Winner takes bronze: Art offers the most vivid clues as to how ancient Greeks ran the Olympic Games, reports Dalya Alberge

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The Independent Culture
All that separates today's athletes from their forerunners at the ancient Greek Olympic Games - give or take a few steroids, broken records and sponsorship deals - is a pair of shorts. The idea of competing in clothes was anathema to the men of classical Greece - they even passed a law banning all shorts in sports. The great cover-up began with the resurrection of the Olympic Games in 1896 and there are still no plans to strip off: when, a few years back, the British Museum emblazoned a range of T- shirts with the figure of a sprinter from an ancient Greek vase, there were strong protests from both curators and members of the public about the conspicuous nudity.

That same sprinter is taking part in a small exhibition mounted by the British Museum to coincide with the 1992 Olympics, opening this month in Barcelona. The Greek art on show there - from ceramics to statues - has been invaluable to historians researching the ancient games. Although there certainly were contemporary athletics rule-books, only a few papyrus scraps from them have survived. It is by matching visual material with archaeological evidence and literary sources (notably Pausanias, the prolific travel-writer of the second century AD) that a detailed picture of the ancient Olympics emerges.

From a vase in the British Museum exhibition, showing two boxers, it is clear that the contestants wore thongs, early boxing-gloves, wrapped like bandages around their fists. From a small banqueting plate, you can see that contestants in the long-jump swung hand-held weights backwards and forwards to give them extra momentum.

Several pieces depict figures in tunics. These are the judges and trainers referred to in contemporary literature, who put athletes through gruelling schedules right down to controlling their diet. On one vase, a trainer hovers over contestants with a long, heavy stick: they were empowered to beat athletes if they broke the rules. Judges could also fine competitors: the proceeds went towards erecting statues (one contemporary reported that six statues went up after one athlete tried bribing an opponent). Late arrival led to disqualification. Pausanias tells of Apollonius, an Egyptian boxer from Alexandria, whose flimsy excuse - about winds delaying his ship - was challenged by Heraclides, a rival, who claimed that Apollonius had stopped off to compete at the Ionian games.

Trainers are also represented in some of the banqueting pieces giving massages to the athletes. One dish shows oil jars hanging behind the athletes; from various sources, historians know that athletes would smother their bodies with oil to prevent the sun from burning their skin and dirt from entering their pores.

A Greek drinking-cup (475-450 BC) depicts one athlete helping another to rinse the dust and sand from his hair. Another exhibit shows athletes bathing, using 'strigils' (shaped like shoe- horns) to scrape off the oil and sand - there were different tools for cleansing and toning different parts of the body, two of which are displayed at the British Museum.

The exhibition includes a scale-model of Olympia in 100 BC, with its sports complex and temples. Thousands made the pilgrimage to Olympia because it was a religious centre; athletics events were held in honour of Zeus every four years from 776 BC to AD 395 - until Christianity and earthquakes brought about their end. Judith Swaddling, a curator in the British Museum's Greek and Roman Antiquities department, describes the mix of sport and religion as 'something like a combination of Wembley Stadium and Westminster Abbey'. The Greeks believed that the sportsmen's prowess came from the gods, and so successful athletes were themselves regarded as godlike. The surviving art reflects the fact that the athletes gradually became more idolised than the deities.

The word 'athlete' meant 'prize seeker'; victory at the Olympics brought enormous prestige, but no cash prizes, unlike other festivals. Instead, the winners were crowned with branches of the sacred olive tree in the sanctuary. However, like athletes today, they could earn huge sums by guest appearances around the country, and such was their standing that they sometimes did a Sebastian Coe and took up politics after retirement. The greatest honour was to be able to erect statues of themselves at Olympia. Those who could afford to - and they needed to be wealthy, since a statue cost 10 times the average annual wage - could commission Olympia's artists in residence to immortalise them in bronze or marble. In commissioning such artists-in-residence today (see below), the Olympics Association has revived another ancient tradition.

Many of the commemorative statues surviving today are Roman copies of Greek originals. Bronzes were melted down, while works in marble were often broken up and used for building material or as lime for mortar. Often, only the plinths survived plundering, and it is from their inscriptions that historians get some idea of whose image once stood there so proudly. Two of these Roman copies - celebrating champion discus-throwers - stand at the entrance to the exhibition. A headband worn by one of them was a symbol of victory. The other is poised to throw, knees bent, body twisted back.

However athletic he may look, his achievements would pale against modern throwers. The ancient Greeks, who spun round only once, rarely threw the discs further than 30 metres - less than half the Olympics record. (To be fair, their discs were heavier.) The discus was one of five Pentathlon events, with javelin-throwing, jumping, running and wrestling. Track took precedence over field, with running the most prestigious event. Long-distance and sprint races were run on a 192-metre track; athletes from both disciplines are represented in the exhibition, as are those who were required to run with shields and helmets and sometimes more cumbersome armour.

