloponnese, they sponsored building projects to house athletes and wealthy spectators. In 67 CE, the emperor Nero ordered that the games be held two years early so that he could compete. According to his gossipy biography Suetonius, Nero was somewhat horse-mad and rode his chariot at Olympia (24.2). When he was thrown from the chariot and was unable to finish the race he still received a victor’s crown and, upon returning to Italy, demanded that a wall of the city of Naples be demolished in his honor.
The ancient Olympics are often said to have ended in 393 CE when the Christian Emperor Theodosius I banned all pagan festivals. Most histories pick up again in the 19th century when the French Baron Pierre de Coubertin was inspired to re-found the games as an international event. In 1894 the International Olympic Committee was established and the first modern Olympics was held in Athens in 1896. This isn’t all there is to the story.
Christianity didn’t crush the ancient Olympic spirit, or if it did it wasn’t only because of a single monarch. Prior to Theodosius actions regional games had sprung up around the Mediterranean but as tastes changed and coffers were drained there was no longer the material or social support for the formal Olympics. Athletic events, however, continued and one view sees the jousting contests of the Middle Ages as the medieval successor to the games. Competitors travelled a circuit of tournaments looking to prove themselves just as modern Olympians compete at more than just the Olympics.
Even before Courbertin re-founded the games, wealthy Greek philanthropist Evangelos Zappas offered to sponsor a revival and paid for the restoration of the ancient Panathenaic Stadium so it could serve as a venue in the future. The Zappas Olympics were held in 1870 and 1875. Courbertin’s direct inspiration was an organization called the Wenlock Olympic Society. It was founded in Shropshire, England by William Penny Brookes, in order to promote “the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the inhabitants of the town and neighborhood of Wenlock and especially of the working classes.” Initial events at their annual meetings included running, cricket, hurdles, and “fun” events like an “Old Women’s Race.” The society still exists in a modernized form and has, of course, shed the classist and sexist perspectives of the nineteenth century.
Surprisingly, some of the things we associate with the Olympic spirit were passion projects of the fascist dictator Adolf Hitler. Torches were certainly not a feature of ancient events. As Sarah Bond has written, torches were a perennial fire hazard that were more likely to be carried by rioters and soldiers as weapons than by athletes. When people take up torches—as they did after the assassination of Caesar in 44 BCE or during the martyrdom of the Christian Bishop Polycarp in the mid second century—it was not a good thing. Hitler, on the other hand, loved the things. Though they were first introduced at the 1928 games, it was Hitler who exoticized them by introducing the famous relay. This was the first time that a 12-day-run opened the games. As Tony Perrottet the author of The Naked Olympics wrote in his book, while “most people today assume it was a revival of a pagan tradition …it was actually concocted for Hitler’s Games in Berlin.”
For Hitler the Olympics and the mythology of ancient Greece gelled perfectly with his beliefs in Aryan supremacy and the mythic origins of the German people. Greek sculpture and male bodies featured on stamps produced by the Third Reich and Nazi tv and radio reports repeatedly touted the ancient origins of the games. You can imagine Adolf’s disappointment when black American athlete Jesse Owen won four gold medals and, according to ESPN.com reporter Larry Schwartz, “single-handedly crush[ed] Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy.” Suppress those patriotic sentimental sniffles, though, as Owens wasn’t treated better back home. As Owens himself put it “I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.”
Aside from being spectator-free, this year’s Olympics have become well known for explicit ban on sex for athletes in the Olympic village. A rumor has spread that the sustainable cardboard beds were there to discourage Olympians from engaging in shenanigans (spoiler: they’re not, it’s about the planet). This wouldn’t be the first time that athletes were discouraged from having sex. Following the belief that ejaculation weakened men and sapped their physical reserves, some ancient athletes wore a kuno (a kind of genital piercing) in order to prevent them becoming aroused. Despite many studies disproving it, the myth that sexual activity saps athletic performance persists. Muhammad Ali apparently abstained for six weeks before a fight. Perhaps the Olympians who following the guidelines and taking part in the first “no-fun” Olympics can take solace in the fact that they are participating in an ancient tradition?