The exhibition shows how today's Olympics have slightly modified some events: the long-jump, for example, no longer involves multiple jumps; javelin-throwers do not wrap a thong round the javelin shaft to give added spin; and boxing is now fought in rounds. It also shows those that have not been revived, including the Pankration, a fighting event whose only rules were not biting your opponent or trying to gouge out his eyes. There were many more equestrian-related events than today. There were mule- cart and chariot races, and a horse- race which involved the jockey dismounting and running against his horse, as represented by a figurine at the British Museum.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence of a marathon at the Olympics (it was introduced in 1896) or a torch ceremony (that happened only at other festivals). Women were excluded from competing. They had their own festival, the Hera, in honour of Zeus' wife, the goddess Hera; it too was held every four years. Winners' images were sited in the Temple of Hera and, as an additional bonus, a heifer was sacrificed to Hera.

Spectators in ancient Greece showed their appreciation in ways that would be strange to us; historical records indicate that the Rhodians used to smack their lips, while the Tarsians emitted a snorting noise. Contemporary writers also note the unruly behaviour and foul language of the onlookers. That's something artists chose not to depict, but is something that we can take for granted today.

Continues at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1 (071-636 1555) until 30 August. Admission free. An excellent catalogue by Judith Swaddling is available at pounds 4.95.

Plus, how artists in residence at the 1992 Olympic Games will capture the speed of their country's athletes

BRITAIN

As speed is of the essence in recording movement in a sports event, Kevin Whitney talks of approaching his subject 'with Apollonian synchronicity, related to Apollo, god of the Olympic movement'. What he means by that is, 'I synchronise the image I have in my inner mind before the event with what's actually happening in the arena. It comes together like a jigsaw.'

He produces static images. 'A dive, the turn of a swimmer, the way a horse approaches are stopped in movement, frozen in time.' Although he works in watercolours, which dry quickly, he occasionally relies on photographs; otherwise, he has to rely on memory and the emotional impact.

Above all, he says, his pictures are celebrations of beauty; conveying speed and movement is secondary to capturing, for example, the tension before a game or the exhaustion afterwards.

'I am trying to condense movement into a single image,' says David Hiscock, whose work involves mixing photographs and objets trouves. But in the run- up to the Olympics, he has been playing with the idea of movement by experimenting with a camera whose shutter- speed distorts images. 'It's a camera used in sports events, to check who's crossed the finishing-line first, for example. But whereas the media goes for the obvious - the finishing-line, the person winning - I'm interested in the first bend and the warm-up . . . how they get themselves in a frame of mind for the second the gun goes off . . .'

In a sense, he says, he is more interested in conveying the idea of energy than movement. In his pictures of wrestlers (see right), he covered the surface with cracked varnish. 'It emphasised the tension on their skin,' he says.

FRANCE

For Miguel Chevalier, a computer artist, speed and time are metaphors for life, 'the way we are all in such a rush'. The computer is 'a tool of speed. You can accelerate the image.' He feeds images into a computer, then fragments, freezes and expands them, exploring the idea that a winner is perhaps 'a 1,000th part of a second' before the runner-up. 'Time here is a different concept. It's not about hours or minutes.'

GERMANY

'Speed and movement are not themes in my work,' says Martin Paulus, whose monochrome wash pictures are inspired by snapshots of now-famous German athletes diving, running or swimming as children. 'My work is about their first steps. That's why my canvases are sad . . . they are about the suffering of these children, about a childhood interrupted by us, the adults . . .'

SPAIN

Josep Novellas, a self-taught artist, has been interested in speed and movement in art since the day, some 20 years ago, when he noticed the way faces became blurred in a moving train. 'I started sketching those faces and finishing them in the studio. And that is the process I have used with athletes.' At the Games, he plans to photograph the sports and finish them off in the studios. He is drawn to team sports in general and basketball in particular because of the way the bodies of the competitors move and interact with one another; he cites Bacon as a major influence, for his way of seeing the body in sections.

RUSSIA

Movement and sporting achievement have been recurring themes in Larissa Naumova's series of figurative canvases on the Russian Olympic volleyball, basketball and swimming teams. Naumova intends to convey that the Barcelona Games are more than just a struggle for medals. 'The Olympics draw people together, give them an opportunity to understand and warm to each other. As an artist, my job is to focus on that spirit and that energy, and to create images which reflect it . . .'

All the above artists are sponsored by Visa

(Photograph omitted)

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